The Cleveland Browns and Deshaun Watson played defense on Friday, the team standing behind its decision to invest significant draft capital and $230 million in guaranteed money in a quarterback facing 22 civil lawsuits amid allegations of sexual misconduct.
Watson, dressed in a pinstripe suit with a crisp white shirt and orange tie, looked uncomfortable on the dais as general manager Andrew Berry and head coach Kevin Stefanski answered questions about the background checks the Browns did before acquiring the quarterback during an introductory news conference. Team owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam were not present.
Two things were clear during the news conference. The Browns organization believes its extensive vetting of Watson — a “five-month odyssey” as Berry called it — showed the team acquired a solid citizen, and Watson reiterated at every opportunity that he didn't do what he's accused of by 22 women.
Berry said the Browns used outside investigators to look into Watson's background, as well as the accusations made by the women. A grand jury in Harris County, Texas, two weeks ago failed to indict Watson on criminal charges, as did a second grand jury that heard the case of one woman in Brazoria County, Texas, on Thursday.
Watson, 26, still could face punishment from the NFL.
The Browns acquired Watson and a 2024 fifth-round draft pick on March 18 from the Houston Texans for first-round selections in each of the next three drafts, a 2023 third-rounder and a 2024 fourth-rounder.
Since then, there has been outrage from many corners of the community, including women's groups and fans who say they no longer will support the team.
“We as an organization know that this transaction has been very difficult for a lot of people, particularly women in our community,” Berry said. “That in addition to the nature of all the allegations weighed heavily on all of us.”
But, he said, the franchise is confident in the character of Watson after reviewing the findings of the independent investigators who looked into Watson. Barry said under advice of team counsel, the Browns didn't attempt to interview any of the 22 women because it could have been construed as attempting to interfere with an investigation.
“We do feel good about the work that we did as we vetted this transaction,” Berry said. “We do have confidence and faith in Deshaun as a person.”
Watson didn't play last season for the Texans, the team that drafted him, amid his request for a trade, which was followed by his legal issues.
Asked several times Friday about those legal issues, Watson maintained his innocence each time.
“I understand these allegations are serious. I never assaulted any woman,” he said. “I've never disrespected any woman. I was raised to be genuine and to respect everyone around me.”
Watson said his off-field focus in Cleveland will be trying to rebuild his reputation — “I want to continue to show people who I really am” — and make a difference in the community. He was involved in several charitable activities in Houston and intends to continue that work in Cleveland, he said.
And, Watson said, he doesn't plan to settle any of the civil lawsuits, wanting to clear his name instead.
Watson also said he has no reason to be sorry for his interactions with the women, each of whom performed a massage on him.
“I don't have any regrets. Like I said, the things off the field right now that came up caught me by surprise because I never did anything that these people are alleging,” he said.
At the end of the news conference, Watson finally showed a big smile when he was handed his Cleveland jersey to pose for a photo with Barry and Stefanski. He'll be wearing #4.