Editor’s note: This story contains a detailed account of sexual misconduct.
In the fall of 2019, Mary readied for an afternoon massage appointment with a client she had not worked with before. She was told in advance that he preferred to be covered with a towel, instead of the standard sheets, so she pulled out the largest towel she had. He asked for a private entry, so she brought him up to her office through the building’s back door. What she couldn’t prepare for, though, was Deshaun Watson’s conduct during their 2.5-hour session; she says it was unlike anything she’s experienced from any other client she has treated.
As of Monday, 19 civil suits against Watson, filed by women from three different states, are publicly available. They allege that the Texans quarterback engaged in some form of sexual misconduct against them during a massage appointment, including exposing himself, purposefully touching them with his penis, ejaculating on them or, in two of the complaints, forcing them to put their mouths on his penis. Watson has asserted he’s “never treated any woman with anything other than the utmost respect”; his attorney, Rusty Hardin, said in a statement last week, “I believe that any allegation that Deshaun forced a woman to commit a sexual act is completely false.” Hardin’s statement included a claim that they have proof of a previous extortion attempt by one of the plaintiffs who said Watson coerced her into putting her mouth on his penis. Watson’s camp has suggested that the torrent of allegations stem from publicity and recruitment efforts by the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Tony Buzbee.
Mary, though, is not one of Buzbee’s plaintiffs; Sports Illustrated initiated contact with her before learning she had worked with Watson, a session that predates the timelines detailed in any of the lawsuits filed. She is a licensed massage therapist who owns her own business in Houston (SI agreed to Mary’s request for anonymity to protect her privacy and her business; we are referring to her by an alias). She told SI she is sharing a public testimony, her account of Watson’s behavior, with the hope of preventing this from happening to any other professionals in her industry. In an effort to corroborate Mary’s account, SI reviewed text and social media messages, and interviewed a family member Mary spoke to in the immediate aftermath of the session—that family member’s account was consistent with Mary’s. In response to an email detailing Mary’s account, Hardin said in a phone call, “We are just not in any position to comment in any way right now on another anonymous story or complaint. I just think it’s unfair to ask us to.”
As Hardin and Buzbee—the latter through frequent updates on Instagram and a press conference on March 19—have traded accusations publicly, Mary remains unsure as to whether she’ll pursue legal action. She contacted Buzbee’s firm after the first complaints were filed, but says she felt pressured to sign a contract for them to represent her and declined. She is working with U.A. Lewis, a civil rights attorney, to explore her options.
“The one thing I keep thinking about is, he’s about to get traded to another place,” Mary says. “What if he goes to Atlanta or California or anywhere else? He would have a whole new community of massage therapists to target.”
Moreover, Watson’s blanket denial of ever treating women with disrespect helped spur Mary to speak up and lend her voice as a witness.
“More than anything, the fact that he’s denying all the allegations makes it more of a reason for us to use our voice and say what we have to say,” she says.
Mary also wants the information she is sharing to spur Watson to get help, and to be used in a way that helps establish a higher respect level for the massage therapy profession, which she and many of her colleagues entered into with the goal of helping people.
“I just want a genuine apology, for us and our community, for putting us in these situations where we don't know what to do,” she says. “There are so many people that are against us, saying, ‘Why would he do that? He has no reason to do that. He has a beautiful girlfriend; he has this, this, this and this.’ All of those things are true, but fame doesn't create character.”
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Mary makes clear that Watson did not touch her, nor did he force her into conducting any sexual acts. But she says he did engage in behavior that was both inappropriate and unlike any other interaction she’s had with any of her more than 1,000 clients—including other professional athletes—in her several years working as a massage therapist.
She met Watson when he arrived at her rented office space in the fall of 2019. His appointment, originally for a 90-minute massage, was booked through another massage therapist in the area. Mary had a contract with the other therapist, who would refer clients to Mary, take a fee and then pay Mary for the session. This other therapist had previously referred several other clients to Mary, without any issues, so she trusted her.
Mary didn’t know the client would be Watson until about 15 minutes before the appointment, which she says was routine when she’d receive a referral. The other therapist also relayed what she presented as a standard request from Watson, to use a towel for the session rather than sheets. Mary put out a beach-sized towel for maximum coverage.
When Mary books clients, she requires them to fill out an intake form, which stipulates that draping will be used during the session so that only the area being worked on will not be covered. (The Texas Commission of Licensing and Regulation adopted in February 2020 a requirement that genitals and the gluteal cleavage must be draped during massages; most licensed therapists already required this in their practice.) Since Watson’s appointment was set up through a third party, Mary’s understanding was that the other therapist would handle the paperwork, though she can’t say for certain whether Watson received or reviewed those rules. She used the oversize towel to drape him until about 45 minutes into the session, when she says he tossed the towel onto the floor, saying it was too itchy. Watson was lying face up on the table, naked and totally uncovered, something Mary says has never happened during any of her other massage appointments.
