Lawyers fighting sexual assault and harassment allegations against Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson face a predicament: Defending their client means working to discredit the claims of 22 women who are more likely to be believed in the #MeToo era.
Watson’s lawyers tried to find a balance between defending the NFL star and condemning women’s sexual violence. They have said that victims of sexual violence against women should not be taken at face value. These women are not the only ones to be taken at their word.
The attorneys called the lawsuits against Watson a “money grab” and fired back that all 22 women who have filed suit are lying, a strategy some experts and advocates say relies on long-used tropes designed to minimize such accusations. Watson’s lawyer said that some of his accusers have been criticised and even threatened with death. This highlights how sexual abuse cases, whether criminal or civil, still face pushback four years after the #MeToo movement.
In their lawsuits, the 22 women accuse Watson of exposing himself, touching them with his penis or kissing them against their will during massage appointments. Watson is accused of forcing at least one woman to have oral sex.
Watson and his lawyers denied the allegations. His lawyers said that “some sexual activity” occurred during certain appointments but that he never coerced anyone. They also presented 18 other female massage therapists, who all said Watson never behaved inappropriately while they were working with him.
Some of the allegations are being investigated by Houston police. The NFL also launched an investigation.
Watson’s lead lawyer Rusty Hardin said that he believes sexual assault concerns are “long overdue” and condemned the threats and attacks against his clients. He also rejected claims that he was being insensitive and acknowledged that the nature of his legal job puts him in a precarious situation amid societal changes.
Hardin stated that #MeToo has caused many people to assume these allegations are true.
“If Deshaun Watson says he didn’t do this, does that mean he is attacking women by saying he didn’t do it? That’s where we’ve gotten to,” said Hardin, a well-known Houston civil and criminal defense attorney who represented ex-pitcher Roger Clemens when he was acquitted in 2012 of charges that he lied to Congress by denying he used performance-enhancing drugs.
In court documents, Watson’s legal team has called the lawsuits part of a “money grab” against the former Clemson University standout, who agreed to a $160 million contract extension last year and became one of the highest paid players in the league. The phrase “money grab” has been used in defense of other high-profile sexual assault cases. It was used by Kellen Winslow II, a former NFL player, and a San Diego County deputy who were sent to prison for misconduct while on duty with 16 women.
Sarah Klein, an attorney representing victims of sexual abuse for California’s Manly, Stewart & Finaldi, but not connected to the Watson case, stated that she is disappointed that those who claim sexual assault are still subject to attempts to shame them or characterize their outcries and claims as extortion.
However, Watson’s defense and general support for women who claim sexual assault is “fair game,” David Ring, an attorney representing one of the women who accuse Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault in Los Angeles, said that defending Watson is not an option.
“Whether people view that as relevant or staged… Ring stated, “Whether people view that as staged or relevant… I don’t know.”
Tony Buzbee is the attorney representing the 22 women suing Watson. He said that the lawsuit was not about money, but rather “female empowerment” to stop sexual assault.
Buzbee has been involved in numerous high-profile cases including the representation of former Texas Governor. Rick Perry in an abuse of power case. Also, settling lawsuits on behalf of 10 teens who claimed that Stanley Marsh 3, a Texas millionaire, had paid them for their sexual acts.
Buzbee stated, “I am instead focused on his welfare and aggressively pursuing their case in court.”
Both Hardin and Buzbee have stated that no settlement is pending, and that they were both preparing for trial. The first of these might not take place for 1 1/2 years. Hardin stated that if settlements were reached, he would insist that they be made public to avoid Watson’s perception of “buying silence”, which is false.
Watson’s future remains uncertain, and questions remain about how the allegations will impact that future. Watson reported to the Texans training camp last month to avoid being fined. Watson asked to be traded prior to the lawsuits being filed and still wants to play with another team. Hardin stated that Watson has not been interviewed by the NFL.