Editor’s note: This story contains detailed allegations of sexual misconduct.
They didn’t know what to do.
So a licensed massage therapist who worked with Ashley Solis reached out to an industry veteran, asking for help. “I have a colleague that was solicited during a session by a professional athlete at her in-home studio,” she wrote over Facebook Messenger.
Something had happened during Solis’s appointment with Deshaun Watson, an unlikely client for her nascent massage therapy business on March 30, 2020. That message, not previously public, was sent the next day, according to the veteran therapist. That was before any lawsuits, high-profile lawyers or p.r. spin, proof that Solis was upset enough to seek help in the immediate aftermath of the appointment. It is one of many new pieces of information Sports Illustrated uncovered over the course of two months reporting on and around the lawsuits against Watson. Along with reviewing exchanges—like the one above—that were previously unreported or shared only in part, SI vetted information that has been dispensed both by the lawyers for Watson and for the 22 plaintiffs, which has sometimes been incomplete, out-of-context or otherwise imprecise.
SI also interviewed five women—not among either the 22 plaintiffs or the list of 18 therapists who supported Watson in testimonials provided to his defense attorney’s firm—who worked with or were contacted by Watson, including one who both worked on Watson and referred him to other licensed massage therapists, or LMTs.
One thing is clear: Warnings about Watson had been percolating in the Houston massage therapy community for some time. Some were mundane—he was a last-minute booker, do not expect a tip. Others were far more troubling. Two LMTs told SI they were warned last year by others in their profession about Watson’s inappropriate conduct, including his making sexually explicit motions on the table or insisting on using a small towel that would inadequately cover his genital area, rather than the standard massage draping. And that same industry veteran Solis’s colleague contacted says she talked to Watson about his conduct after an appointment she set up in 2019—the one detailed to SI in March by a woman we called Mary, who has not filed a lawsuit. After that appointment, the veteran therapist told Mary in a text message that “only 1 therapist hasn’t complained” about Watson.
SI also spoke to numerous other Houston-area LMTs, multiple NFL players about massage therapy to get a better understanding of an LMT’s role in professional football and a therapist who says she had problematic interactions with other professional athletes, shedding light on the hazards women can face in an occupation too often conflated with sex work. (Solis and the other 21 plaintiffs were not made available for interviews.)
One year after her session with Watson, Solis filed the first civil suit against him. There are now 22 active civil lawsuits, each filed by a woman who says Watson engaged in some form of sexual misconduct toward her during massage appointments, including exposing himself, touching her with his penis, or, in two cases, sexual assault by forcing oral sex.
Legal culpability will be determined in the courts; Texas has a high threshold for defining sexual assault, and Watson’s team of attorneys, led by Rusty Hardin, will have a chance to make a defense in the courtroom beyond what they have said in the public arena. In a statement in April, Hardin said, based on his firm’s internal discussions with Watson, “the answer to the question of whether we are saying that all 22 plaintiffs are lying about the allegations of sexual misconduct by Mr. Watson is a resounding yes.”
This story, though, is more complicated than the binary matter of innocence or guilt. There is the enormous power imbalance in a star athlete’s every interaction intersecting with the vulnerability of a role performed in the hidden corners of the sports world; the often misunderstood nature of what constitutes consent and the difference between what is inappropriate and what crosses a line legally. All of which play a role in how 22 women and Deshaun Watson arrived at this point.
“You a massage therapist?” Watson wrote in an Instagram DM in the spring of 2020. He opened another exchange this past winter with “How can I book a session?” The therapists on the receiving end of these messages were enthused by the prospect of a prominent new client but also confused: They had never interacted with Watson before. Another LMT he first contacted over direct message says he told her he’d found her via Instagram Explore—an area of the app curated algorithmically for each user based on posts they have viewed or liked, or other accounts they follow.
Massage therapy is a key part of NFL players’ weekly recovery regimens. Many clubs have therapists come to the facility once per week, often on the Tuesday off day, setting up tables in a large room where players cycle through for treatment. The Texans have had a contract with Genuine Touch Massage Therapy since the team’s founding in 2002; the owner of the practice, Joni Honn, was listed in the Texans’ 2020 media guide as part of the sports medicine staff. She has a team of several therapists that players, including Watson, can also text directly for sessions away from the facility, though many have their own professionals they see apart from the team.
Watson, according to Hardin, gets at least two to three massages per week, including in the offseason, amounting to as many as 120 to 150 per year. There’s nothing unusual about that number in itself. But the quantity of different therapists Watson appears to have used, as well as the lack of experience of some that he hired and the massage techniques he requested according to the civil suits, stand out as different from the experiences shared by his NFL colleagues. One person with close ties to the Texans says a member of the team’s medical staff, worried about increased risk of injury to the franchise quarterback, was concerned last year when they were told Watson was seeking out therapists on Instagram.
An NFC defensive back says he gets one to two massages per week during the season, on Tuesdays and sometimes Fridays, and fewer in the offseason. Another defensive back, who plays in the AFC, says his in-season routine includes some type of bodywork four or five times per week, rotating among massages, cupping, dry-needling and stretching. The therapist will work on muscles the players overuse due to movements specific to their positions, including hamstrings, glutes and groin, as well as areas where there’s tightness or injury. Both players say this often requires painful deep-tissue work and myofascial release techniques. “A feel-good massage doesn’t really do anything for you,” says the NFC defensive back. (SI granted a request for anonymity from the players we spoke with, in exchange for their candor.)
