In His Football Return, Deshaun Watson Tries a New Move — Contrition

After a 19-month absence from football, Deshaun Watson started an N.F.L. preseason game on Friday night.

Before the game began, the Cleveland Browns quarterback did something else that had been nearly as long coming: He apologized for the first time since more than two dozen women said he sexually assaulted or harassed them in massage appointments.

As Watson took the field, met by boos from the sparse crowd at Jacksonville’s TIAA Bank Field, a league adviser was continuing to weigh his eligibility for the upcoming regular season.

He was suspended last week for six games by a third-party disciplinary officer, a decision the N.F.L. quickly appealed, pushing for a stricter ban for multiple violations of the league’s personal conduct policy.

The day before both the game and Watson’s apology, The Associated Press reported that Watson would be willing to accept an eight-game suspension and a $5 million fine, after his representatives initially argued for no missed time.

“I want to say that I am truly sorry to all of the women that I have impacted in this situation,” Watson said in an interview with the Browns broadcast team. “The decisions that I made in my life that put me in this position, I would definitely like to have back, but I want to continue to move forward and grow and learn and show that I am a true person of character.”

As the game’s kickoff approached, there was growing tension about whether Watson’s start would go ahead as planned. Even with a regular-season suspension looming, he is able to participate in all practices and exhibition games until his suspension begins in the season’s first week. But if the appeal yielded the season-long ban that the league was pushing for, and if that decision were reached before the game, Watson would have been immediately excluded from all team activities and would have had to apply for reinstatement at the end of the season.

The appeal is being heard by Peter C. Harvey, a former New Jersey attorney general, who was selected by N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell last week to review the case and issue a decision on an “expedited” basis. There is no timetable for when that will happen.

The Browns had announced Wednesday that Watson would start Friday’s preseason opener. He looked rusty, completing only one of five passes in three offensive series before being pulled, but his on-field performance was just a footnote.

On Aug. 1, Sue L. Robinson, a retired federal judge jointly appointed by the N.F.L. and the players union to oversee the disciplinary hearing, determined that Watson had committed multiple violations of the league’s personal conduct policy as a result of behavior she deemed “predatory” and “egregious.” Two days later, the league appealed, in accordance with a new disciplinary process established as part of the 2020 collective bargaining agreement.

In arguing for a full-season ban, along with a fine and counseling, the league expressed concerns over Watson’s lack of remorse, a factor Robinson also cited in her decision.

Jimmy and Dee Haslam, the owners of the Browns, expressed support for Watson in a statement last week and said that he had been “remorseful.” Watson’s comments before Friday’s game were the first time he had publicly expressed contrition for his actions.

Watson had previously denied the accusations, telling reporters at a news conference in June that he regretted their impact on his teammates and the people around him. Watson settled 23 of the lawsuits filed against him by women who said he assaulted or harassed them during massage appointments, and two grand juries in Texas declined to indict him on criminal charges.

Watson’s suspension is set to begin the week of the Browns’ first regular-season game, Sept. 11 against the Carolina Panthers.

He has not played in a game, either regular season or exhibition, since Jan. 3, 2021, when he was still a member of the Houston Texans. He requested a trade that month, and in March 2021 the first lawsuit was filed against him. Though Watson was eligible to play, he sat out the 2021 N.F.L. season.

The Browns traded for Watson this spring after a grand jury in Texas declined to indict him. The team sent multiple top draft picks to Houston and signed Watson to a five-year, fully guaranteed $230 million contract.

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