The NFL had three business days to appeal the ruling made by former federal judge Sue L. Robinson in the suspension hearing for Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson.
It took the league just two days to file.
The NFL announced Wednesday that it was appealing the six-game suspension Watson received for violating the league’s Personal Conduct Policy. The league will likely seek a harsher punishment as the case now goes to commissioner Roger Goodell or his designee.
The NFL’s appeal could rankle the NFL Players Association, and it will further extend the Watson saga as the start of the regular season draws nearer.
Why is the NFL appealing Watson’s suspension, and what is it looking to gain from its challenge? The Sporting News examines the move and how it could impact Watson and the Browns moving forward.
MORE: Everything to know about Deshaun Watson’s suspension, explained
What is a legal appeal?
In the legal system, an appeal is a challenge to a previous legal determination. By appealing the Watson suspension, the NFL is challenging Robinson’s ruling that Watson should be suspended for six games.
Why is the NFL appealing the Deshaun Watson suspension?
The NFL is appealing the Watson suspension for two reasons.
First, the league believes that Watson should be suspended for more than the six games Robinson gave the Browns quarterback.
Second, the league reportedly wants to add a significant fine to Watson’s punishment given the backloaded nature of his contract.
I’m told NFL is appealing for an indefinite suspension that would be a minimum of one year. But perhaps more significant given the structure of Watson’s contract, source tells me the NFL’s appeal will also include a monetary fine. Money is now a significant part of the equation.
— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) August 3, 2022
This isn’t much of a surprise. Before Robinson issued her ruling, ESPN’s Dan Graziano reported that the NFL and Watson had engaged in settlement talks during which the league pushed for a 12-game suspension and a large fine.
Per sources, Deshaun Watson and the NFL did engage in further settlement talks in recent days, but neither side felt they got close. The best Watson’s side indicated it would accept was 6-8 games. Best league indicated it was willing to do was 12 games + heavy fine $8 mil range).
— Dan Graziano (@DanGrazianoESPN) August 1, 2022
Thus, it makes sense that the NFL would appeal Watson’s suspension because he was punished far less severely than the league had hoped. The only risk that the NFL is taking by filing an appeal is angering the NFLPA. The union may not be happy that the league is seeking to overturn a ruling made by an arbiter who was jointly appointed by the league and the players association.
DeCOURCY: How Robinson fumbled her ruling in the Watson case
It is important to note that the NFL is not challenging the facts in the case; it merely disagrees with the length of the suspension, as the league said in a statement.
Under the 2020 NFL-NFLPA collective bargaining agreement (‘CBA’), the factual findings of the Disciplinary Officer are binding and may not be appealed. Judge Robinson found that Mr. Watson violated the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy on multiple occasions and suspended him for six games.
The CBA affords the NFL or NFLPA The right to appeal the discipline imposed by the Disciplinary Officer. Such an appeal must be filed within three days and would be heard by the Commissioner or his designee.
According to Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, the NFL’s appeal of Robinson’s ruling undermines the hearing process.
By appealing Sue L. Robinson’s recommendation, the NFL is necessarily surrendering the ability to say, “It was her decision, we respect the process.” Now it’ll definitively have the league’s stamp on it.
Makes it hard to imagine Deshaun Watson’s suspension stays at 6 games.
— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) August 3, 2022
MORE: Explaining the lawsuits against Deshaun Watson
Who will hear the Deshaun Watson suspension appeal?
Goodell will determine who hears the appeal. He did not reveal his choice immediately after the appeal was filed, but he is eligible to hear the appeal himself.
What’s next for Deshaun Watson?
Had the NFL opted not to appeal Robinson’s ruling, Watson would have been suspended for the first six games of the Browns’ season.
Now, Watson is at the mercy of the appeal, which will be “processed on an expedited basis,” per the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy. Goodell or whomever he appoints to hear the appeal “may overturn, reduce, modify or increase the discipline previously issued, [and it] will be final and binding on all parties.”
It is possible — if not likely — that Watson’s suspension will be increased on appeal, especially if Goodell opts to hear the appeal himself. NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reports that the NFLPA could take the NFL to federal court if that occurs.
“By filing this appeal and the possibility [the suspension] gets increased, that brings up the very real possibility that the NFL Players Association could end up — after the appeal — filing a federal lawsuit bringing up all sorts of things they argued in the appeal,” Pelissero said, “including the conduct of NFL owners that had not been subject to similar disciplinary scale in a federal court setting.”
From our breaking news segment on the NFL’s decision to appeal Deshaun Watson’s six-game suspension, and the looming possibility this ends up getting sorted out in federal court. @nflnetwork pic.twitter.com/uvoZAt0clK
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) August 3, 2022
How long could the process take? Pelissero speculated that a federal lawsuit could “go months into the season” and could lead to Watson being able to play in the early weeks as the suspension is put on hold.
As part of any federal lawsuit, [the NFLPA] could also file for a temporary restraining order that would keep Deshaun Watson on the field until that court case is complete.
The league’s appeal makes Watson’s future murky again. Even if it is heard quickly, it will almost certainly be followed by a lawsuit — barring a ruling that’s similar to the one issued by Robinson.
IYER: Breaking down the Browns’ QB options from Jacoby Brissett to Jimmy Garoppolo
How will the NFL’s appeal impact the Browns?
For two days, the Browns had a relatively clear plan at quarterback: start Jacoby Brissett for six weeks and then transition to Watson.
The appeal muddies the waters because there is once again no telling how long Watson will be suspended. Will he get six games? Ten? A full year?
And what happens if the appeal process drags into the season? Will Watson be available at the beginning of it and out in the middle?
Cleveland will have to take a day-by-day approach at quarterback. If Watson is available, then he will be the team’s starter. If he isn’t, then Brissett will start.
That’s all the team will know until the appeal is heard and a ruling is issued.