Trust in the therapist’s abilities is a key criteria for both players. The NFC defensive back said in his six-year NFL career, which spans two cities, he has worked with a total of four massage therapists; he estimates that number is not more than six if he also includes his college career. When he changed teams, one of the team captains in his new city connected him with his massage therapist, and he’s worked with her exclusively—including through the 2020 season, when she got regular COVID-19 tests and limited her other appointments to safely work with her NFL clients. The AFC defensive back also has a set group of five bodywork professionals that he found via referrals from veteran teammates.
“Then getting comfortable with them over time, and developing that relationship, and sticking with my same people,” the AFC defensive back says. “You always want to use somebody that has experience working on guys in your profession. You don’t want a person that doesn’t really know what they're doing.”
Adds the NFC defensive back: “I don’t know guys who use 22 different masseuses,” referring to the number of plaintiffs during an interview in March. (“Massage therapist” is the proper term for the profession, considered by many to be adjacent to the medical field.) He was expressing skepticism about the plaintiffs—the number itself, that one player would have worked with that many therapists, seems so unrealistic. But the number is likely far higher. If you count all 22 plaintiffs as having worked with Watson as well as a former plaintiff who dropped her suit “for now” (she cited privacy and security concerns, after the court ruled all women had to refile with their real names), the 18 therapists who issued statements in support of Watson through Hardin’s firm and other therapists who spoke to SI (and whose accounts were verified), Watson has worked with at least 44 therapists over the past few years. He has reached out to more than that.
Hardin has not denied that Watson used many therapists. In an April press conference, he said, “In the year 2020, all of a sudden spas shut down. Nobody was getting massages unless they came up with an ad hoc way to do it.” He added that Watson, like many millennials, “does business transactions on Instagram.”
One of the LMTs SI spoke to was surprised when Watson DM’ed her in the spring of 2020, because she does not specialize in sports massage and works in a suburb about an hour outside of Houston. When she told him she was not able to work at the time because of the state’s COVID-19 restrictions, he asked, “Is it cause you’re scared you’ll loose[sic] your license.” She told him yes, and he replied, “You’ll be good with me. But okay.” (Both messages were sent around 11 p.m.) She never worked on him, but the date of an incident described in one of the lawsuits jumped out to her: It was the day after Watson had messaged her. (SI reviewed screenshots of this exchange, which appear to be sent from Watson’s verified Instagram account; Hardin, saying he would not address reporting from anonymous sources, did not provide a response to questions regarding this exchange or other anonymous accounts. SI has granted this LMT’s request for anonymity to protect her privacy and her business.)
“I was extremely relieved,” she says. “Because I will tell you, I really did almost message him and be like, O.K., because [landing him as a client] could mean so much money for my business. But in my gut, it felt off.”
Seventeen of the 22 plaintiffs say in their lawsuits that Watson made first contact with them through social media, where they market their businesses. (The majority of plaintiffs also say they had never before worked on any Texans players.) The five other plaintiffs say either their boss set up their appointment with Watson or they were referred to him through a mutual friend.
The veteran therapist who Solis’s colleague reached out to for advice has referred Watson to multiple other therapists—including Mary, who previously shared her account of Watson’s misconduct with SI, and one of the other plaintiffs. This veteran therapist agreed to an interview with SI, but only under the condition of anonymity since her name has not yet been shared publicly; we granted her request because of the importance of hearing an account from—at this point—the only therapist to publicly acknowledge having referred Watson to others. However, parts of her story shifted over a series of interviews. SI will refer to her by the pseudonym Susan.
Susan has been a licensed massage therapist for more than a decade, with a clientele she says is about 90% athletes. She’s worked on Watson “many times over several years” and says she’s “only had professional experiences.” Susan has eight other therapists she sends clients to when her schedule is full, which she has done regularly with Watson. These therapists, including Mary, had contracts with Susan, who says she charges the client for the session, subtracts her referral fee and pays the other therapist about 70%.
Mary told SI that during her appointment with Watson in the fall of 2019, he purposely removed the towel covering him, told her she could touch and move his exposed penis (she ignored his suggestion), and began thrusting his pelvis into the air after developing an erection; she also noticed what she believed to be pre-ejaculate on Watson’s stomach. Susan confirms that Mary reported concerns about Watson’s conduct to her directly following their appointment, specifically the thrusting and that he wanted to be uncovered. She says she apologized to Mary and was “almost embarrassed” that happened with one of her clients. Susan says she then talked to Watson about his conduct with Mary, but declines to share details of that conversation, calling it “confidential.”
“I've had one person report something to me” about Watson, Susan told SI, confirming that this person was Mary. “And I had a conversation with [Watson]. I was confident that wasn't going to happen again after our conversation.”
But Mary says Susan told her something different after her appointment with Watson: that Mary was not the first therapist Susan had referred who reported back concerns about Watson’s conduct. In a November 2019 text message about Watson, Susan wrote to Mary, “whether the creepy stuff is his intention or not, he does it every time,” adding the parenthetical, “only 1 therapist hasn’t complained.” (SI reviewed this message, which was sent from a phone number confirmed to be Susan’s.)
