The league challenged the penalty issued Monday by a third-party disciplinary officer as a result of a hearing over accusations that Watson had engaged in sexually coercive and lewd behavior toward two dozen women he hired for massages.
Following a process agreed upon in the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the N.F.L. Players Association, the appeal will be heard by N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell or a person of his choosing. The league did not immediately say who would oversee the appeal.
Sue L. Robinson, the retired federal judge jointly appointed by the N.F.L. and the players’ union to oversee the disciplinary hearing, found that Watson violated the league’s personal conduct policy by engaging in unwanted sexual contact with another person, endangering the safety and well-being of another person and undermining the N.F.L.’s integrity. She suggested in her 16-page report that Watson’s conduct, which she called “predatory” and “egregious,” might have deserved a stricter penalty but that she was limited by the league’s policies and past record of discipline.
Watson has denied the accusations against him, and two Texas grand juries declined to indict him. Jimmy and Dee Haslam, owners of the Browns, said they would “continue to support” the quarterback to whom they awarded a five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed contract in March.
The players union said in advance of Robinson’s decision that it would not appeal, but after the suspension was announced Monday the N.F.L. released a statement that said it would review her findings and “make a determination on next steps” within the three business days the C.B.A. allows for challenges.
The six-game suspension was met with criticism from Tony Buzbee, the lawyer representing most of Watson’s accusers, as well as experts in sports law and advocates for sexual abuse victims. The league had argued to Robinson that Watson deserved at least a full-year suspension while the union had fought for a lesser penalty.
The league began its investigation of Watson in March 2021, when Ashley Solis, a licensed massage therapist in Houston, became the first of a total of 24 women to file lawsuits against him. The women said that he assaulted or harassed them during massage appointments in 2020 and 2021, when Watson played for the Houston Texans. In a brief filed to Robinson, the league wrote that Watson had “used his status as an N.F.L. player as a pretext to engage in a premeditated pattern of predatory behavior toward multiple women.”