“I was in shock,” Mary says. She proceeded with the massage without the towel, knowing that her payment was coming from another therapist. “I trusted the therapist that referred him to me that nothing weird was going to happen.”
After 90 minutes, Watson asked to extend the session for another hour. She continued to work only on his quads, inner thighs and abdomen—the specific areas he requested. Watson developed an erection, she says, and also began clenching and slowly “thrusting the air.” Mary at first wondered whether his movements were a pain response to her deep-tissue work, so she asked whether he was O.K. She says he replied that he was fine and stopped thrusting for a short time.
Mary learned during her massage training that erections can develop as a relaxation response. She recalls situations in the past when that’s happened to a client while they dozed off; they usually become embarrassed when they realize it and start talking about something random to divert their thoughts. If that doesn’t work, she’ll sometimes switch to a more painful massage technique. But Watson’s behavior indicated to her that “his intentions were different.” She adds, “There was one point that he did tell me that I could move [his penis] if I needed to, and I just completely ignored him.” She took this as a suggestion to touch his exposed penis.
Watson stayed on his back for the entire session. While massaging his abdomen, Mary says she noticed “different fluids on his stomach.” She remembers questioning whether it was really pre-ejaculate, telling herself, This can’t be what I think it is. In the final five to 10 minutes of the session, Mary says Watson began thrusting his pelvis in the air again, this time much faster. “At that point, I recognized it for what it was,” Mary says. She says she told him he needed to “calm down.” He stopped, the session ended and she left the room to let him get dressed. When she returned, he gave her a hug. Because of his request to use the back entrance, she then had to walk him out of the building.
Mary says she immediately told the other massage therapist who had referred Watson to her everything that had happened; she remembers the other therapist telling her she would talk to Watson. Mary also called a family member directly following the session. SI spoke to this relative, who remembers taking Mary’s call that afternoon at a stoplight at a specific intersection in Houston. The relative’s account of what Mary told her then aligns with Mary’s description of the incident now; she also recalls Mary’s shock and disbelief that day, as she described what she believed to be the pre-ejaculatory fluid on his stomach and his suggestion for her to touch and move his penis. They were both stunned that she and the business she’d worked hard to build had been disrespected in this way.
Watson reached out to both Mary and the referring therapist the day after his appointment, asking to book with her again. Mary says she told him, via text, that she was not available. In the following months, she says she heard from Watson twice more, via Instagram direct message. Each time he did not seem to realize that he’d previously booked with her. SI reviewed these messages, sent from Watson’s verified Instagram account, as part of the process to corroborate Mary’s account.
The first follow-up was a few weeks later, via direct message to the Instagram page for Mary’s business. Watson said a mutual friend had told him to reach out about booking a massage. Mary told him they had worked together before, and he made her feel uncomfortable then. She had reservations, but recognizing that he could be an important client for her growing business, she told him she could work with him again if he could be respectful. She also made clear to him, in one message, “I just do massage,” followed by the upside-down smiley face emoji. Watson replied, “Oh gotcha, sorry there were no intentions for anything more.” He did not book an appointment.
The last time Mary heard from him was in the fall of 2020. This time, Watson DM’ed her personal Instagram account, replying to a post in which she’d made an announcement about her business and congratulating her. He then asked whether she had any availability for a massage. Mary was again unsure whether he realized who she was, so she screenshotted and sent the conversation they’d had on her business account. She reiterated to him that she runs a professional business that requires full-sheet draping, and, if he could abide by those policies, he was welcome to book with her. She says he replied to her positively and liked one of her messages. He did not book that time, either. Mary says she has had no contact with Watson or his camp since this last exchange.
Mary believes Watson’s behavior, based on what she experienced as well as the accounts other women have brought forward, was “a power move, because he could.” After his appointment with her, she says the shock lingered. Seeing his face on social media or hearing a friend mention his name—common occurrences for the face of the local NFL franchise—became triggers for her. She’d scroll past or turn away. Her career aspirations were once to be a massage therapist for professional athletes or teams, but after her experience with Watson, her focus shifted away from that goal.
Over the past two weeks, Mary was triggered again, hearing the stories of the other women who came forward. Many of the civil suits put forth accounts similar to hers, such as his request for a private entrance or his preference to be covered by only a towel, which he’d later remove. One of the complaints also says that Watson “started to thrust his body up and down with a full erection” at the end of his massage. Mary believes the behavior described in these complaints also suggests an apparent “escalation of attitude or what he’s willing to do,” since she worked with him in 2019.
In addition to speaking up now, over the last few months Mary also sought to protect her fellow massage therapists: She began sharing the warning that she wishes she had received.
Jenny Vrentas is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org