Deshaun Watson is listed as the starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns’ preseason opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Friday.
The Browns announced the decision on Wednesday as an NFL appeal to extend Watson’s six-game regular-season suspension remains pending. If he remains eligible to play, Friday will mark Watson’s first game with the Browns since Cleveland acquired him in a trade with the Houston Texans.
Independent officer Sue L. Robinson issued Watson a six-game ban on Aug. 1 after ruling in a league disciplinary hearing that he violated the NFL’s personal conduct policy amid multiple allegations of sexual misconduct or sexual assault. While the NFL sought an indefinite suspension of at least a full season, she limited his ban to six games, writing that his “pattern of behavior was egregious” but “nonviolent sexual conduct.”
The NFL and NFLPA each had the option to appeal the decision, which the NFL exercised in its continued pursuit of a harsher punishment for Watson. Commissioner Roger Goodell made the league’s public case for a longer ban on Tuesday while calling Watson’s behavior “predatory” and “egregious.”
“Because we’ve seen the evidence,” Goodell said of the reasoning for the appeal. “[Robinson] was very clear about the evidence, should we enforce the evidence. That there was multiple violations here, and they were egregious, and it was predatory behavior.”
Watson’s fate now lies in the hands of former New Jersey Attorney General Peter C. Harvey, whom Goodell appointed to oversee the appeal. The league’s collective bargaining agreement stipulates that Goodell chooses the officer to oversee appeals of disciplinary hearing decisions.
There’s no designated timeline for Harvey to make his decision. He could conceivably rule before Friday and choose to extend Watson’s suspension to the preseason, which would force Cleveland to alter its lineup plans for the game.
Watson faced accusations in civil litigation from 24 women of varying degrees of sexual assault and sexual misconduct stemming from massage therapy sessions. All but one of those cases has been settled out of court. The accusations led the Texans to bench the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback last season before trading him to Cleveland in the offseason.
Cleveland traded for Watson in hopes of contending for a Super Bowl. The acquisition signaled the end of the Baker Mayfield era as Cleveland traded the former No. 1 overall pick to the Carolina Panthers after acquiring Watson. Former Indianapolis Colts starter Jacoby Brissett is the backup quarterback in Cleveland and the presumed starter in the event that Watson isn’t eligible to play.