Susan at first refuted Mary’s account of this conversation, but when asked specifically about this text message in a follow-up interview, did not dispute that she sent it. She contends that at the time Mary worked on him, she’d referred Watson to only one other therapist: Masako Jones, one of the 18 who shared a statement of support for Watson, in which Jones said the behavior described in the lawsuits “doesn’t sound like him at all.” Asked what she meant by Watson doing it “every time,” Susan said she was referring to his request to use a small towel or washcloth, but later said she meant a towel instead of a sheet draping. Susan maintains that she did not find Watson’s behavior “creepy” but used that characterization based on Mary’s account to her, and that she was going out of her way to be supportive of Mary.
Mary told SI she continued with her appointment with Watson after he removed his towel—something that had never happened with any of her more than 1,000 other clients—because she trusted Susan “that nothing weird was going to happen.” Her payment was also coming from Susan.
Watson reached out to Mary two more times from his verified Instagram account, each time not seeming to realize he’d worked with her before. Recognizing he could be an important client for growing her business, she was open to booking him again, but first tried to set clear boundaries. Mary told him that he made her uncomfortable during their appointment and that she requires full-sheet draping. He never booked.
“At the time, I took it more as he did this to me, rather than this possibly could have been avoided if I would have known,” Mary says. “It's pretty upsetting … that I was put in that situation. I have no idea what the intention was, in putting me in that position.”
Susan continued referring Watson to other therapists after Mary’s experience with him. She estimates she’s referred Watson to four other therapists since the start of 2020, as recently as last September—that referral was to her sister, who is also an LMT, which Susan says shows she did not view Watson as a threat. Susan says she also connected Watson with a friend of hers last year who wanted to get into sports massage, but that was not a contractor arrangement. Susan’s friend is now one of the 22 plaintiffs, though she declines to say which one.
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“Why are you touching my ankle?”
The question was more so a command—it was not O.K. to touch her. Zoe was treating a player for the Cowboys in the late 2000s, one of many professional athlete clients she worked with, in a hotel room. It was just the two of them. He laughed at her reprimand.
Zoe, a 17-year veteran of the industry who works primarily with athletes, has never worked on Watson. But seeing the accounts spreading on social media resurfaced her own “bad memories,” which she is sharing to help illustrate the difficulties that LMTs, especially when working with professional athletes, can face. (Zoe is a pseudonym; SI granted her anonymity to protect her privacy and her business. She declined to name the now former Cowboys player for fear of revealing her identity to other clients. SI vetted her account, which included confirming it with a friend she told at the time.)
The session with the Cowboys player continued, and moments later he had flipped onto his back when he reached his hand out again. As Zoe recounts her experience nearly 15 years later, she’s looking for a more delicate way to say what happened next, but she can’t find one. “He tried to touch my vagina,” she says.
She remembers her whole body shaking as she pulled back. She began crying as she grabbed her backpack and told him the session was over. “Oh, you’re going to leave like that,” she recalls the player saying. Zoe says he then grabbed a box of tissues and threw it at her. She rushed out of the room, leaving her massage table, her lotion and the rest of her equipment behind. She told him she didn’t care whether he paid.
Earning a massage license in Texas now requires a minimum of 500 hours of coursework in massage therapy studies at a licensed school in the state; to renew, 12 hours of continuing education and, as of last fall, human-trafficking prevention training. Specializing in a modality, like sports massage, often requires further training. Still, LMTs often find themselves fighting the conflation of their profession with sex work. This is one reason why they do not use the word “masseuse,” which at one point was used to connote consensual sex acts in exchange for pay.
Taking precautions for personal safety is part of the job for many in this profession. Alexia McClerkin, a Houston-based chiropractor who has not worked on Watson, says when she used to do massage house calls, she would limit small talk, not eat or drink anything on site to eliminate any risk of drugging, and sometimes have her now husband accompany her. The suburban therapist contacted by Watson says she always carries pepper spray along with her massage oil; after the accounts about Watson surfaced, she decided she would no longer accept male clients who are not a referral from someone she knows.
“People need to understand, it's very easy to say what you would do,” the suburban therapist says. “But if you've never been in that situation, it's really hard. It's scary when you don't know what they're capable of. For me, that's always been a fear: What am I going to do if this guy turns on me?”
Most LMTs grapple with this concern to some degree, especially those who work outside of a spa setting, where other staff members are present to collect money or assist in removing a client when necessary. Some are drawn to sports massage, seeking to be a part of elite athletes’ performance teams, which is how the other NFL players SI spoke with view the professionals they work with. But this corner of the industry can also present unique challenges, since professional athletes, along with often being physically capable of overpowering a therapist, have the ability to leverage their fame and connections to impact an LMT’s business.
McClerkin recalls two situations in which clients, both professional athletes, tried to push the boundaries by purposely pulling down the draping to expose themselves, before pulling it back up. The first time, she ignored it, finished the massage and told the athlete she was busy when he called to book again. The second time, she told the player if he did it again, the session would be over. He never returned. Another LMT recounts losing an athlete client when she turned down his advances. She says he told her he needed a “masseuse,” not a massage therapist.
After Zoe obtained her license, she provided treatment for a different Cowboys player, her first professional athlete client. She added NFL and NBA clients through referrals exclusively, never needing business cards or to apply for a gig at a treatment center. Four days after that initial session, she had something like 15 new prospective clients, all in sports.
