About twenty months ago, when Britney Taylor filed a federal civil lawsuit against wideout Antonio Brown, the first questions that moved beyond guilt or innocence were typical of the NFL’s "what-does-this-mean?" mathematics.
What happens if there is no settlement?
Will commissioner Roger Goodell suspend Brown?
Will Taylor speak with league investigators?
And finally, the bottom line that some NFL teams really wanted to know:
How long will this hang over Brown’s career?
The answers all came in time, and they can provide an instructive backdrop to the future of Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, who is the target of 22 civil lawsuits alleging a range of sexual misconduct. Watson has the Texans and other teams mulling the same questions about his pending litigation. It's an opaque crossroads that has no discernible ending in sight, barring sweeping settlement mediation (which remains an option) or some kind of unrivaled fast-tracking of 22 individual lawsuits (which is highly unlikely, if not completely impossible).
Antonio Brown's early fighting posture mirrored Deshaun Watson's
While the situations of Watson and Brown are different, what’s important to note now is that their civil litigation started in a remarkably similar place: With each player denying the allegations against them and both of their representations defending the players by painting the picture of a woman (or multiple women) contriving civil litigation to extract a settlement. And in both situations, the players denied the claims against them and insisted there would be no settlement.
For Brown, that settlement finally materialized, but only after nearly 20 months of legal combat and near the doorstep of a jury trial that was expected to take place in the next several months.
For Watson, his legal representation is saying what Brown’s lawyer said in the fall of 2019: There will be no settlements and the player intends to fight the allegations in court to reclaim his reputation.
The willingness to fight at the onset of civil litigation is the posture that will ultimately set the table for Watson’s future. Brown initially discussed a settlement with Taylor, his former trainer, in the summer of 2019. Those talks broke down and it moved to the next legal stage of a civil suit, which is an avenue that lawyers often use to create additional pressure for a settlement resolution. In the case of Brown, he ultimately settled despite his fight against the litigation, although it’s unclear whether his undisclosed resolution was more or less costly than it might have been in the summer of 2019. Given the amount of money Brown lost in endorsements and also a significant impact on his NFL earnings (losses which are still being realized), it’s likely that the financial toll far outpaced whatever settlement was initially discussed with Taylor nearly two years ago.
Is it better to settle or go to court?
From a representation standpoint, this is part of the cold and calculating legal math that comes into play when someone like Brown or Watson faces civil litigation. There is the consideration of the monetary cost of fighting the allegations in court. There is also the consideration of not fighting the allegations and what that will mean for a player’s reputation if they settle rather than seek total vindication in the courts system. Simply put: Is it more sensible to mediate a settlement rather than incur the financial implications of a drawn-out legal battle?
Right now, Watson’s stance has been unambiguously staked out by his lawyer, Rusty Hardin. Not only has Watson proclaimed his innocence through his lawyer, his representation has bluntly stated the stance that all 22 women who have filed civil cases are lying. That’s a posture suggesting (and even requesting in the most recent legal filing from Hardin) that Watson is seeking to have his day in court and in front of a jury.
Brown took that track, too. And 20 months later, it ended with a settlement before his jury trial came to fruition.
Watson's civil lawsuit fights could last years
For all NFL teams and Watson, the implications are clear. This is going to be a long road ahead. Likely many years, depending on the number of civil cases that continue forward. It also means that Watson could fight this right up to the doorstep of a jury trial and then decide that a settlement is a more palatable option. Or he could submit to jury trials, one after another, if the multitude of civil cases never come together as one class-action suit which is not planned at the moment.
Barring some kind of unforeseen events that result in all of the cases being dismissed in the coming months, it’s far more likely that Watson ends up continuing his NFL career under civil litigation than not. That's precisely what Brown ended up doing in 2020, playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers while his legal representation wrangled with Taylor’s lawyers and moved toward a trial. How it all played out for Brown is worth studying because there are some of the same hurdles that Watson faces. And it starts with looking at the full picture of Brown’s timeline as it extended out from Taylor’s lawsuit, which alleged that the wideout sexually assaulted her.
Taylor filed her suit in September of 2019. That was the first event setting the stage for Brown’s eventual release from the New England Patriots later that month. From there, Brown fell into limbo inside the NFL, lingering in free agency while under a league investigation. Part of that limbo was created by the league itself, which appeared to suggest that if Brown were signed by a team during the remainder of the 2019 season, he would be subject to being placed on the commissioner’s exempt list – which is basically a paid suspension – while league investigators finished their probe. The NFL investigation ultimately lasted 10 months and culminated in an eight-game suspension for un-detailed violations of the personal conduct policy.
Brown essentially spent the entire 2019 season out of football and then was suspended for half the season in 2020, all of which took place as he continued to fight Taylor’s civil suit.
The players' situations aren't the same, but some of the complications could be for Watson. First, there is the lingering cloud of the civil litigation that hangs overhead and it'll likely continue to produce constant headlines. Second, there will be the discovery process and then public jury trials that will expose Watson to further media and legal scrutiny. All of that will have an impact on how NFL teams and endorsers view him financially. And finally, there will be the league’s opaque investigative process, which is completely open-ended in terms of a timeline.
Those similarities answer some of the questions about Watson that mirrored what was asked about Brown. If there’s no settlement, this will extend into a long legal process. During that time, Goodell could suspend Watson, as he did with Brown, for a period of games inside of the dragging civil litigation. And at any point during all of this, one or a multitude of women who have brought allegations against Watson could speak with NFL investigators, as Taylor did during the league’s investigation of Brown.
This brings all of this back to the question that teams have chewed on and will continue to digest each day with Deshaun Watson: Regardless of his guilt or innocence, if a legal resolution isn’t reached in the next few months for Watson, this legal process will hang over his career for years. And like Brown, there will always be the open-ended possibility of it ending up right where it initially began — with the quarterback paying years of legal bills and sustaining untold cost to his earnings, only to sign a settlement that his lawyers said was not going to happen.