Until Tuesday, the saga of 24 sexual misconduct lawsuits against Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson put little to no focus on the Houston Texans, Watson’s former employer in the city where most of the allegations occurred.
Very soon, that will change, as Tony Buzbee, the attorney representing all 24 plaintiffs said on Wednesday that he plans to add the Texans to the lawsuits as a defendant alongside Watson, ESPN reports. The move follows a New York Times investigation published on Tuesday that detailed several ways that the team and others may have contributed—wittingly or not—to Watson’s alleged misconduct.
Two dozen women massage therapists accuse Watson of scheduling sessions and then exposing himself, requesting sexual acts and even masturbating and ejaculating during the appointments. We learned this week that his former team’s head of security provided Watson with a non-disclosure form which he asked the massage therapists sign when they worked on him, a weird thing even by NFL standards since the team itself employs a training staff and its own licensed massage therapists.
The team also paid for a membership at an exclusive Houston hotel/club where some of the allegations against Watson occurred, according to the New York Times. As I wrote yesterday, neither fact means the Texans knew about Watson’s alleged behavior with the therapists. NFL teams regularly offer extravagant perks to stars the same way big companies do for executives. But the new reporting gives Buzbee an opening to exploit to his clients’ advantage.
There’s not much of a relationship left between Watson and the Texans, since the QB sat out the entire 2021 season rather than play for the team as he demanded a trade. Buzbee, a savvy trial lawyer, knows that leaning on the Texans as a means of pressuring Watson to settle won’t get anywhere.
He also knows that the Texans have far deeper pockets than Watson, so adding the team as co-defendants multiplies a potential windfall for this clients, as well as fees for himself. The NFL and its member teams loathe the idea of nasty allegations playing out in court. With training camp and a new season coming, they want attention on the field. They hate the kind of discovery or depositions—presumably rife with emails, text messages and the like—that Buzbee could, and likely will, push for.
That’s because Buzbee knows that when the NFL has issues with problems like racism, sexual harassment and homophobia, recent history shows that the bodies are usually buried in electronic communications.
Already, the NFL and several teams—including the Texans—are fighting to force three Black current and former head coaches who are suing the league for alleged racial discrimination, to go arbitration over the claims rather than have them play out publicly in court. The same is true of former Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden, who the NFL tried last month to force into arbitration in his lawsuit against the league.
Both lawsuits involve texts and emails that are embarrassing for the NFL. The discrimination lawsuit was spawned in part because New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick mistakenly texted current Pittsburgh Steelers assistant Brian Flores congratulating him for getting a head coaching job that had already been promised to another candidate. Flores is Black, and finding out that a white coach was already hired before his interview confirmed his suspicion that he was being subject to a “sham” interview under the NFL’s Rooney Rule. The texts from Belichick are included in Flores’ complaint.
Gruden filed a “tortious interference” lawsuit against the NFL in November, claiming he was the league’s scapegoat in a bigger scandal. The previous month, he resigned from the Raiders after the leak of emails he sent containing racist and homophobic insults about NFL officials, commissioner Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith, the head of the NFL Players Association.
Gruden acknowledged and apologized for sending the emails, which date as far back as 2011, when he was an analyst at ESPN. But he wants to know how and why only his emails, out of 650,000 messages that were reviewed as part of an investigation into sexual harassment and a toxic workplace culture inside the Washington Commanders franchise, were given to the reporters. (The Washington investigation has only gotten worse; the House Oversight Committee has referred evidence of potential financial improprieties at the team to the Federal Trade Commission.)
With all that percolating, if you were the Texans, how much might it be worth to you to keep any emails or texts involving the Deshaun Watson saga out of public view? It’s obvious Tony Buzbee thinks he can put a dollar figure on that.