She says she stopped counting early on how many of her athlete clients sexually harassed her. Some players asked her inappropriate questions, like, “When you were married, how did you like to f--- your husband?” Others, she says, would ask for sessions in their hotel rooms or to use smaller towels to cover them—both of which were requests described in some of the suits against Watson. Her worst experience came when treating a visiting NBA player at a team hotel. The session went smoothly until the end, when she says the player started masturbating in front of her and asked, “Are you going to go down on me?” Again, she left immediately, fearing that she might be raped.
But because she had other clients on the same team, the situation with the Cowboys player created the biggest challenge to her livelihood. On the day of her session with him, she was wearing scrub pants. She needs her hands to be higher than where the patient is lying down, meaning their face, hands and body are all at about the same level as her hips. He was lying facedown when she says he reached for her ankle, trying to touch her skin under her pants. “You might feel like, Oh, that’s just an ankle,” she says. “But that’s how it started.”
Her options were limited. She could call the police, the Cowboys or the NFL, but each came with a risk of losing clients. She didn’t consider a civil suit, worried that it would come down to her word against his.
Zoe says the Cowboys player told his teammates a vastly different story about the incident, insisting she was “dramatic or exaggerating.” Most of her clients believed her, she says, and some even stuck up for her with the player, who eventually pleaded with his teammates to encourage Zoe to work with him again—no other therapist could relieve his pain like Zoe had. She relented during training camp, but stipulated that their sessions would be only 30 minutes and would take place in the team’s common treatment area when it was most busy. The arrangement fell apart when she says the player started an argument and “disrespected me” in front of other clients.
Not wanting to ruin the professional relationships on which her business relied, it seemed easier to remain silent, set clear ground rules and bolt whenever she felt threatened. “This is my sad reality,” she admits. “I say this with tears: It would never be possible for me to come forward. Ever.
“I really hope that they take these women seriously, because it takes a lot of guts to come forward with something like that. I have never had the guts.”
On a Friday afternoon in April, five lawyers arranged themselves at a downtown Houston hotel for a press conference. Watson was nowhere near the scene, but his legal team, led by Hardin, came ready with an aggressive defense—for the civil suits, if any criminal case arises and also for the court of public opinion. Hardin acknowledged that sexual acts took place during some of Watson’s massage appointments, but asserted that his client never engaged in anything “not mutually desired by the other party.”
Consent will be central to any legal proceedings. Several of the plaintiffs in the Watson cases describe in their complaints being “scared” or “intimidated” by him, either because he was physically larger than them, he could have an impact on their career or due to their admitted lack of experience or credentials, which left them unsure of how to respond to his sometimes “aggressive” directions or commands for inappropriate contact. Thirteen of the plaintiffs said they were not licensed massage therapists at the time of their appointment with Watson, which many told Watson, but he went ahead with the session anyway. Additionally, seven are identified as single moms, their bodywork practice a way of providing for their family.
These accounts underline the tremendous power differential between a celebrity client and hired contractor, to which Watson might be oblivious.
“In the context of these power differentials, where he is a client and an important client, it’s very difficult to freely give consent in those situations,” says Elizabeth L. Jeglic, a clinical psychologist specializing in sexual violence prevention at New York’s John Jay College. “Because, for example, he could badmouth her. She could get a lot of different clients from him, if he recommends her practice. And if he does not, she could lose business. It's very similar to sexual harassment in the workplace. If a client comes into your workplace, you're trying to do everything to please that client, and so you are more vulnerable.”
While the 22 lawsuits are in civil court, all will rely on the Texas penal code, which outlines multiple scenarios for when a sexual interaction would be considered nonconsensual, the first of which is when one person compels the other to submit or participate by using physical force, violence or coercion. While assaultive behaviors are often associated with the first two items in that list, in recent years, a more in-depth understanding has emerged of sexual coercion, which is any kind of non-physical pressure imposed by one person on another to submit to a sexual act. The #MeToo movement, in particular, spotlighted the coercion that can occur when one person has some sort of power over the other person’s career or livelihood.
Two suits allege that Watson committed sexual assault, which in Texas is defined as nonconsensual penetration. Twenty-one of the 22 lawsuits present a civil assault claim, pointing to three violations of the Texas penal code: indecent assault (which includes touching another person with your genitals or causing them to come into contact with your seminal fluids without consent), assault and harassment. A third cause of action, intentional infliction of emotional distress, is named in all suits. As of last week, Buzbee said 10 of his clients have also spoken to police, and the Houston Police Department says there are open and active criminal investigations into the allegations against Watson (a public information officer declined to confirm a specific number). Sexual assault is a second-degree felony in Texas, while the other offenses are criminal misdemeanors.
In the civil court proceedings, the first legal fight was over the plaintiffs’ originally filing as Jane Does. While Texas civil code prohibits the release of names of minors, the decision to do so for adults is up to the discretion of the court. Rulings in federal courts are not binding at the state level but do have persuasive authority, and the Fifth Circuit, which covers Texas, has outlined three factors to be considered when weighing an individual’s right to privacy against the right of openness in the courts, among them: where the issues are of a sensitive and highly personal nature, such that the plaintiff would be required to disclose intimate information. In 2016, Hardin represented an anonymous plaintiff who filed suit against a condominium association, saying she was robbed at gunpoint and sexually assaulted on the property.
