Juan A Lozano
The Associated Press
HOUSTON — With nearly all of the more than two dozen lawsuits filed against Deshaun Watson having been settled, most of the women who accused the Cleveland quarterback of sexual misconduct have no interest in his return to Houston on Sunday and just want to move on with their lives, according to their attorney.
But about 10 of the women who accused Watson of sexual harassment and assault during massages are planning to attend Sunday’s game at Houston’s NRG Stadium when the Browns take on the Texans and watch him play in his return from an 11-game suspension, said attorney Tony Buzbee.
Some of the women really want to attend the game “to kind of make the statement, ‘Hey we’re still here. We matter. Our voice was heard and this is not something that’s over. (Sexual harassment and assault) happen every day in the United States,’” Buzbee said.
The women declined to comment ahead of the game, he said.
But it’s unclear if the spotlight Watson is expected to get this week will mean continued attention on the allegations against him and what his accusers say is trauma they’re still dealing with, or if it’s the first step in shifting the conversation strictly to football and his play on the field, according to experts.
“It can go either way … I think probably for the vast majority of NFL fans, they’re going to forget about the past and start focusing on the future with him,” said David Ring, a California-based attorney who is not connected to the lawsuits and who has represented victims of sexual assault.
Watson was still with the Houston Texans when more than 20 women alleged he exposed himself, touched them or kissed them against their will during massage therapy sessions. One woman alleged Watson forced her to perform oral sex.
Ultimately, 25 women represented by Buzbee filed lawsuits. One woman dropped her lawsuit while 23 others settled their cases in August. In July, 30 women who had accused the Texans of turning a blind eye to allegations against their former star quarterback settled their legal claims against the team.
Watson, who was traded to the Browns in March, has long denied any wrongdoing and two separate Texas grand juries declined to indict him.
Rusty Hardin, Watson’s lead attorney, declined to comment on Watson’s return to Houston, citing confidentiality agreements from the settled lawsuits.
One woman represented by Buzbee declined to settle and he expects the case will go to trial.
The other pending lawsuit was filed last month by a woman who alleges Watson pressured her to perform oral sex.
In court documents, Hardin and Watson’s legal team said the latest lawsuit was filed by someone “seeking to cash-in on 15 minutes of fame.”
But Anissah Nguyen, who is representing the newest plaintiff, said in court documents that efforts by Watson’s legal team to discredit her client’s allegations are “for purposes of intimidating, bullying, and victim-shaming (the woman) into dropping her lawsuit.”
Some organizations that work with victims of sexual violence said the expected media attention on Watson’s return to Houston is likely to trigger traumatic emotions in the women who accused him and with other survivors.
“I think survivors in high-profile cases whom I’ve talked to over the years, you get very mixed reactions. Some of them just want it to be out of the news … Others want (the perpetrator’s name) repeated every time … because bit by bit, they feel like that brings some degree of justice,” said Scott Berkowitz, president and founder of RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
Sonia Corrales, deputy CEO of the Houston Area Women’s Center, said this week’s focus on Watson’s return could be an opportunity for the NFL to highlight its policies to punish violence against women. A 2021 study by the University of Arkansas found the NFL did not follow its personal conduct policy in punishing players who committed violent acts, including violence against women.
An NFL spokesman did not immediately reply to an email seeking comment.
“I’m going to suspect that the NFL is going to hold its nose and hope this weekend goes by quickly. I don’t think they’re going to address it,” Ring said.
Corrales said she hopes the attention this week from the media and public also prompts discussion not just on football but on sexual violence and all its forms.
“Sure, you want to concentrate on football, but let’s not minimize. Let’s also say this is important, that we need to talk about the trauma and the impact that sexual violence has on survivors,” Corrales said.