BEREA, Ohio (AP) — Deshaun Watson sat stoically behind the microphone, and for nearly 40 minutes barely talked about football.
This wasn’t the time. It’s unclear when that will be.
Facing pointed questions about sexual misconduct allegations brought against him by 22 women, Watson, one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks, defended his character and denied any wrongdoing Friday while being introduced by the Cleveland Browns.
Wearing a dark pinstriped suit and orange tie, Watson showed little emotion at the dais while saying he has never mistreated women and vowing to earn the trust of his new team and a fan base conflicted over his arrival.
“I’ve never assaulted or disrespected or harassed any woman in my life,” Watson said. “I’ve never done these things people are alleging.”
It was the first time Watson has answered direct questions about the allegations, which first surfaced in March 2021. Watson didn’t play last season for Houston as the criminal and civil complaints by massage therapists mounted and before being heard by two grand juries in Texas.
Flanked on the dais by Browns general manager Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski, Watson was asked why he should be believed and not the nearly two dozen women who have come forward.
He has been accused of exposing himself, touching the women with his penis and forcing himself on them. Watson has maintained any sex was consensual.
“What I can continue to do is tell the truth, and that is I have never assaulted, disrespected or harassed any woman in my life,” he said. “I was raised differently. That is not my DNA. That is not my culture. That is not me as a person.”
On Thursday, a grand jury in Brazoria County, Texas, declined to indict Watson on one of the original criminal complaints. Two weeks ago, a jury in Harris County also chose not to pursue charges on nine cases.
Watson, acquired last week in a controversial trade that has brought the Browns widespread criticism and scrutiny, understands there are people who will never believe him.
“I know that there’s going to be a stain that probably is going to stick with me for awhile, but all I can do is keep moving forward and to continue to show the person that I am, the true character, the true person, the true human being I am,” the 26-year-old said.
Watson still faces 22 civil lawsuits. The three-time Pro Bowler said he has no intention of settling, and that his only goal “is to clear my name as much as possible.”
The Browns, who have spent two decades looking for a franchise QB, are taking heat for their decision to bring on a tainted player. The team expected a serious backlash, and only felt comfortable in pursuing Watson after a thorough investigation Berry described as a “five-month odyssey.”
Berry said the team’s lawyers told the Browns not to talk to the 22 women because it could compromise any investigation.
“We as organization know that this transaction has been very difficult for many people, particularly women in our community,” Berry said. “We realize that it has triggered a range of emotions. And that, as well as the nature of the allegations, weighed heavily on all of us.
“It was because of the weight of the anticipated reaction and the nature of the allegations that really pushed us to do as much work as possible internally and externally in terms of understanding the cases and who Deshaun was as a person.
“We do have faith and confidence in Deshaun as a person.”
Owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam were sensitive that Watson joining the Browns might have a negative impact on anyone who has suffered sexual abuse. Both said they have close friends in that category.
“We put more time, more thought, more effort, talked to more people, did more research on this decision — by far — than any other decision we’ve made with the Cleveland Browns,” Jimmy Haslam said on a Zoom call with his wife from outside the country. “It’s not something we took lightly.”
Dee Haslam said she had multiple conversations with the couple’s daughters during the vetting process, and that ultimately she became agreeable with acquiring Watson after learning more about him.
“This has been a really hard and difficult journey for us and our family,” she said. “We had to work really hard to get comfortable with the decision. It took some time.”
Jimmy Haslam said a family member and counselor gave him advice before moving forward with the trade.
“Both of them said exactly the same thing,” Haslam said. “They said, ‘Your daughters and Dee ought to have veto over this trade, and if they’re not for it, if anyone of them is not for it, you shouldn’t do it.’
“And at first, I thought, ‘That’s interesting.’ Then I thought, ‘That makes a lot of sense.’ And everybody was on board with doing this, some later than earlier.”
Watson dismissed needing counseling because he feels he’s been falsely accused.
“I don’t have a problem,” he said. “I don’t have an issue.”
The Browns enticed Watson to waive his no-trade clause and agree to come to Cleveland with a record-setting $230 million, fully guaranteed contract, which includes a $1 million base salary in the first season in the event he’s suspended by the NFL.
Watson initially rebuffed the Browns before changing his mind. He said the contract wasn’t a factor.
“It was not necessarily a turn down,” he sad. “The media was kind of rushing me to make a decision, and I was not comfortable making that right decision.”
The league has an ongoing investigation into Watson’s behavior and whether he violated its personal conduct policy.