Hardin said that situation was “markedly different” from the suits against Watson, because he provided the woman’s identity to the defendant at the outset, and both sides agreed the plaintiff’s name would thus remain anonymous in public filings. He said Buzbee’s response, when Hardin’s firm asked him to provide the names of the plaintiffs, was “No, I will not. File your motion.” In an emailed response to SI, Buzbee says, “we offered to provide the names, under a protective order. Watson’s team refused, thinking that the plaintiffs would drop if they had to disclose their names.” Hardin called Buzbee’s statement “a total fabrication with no basis in fact” and offered to share all correspondences between the two firms with SI as long as Buzbee agreed to it. Buzbee said he could not agree to it without his clients’ permission.
On April 9, the court ordered the plaintiffs to refile with their real names—a high-profile decision that Elizabeth Boyce, director of policy and advocacy for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, says could create additional hesitancy among survivors overall to come forward. (Rose Luna, CEO of the TAASA, participated in an April 6 press conference with Buzbee’s firm—SI had reached out to Boyce for an interview before that press conference took place.)
Hardin and the defense team have portrayed the 22 lawsuits as a “money grab.” It is within the realm of possibility that Watson, as a famous and wealthy athlete with a reputation to uphold, could be the subject of extortion; statistically, though, the rate of false sexual assault reports is low and in line with false reports of every other violent crime. It’s also possible some of the 22 lawsuits will not hold up in court. While Buzbee says he and his colleagues thoroughly vet claims—including a vetting process for Solis that took “several months”—lawsuits were filed at a stunning pace. Mary told SI she contacted Buzbee’s firm after the first few complaints were filed but felt pressured to sign a contract for them to represent her and declined. She instead began working with U.A. Lewis, a civil rights attorney, to explore her options but to this point has not filed suit. (Says Buzbee, in an email response: “I hate that she felt that way. Our lawyers, however, can’t act on behalf of anyone without a signed power of attorney.”)
In a sworn declaration, Watson’s marketing manager, Bryan Burney, said one of the plaintiffs who is alleging forced oral sex asked for a $30,000 settlement in mid-January, in exchange for her “indefinite silence.” Burney said she told him their contact was consensual, and that he then received a call from a man who said he was her business manager; according to Burney, that man characterized their demand as “blackmail.” Hardin’s team has also pointed to Buzbee’s firm’s initially seeking a $100,000 private settlement for Solis before filing the first civil complaint as being at odds with Buzbee’s repeated public assertions that these cases are not about money. (Buzbee responded in an email: “I already settled cases this year of more than 100 million. We took these cases to bring attention to the issues involved.”)
Financial reparations for survivors—of any crime, not just sexual misconduct—are a normal part of the justice system. For sexual assault survivors, it’s often the preferred path for reasons beyond money. The criminal justice system is ill-equipped to deal with sexual violence; investigations can retraumatize survivors, and there is a lack of control over a case handled by the authorities. A civil case, on the other hand, is guided by the survivor. According to a University of Texas study, more than 90% of sexual assaults in the state go unreported.
Hardin’s first legal response to the 22 lawsuits included a multiple-part section entitled “Problems with the Plaintiffs’ Allegations.” The filing said that three of the plaintiffs had more sessions with Watson than described in their complaints. It also cited some of the plaintiffs’ excitement about having worked with Watson or the fact that they worked on him again or offered to do so, using these behaviors to establish that “these plaintiffs are not victims of any type of misconduct.” That isn’t necessarily the case, says Jeglic, explaining that people who have experienced abuse may respond in ways that are different from what we may expect, a concept that was brought up during the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault trial. Some may have a delayed realization that they experienced assault, and, in a situation where one person is a prominent or respected figure, “it's hard to extricate that from what happened.” Others may continue contact with their abuser as a coping mechanism.
“It’s very common to maintain contact after the assault occurs,” Jeglic says. “They might reach out to the perpetrator, they might engage in a continued relationship. But that doesn't mean that that nonconsensual or assaultive behavior didn't happen to begin with.”
At their April press conference, members of Watson’s defense team cited their client’s football success and the “target on his back” after earning a $160 million contract. Letitia Quinones, one of his lawyers, mentioned Watson’s winning a high school state championship, then a national title at Clemson. “Do you think that he wasn’t getting attention from young women then?” she asked. Quinones also identified herself as a sexual assault survivor. “When I think back over what happened to me,” she said, “I would not—the first person I’d come in contact with to get justice wouldn't be a plaintiff’s lawyer.”
Boyce explains that because there’s no one-size-fits-all response for people who have experienced trauma, “it's never fair to hold every survivor accountable to what one survivor would choose to do or not do.” She adds that doing so can have a “ripple effect” on the decisions others make. “I do think that the way that the case has been handled is unfortunate, and it's certainly not helping people feel comfortable to come forward,” Boyce says.
In a statement provided to SI, which was also signed by Quinones, Hardin stood by the remarks: “If you had asked Ms. Quinones why she [made that statement], she would have explained that in her experience as a sexual assault survivor and a criminal defense lawyer of over 22 years, sexual assault survivors, who choose to make an outcry, do so to law enforcement first instead of to a plaintiff’s attorney. We believe that was a very legitimate observation for her to make.”
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The exchange between Solis’s colleague and the veteran therapist—Susan—showed the lack of options Solis felt after her appointment with Watson. In her civil suit, Solis said Watson purposely touched her hand with his exposed and erect penis during a March 30, 2020, massage at her home. When she asked him to leave, according to her complaint, he made what she perceived to be a threatening statement about her career. The next day, her colleague sought advice from Susan.
“She feels like she can’t do anything about reporting him to anyone and that it will come back to bite her,” Solis’s colleague wrote, one day after Solis’s massage appointment with Watson. “We’ve discussed a couple different options. But with your clientele base I was wondering what you might do? Nothing physical happened but he has continued to contact her in hopes to keep her quiet.”
Susan replied: “You dont [sic] have to tell me, but out of curiosity, was it Deshaun Watson?”
Her advice to Solis’s colleague was to block the player’s number, or even to “pass him off so she doesn’t have to deal with it.” Susan wrote that they could report the encounter to police, but her understanding was they “wont [sic] do much.” She further offered to put her in touch with a player personnel employee for the athlete’s team, but added they would not do much about this kind of situation, either.
“Just lmk [let me know] if she wants me to talk to anyone,” Susan wrote in another message. “If it is him, I normally am the one who coordinates his therapists when I cant [sic] make it (due to this issue actually) so I am very close to his team. I will ensure his team handles him.”
Buzbee read aloud some of these messages at the April 6 press conference where Solis revealed her identity for the first time, before the plaintiffs were compelled to refile with their real names. Buzbee did not identify the sender, the recipient or that they were about Solis. He also omitted the first message to which Susan responded. (Susan confirmed she was the recipient, and SI reviewed the full exchange, in which Solis is named several months later.)
At the time this message was sent, Susan had months earlier spoken to Watson about his conduct with Mary. But Susan contends she asked whether it was Watson because he had asked to book a massage with her a few days earlier, in a text message she read to SI. She says she told Watson she could not work on him because of the state’s COVID-19 regulations, and she assumed he likely would have booked elsewhere around that time.
Susan also says that her response was based on Solis’s colleague’s characterization that “nothing physical happened,” and that she did not think the player’s NFL team would step in because the therapist was neither employed nor contracted by them. As for coordinating Watson’s therapists “due to this issue,” Susan told SI she was talking about less-experienced therapists who would be uncomfortable working on areas like the abs or the groin.
This has been one of the arguments made by Watson’s team in his defense: that his requests were, as written in their April filing, “legitimate therapeutic inquiries” misconstrued as sexually suggestive. But many of the suits describe Watson’s directing the plaintiffs to touch his exposed penis, testicles or anus, areas that Texas draping laws require to be covered during massages. All three of the NFL players SI spoke with described being covered with full-sheet draping during their massages so that only the area the therapist is working on is uncovered. The AFC defensive back says he is “extra cautious” to wrap his private areas in the cover when the therapist is rotating his hips. “I don’t want that part of my body getting out,” he says. Another AFC veteran says there are times when the therapist might accidentally “graze” him while working on his groin muscles, but his genitals would be covered by the sheet.
Susan next heard from Solis’s colleague just before Christmas in 2020—a full month before Buzbee told the Washington Post that Solis first contacted his firm. (When asked about the discrepancy, Buzbee, via email, responded, “She was in contact with us for several months prior to filing the lawsuit.”) This time she forwarded Susan a screenshot of a message that asked whether Susan would talk to “Ashley’s lawyer (in reference to this summer and the Texans player).” The colleague identified Ashley Solis by name and said that her attorney was “Cornelia Harvey.” She then shared a phone number that matches Cornelia Brandfield-Harvey, an associate at The Buzbee Law Firm. This exchange was before Week 16 of the NFL season and weeks before Watson’s trade demand, defusing the conspiracy theory that has swirled, even in some NFL circles, that the suits are somehow related to Watson’s discord with the team.
Susan says she told Watson’s marketing manager about potential litigation, but she did not speak with anyone from Buzbee’s firm.
There was little chance allegations this significant, against an athlete as famous and respected as Watson, would be handled with nuance. But the public discourse surrounding the Watson cases has been particularly ugly, marked by the dredging up of flawed stereotypes about sexual assault survivors’ responses, behavior and motivations. Meanwhile, even the lawyers acknowledge that the escalating PR battle between the legal teams has become a sideshow.
Both lawyers in this case have achieved a level of fame. Among Hardin’s high-profile cases, he has successfully represented A-list athletes like Roger Clemens (acquitted on charges that he perjured himself before Congress), Warren Moon (acquitted on charges of spousal abuse), Calvin Murphy (acquitted on charges of sexual abuse of his children) and Adrian Peterson (plea deal—a single charge of misdemeanor reckless assault—on felony child abuse charges).
Buzbee broke the news of the first lawsuit, filed by Solis as a Jane Doe, on his Instagram account. When Watson, on his own social media account, denied the allegations coming from an “attention-seeking lawyer,” Buzbee countered with a pledge that he would not try these cases through the media. Since then, though, he has frequently posted updates or commentary about the case to Instagram and has held two press conferences.
Buzbee has never shied from the spotlight, even beyond the courtroom. He ran a self-funded mayoral campaign in Houston in 2019, emerging as the main challenger to incumbent Sylvester Turner. After losing, he dabbled in a reality series built around the city’s eateries. In 2014 he bought billboards in the Houston area encouraging the Texans to draft fellow Texas A&M alum Johnny Manziel. (In recalling those billboards on Instagram last year, he referred to late Texans owner Bob McNair as his “neighbor,” fueling conspiracy theories that the team was behind the allegations against Watson. While Buzbee lives near the McNairs, he is not close with the family.) And he was at the center of a controversy in his upscale River Oaks neighborhood in 2017 when he parked a World War II–era tank in front of his home.
While Buzbee’s at times haphazard handling of these cases does not mean the underlying facts are any more or less true, his theatrics have occasionally clouded the serious issues at hand. (In a series of emails, SI submitted questions to Buzbee and his colleagues regarding inconsistencies between his public statements and information gathered over the course of SI’s reporting—including the incorrect timeline involving Solis’s contact with his firm, mentioned above. All quotes attributed to him below were sent via email, unless otherwise specified.)
A watershed moment for these cases came at that April 6 press conference, when Solis put her name and face to her lawsuit, reading a statement on how Watson’s behavior affected her ability to do her job and live her life. “I come forward now so that Deshaun Watson does not assault another woman,” she said. Soon thereafter, Watson lost an endorsement deal with Beats by Dre, while Nike put its partnership on pause.
But Buzbee also distracted from Solis’s account. After comments from Rachel Fischer, a forensic nurse and advocate for sexual assault survivors, and Rose Luna, the TAASA CEO, he brought to the microphone Nissi Hamilton, a sex-trafficking survivor who is also one of his clients. In her remarks, she praised Buzbee and condemned “prostitution,” an odd deviation from the issue at hand considering so many massage therapists battle the conflation of their occupation with sex work. (When asked why Hamilton was invited to share those comments, in that venue, Buzbee responded, “Nissi is an advocate against human and sexual trafficking. I don’t control what she says.”)
Buzbee then read from a packet of text and social media messages intended to serve as further evidence against Watson. Among them were texts from Jas Brooks, one of the 18 therapists who released statements in support of Watson, in which she wrote that she stopped working with Watson because she heard “stuff about him messing with other people.” Brooks released a statement via Instagram saying that her texts were taken out of context, that she stopped working with Watson because she prefers her clients don’t work with other therapists, and that a comment about “his name getting around” referred to an esthetician who posted Watson’s cell number on social media. (However, Brooks has not explained her final text in that exchange—“I just hope don’t nobody call me to question me”—and did not return a request for comment from SI.)
Susan also told SI that Buzbee took her Facebook Messenger exchange with Solis’s colleague out of context by leaving out the message in which Solis’s colleague wrote “nothing physical happened.” This description of the incident was secondhand and shouldn’t necessarily be taken literally (Buzbee says Solis “never used those words”). But that characterization is what Susan says led her to tell the colleague that Solis had no recourse with the police or NFL.
When asked why only part of the exchange was shared with media, Buzbee, responded, “after the fact spinning of the truth doesn’t change the truth. She knew who it was, because word was out about his behavior.” He added, “We have released all emails, to not only the public but also to the police and NFL, along with other authorities.” (SI also reached out to Solis’s colleague via email, but did not receive a response.)
Buzbee referred to Susan as the woman who had “made the referral” and “set up the massage” when presenting these exchanges to the media, but Solis’s lawsuit makes clear that Watson contacted Solis via Instagram, not via referral. Buzbee confirmed initial contact was made over Instagram and said if he indicated otherwise, “that’s my mistake.” (When asked if the “referring therapist” comment was regarding one of his other clients—Susan told SI she referred Watson to one of the other plaintiffs—he answered, “don’t know.”)
Hardin’s public statements have also in some cases been imprecise. A Houston Chronicle article in April identified three names among the 18 supporting therapists were misspelled in the Hardin firm’s press release, and could not find any record of the license for three others whose licensing was referenced in the release. (The newspaper also reported that Buzbee misspelled the name of one plaintiff and a license couldn’t be found for another client who was identified as an LMT.) The first therapist quoted, Myah Roberson, wrote that she “chuckled” reading the mention of a towel in Solis’s lawsuit, claiming she gave Watson that idea when they began working together in December 2019. But earlier that year, Mary was told by Susan that one of Watson’s standard preferences was to use a towel. (Hardin’s team said the names were “inadvertently” misspelled and that they knew two of the therapists did not have active licenses. They did not respond to specific questions about how these accounts were vetted. Roberson did not reply to a request for comment via email.)
When presenting these 18 supporting accounts, the press release from Hardin’s firm touted that they received “dozens of unsolicited phone calls, letters, emails and text messages” from therapists who have worked with Watson. They also reached out to get accounts from four of the women quoted.
Nadiyah Luqman says she did not know about the lawsuits when she heard from Brooks, a former colleague. Luqman recalls Brooks’s characterizing the allegations against Watson as sexual assault, then asked Luqman if she’d had a bad experience with Watson. Luqman had not, and Brooks said she was going to see whether anyone in his camp wanted people to speak up for him. A few days later, Luqman says she received a message from a lawyer at Hardin’s firm saying they were given her information and asking whether she wanted to give her support.
Luqman treated Watson once, in August 2020. She’s not sure how he got her name, and she did not know who he was when he called to book a massage. (When Watson said he played football, she asked whether that was his occupation or his hobby.) Luqman began to realize he might be famous when he didn’t want to put all of his information down on the standard intake form, which includes a section where the client agrees to the therapist’s policies. Luqman allows clients to use a full-size towel instead of sheet draping, which Watson did, but she also employs a “diaper drape” that ensures they stay covered while they are on their backs. Luqman says she gave a truthful account of her experience when asked by Watson’s legal team, and she read over the statement they told her they would use: He was always respectful and quiet, and I never felt uncomfortable. But she admits, “This is bigger than I thought it would get.”
“I can just speak to my experience with him,” Luqman says. “I felt respected, so I don’t know. I can't say [the others] are right or wrong.”
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For a few weeks, these lawsuits were not in the headlines—quite a change from late March and early April, when each day seemed to bring a new suit or new development. But late last week, the back-and-forth started up again: Buzbee told FOX 26 in Houston that a settlement of the 22 suits “is not happening,” which prompted a reciprocal statement from Hardin, asserting that Buzbee was the one who had approached them about a settlement on “numerous” occasions.
Last Friday, Buzbee posted again on Instagram, this time sharing a screenshot of a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) and writing, “Contrary to what Mr. Rusty says, we haven’t ‘approached them to settle,’ ever. When they approached us they insisted we sign this. We obviously didn’t reach out to them; they begged us via the Texans to mediate.”
About two weeks after the first suits against Watson were filed, a lawyer who said he was representing Texans owner Cal McNair did approach both attorneys, seeking to broker a mediation. A statement from the Texans organization, emailed by a team spokesperson, says, “Mr. McNair was aware that his personal attorney contacted both parties to suggest mediation. Mr. McNair has had no personal involvement in any of those discussions. The Houston Texans organization has not had any direct contact with either party.”
Hardin says Watson and his team would only engage in settlement discussions if there was a NDA in place, covering solely the mediation itself, “because they feared Mr. Buzbee would misuse the process.” The NDA, which Hardin’s firm provided to SI, specifies that there is no confidentiality in place after the conclusion of mediation. The lawyer who said he was affiliated with McNair brought the NDA, which was drafted by Hardin’s firm, to Buzbee. Both he and Watson’s agent, David Mulugheta, signed the document, which was dated April 12.
Any settlement conversations after that point would have been confidential, but both attorneys’ statements last week that there are no negotiations at the moment indicate the mediation broke down. One issue the sides differ on is confidentiality: Hardin says Watson wants all terms of any settlement to be made public, and that all parties would be able to speak in their own defense. Buzbee, though, says, “These women have been roundly criticized. What Rusty wants is to humiliate them and make them targets of unscrupulous people. So any resolution we would want confidential, and it would also require Mr. Watson getting some counseling.”
Outside of the 22 pending lawsuits, Watson faces potential consequences in two other arenas: the ongoing police investigations and the NFL’s personal-conduct probe. While only two of the suits claim sexual assault under Texas law, Boyce, the advocacy director, says prosecutors should give serious consideration to the full range of allegations. “Some people might feel like indecent exposure or some of these more misdemeanor sexual offenses are minimal and not worth pursuing,” she says. “But actually, these are patterns of behavior that often become worse over time.”
Buzbee confirmed to SI that four of his clients have met with NFL investigators, and said they and his colleagues “didn’t feel comfortable” during the first three interviews, so he sat in on the fourth. A person with knowledge of the NFL investigation says neither Buzbee nor his colleagues expressed this during or after the interviews and that NFL investigators first learned of these concerns through his comments to FOX 26. In response to Buzbee’s characterization, an NFL spokesperson cited the “stellar reputation” of Lisa Friel, the former sex crimes prosecutor who is now the NFL’s special counsel for investigations, for conducting investigations with “compassion and fairness.” Buzbee declined to detail his concerns, but there are valid reasons why people outside the NFL may not want to cooperate with the league’s process, including not wanting to interfere with a civil suit or police investigation, as well as the potential for their privacy to be further sacrificed.
NFL investigators have not yet met with Watson, according to the person with knowledge of the investigation—but they have met with some of the therapists who aren’t among the plaintiffs but are affiliated with Genuine Touch, the company contracted with the Texans (Honn, the practice’s owner, did not return a phone call or message seeking comment). Additionally, Jennifer Gaffney, who works as part of Friel’s team, requested records from the Houston Police Department on May 3, according to a records request response received by SI.
Considering precedent, Watson is likely facing a suspension under the league’s personal conduct policy. In 2017, Cowboys star running back Ezekiel Elliott served a six-game suspension for domestic violence, though that case did not go to civil or criminal court. Ben Roethlisberger, the subject of two rape allegations, served a four-game ban (reduced from six) in 2010 despite a lack of criminal charges and an out-of-court settlement for one of the cases. Barring an imminent resolution, Watson could soon land on the Commissioner Exempt List, which the league uses to take players off the field for practices and games.
While the Texans were reluctant to move on from their franchise quarterback after his trade demand early this offseason, they almost surely will now. Jack Easterby, the former Patriots team chaplain who has amassed tremendous power within the organization, has told colleagues that he left New England because of a moral objection to owner Robert Kraft’s solicitation of a sex worker in 2019. That, plus the fact that the Texans have signed, drafted and traded for quarterbacks this offseason, strongly point to the team moving on.
Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuits, Watson’s career—his life—will never be the same. Solis’s, and those of 21 other plaintiffs and massage therapists everywhere, won’t be either.