Browns Executive Vice President and General Manager Andrew Berry, head coach Kevin Stefanski and Jimmy and Dee Haslam explained Friday why they felt comfortable trading for QB Deshaun Watson, who was cleared of indictment Thursday by a second grand jury in Texas but is still facing civil suits and an investigation from the NFL for allegations of sexual misconduct.
"This transaction has been very difficult for many people, particularly women in our community," Berry said. "We realize that it is has triggered a range of emotions, and that, as well as the nature of the allegations, weighed heavily on all of us – myself, Kevin (Stefanski), Jimmy (Haslam), Dee (Haslam), (Chief Strategy Officer) Paul (DePodesta), Whitney (Johnson) and JW (Johnson), as well as the men and women up and down the organization who are involved in the decision-making and vetting process. 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, both internally and externally, in terms of understanding the cases and who Deshaun was as a person.
"It was through this really five-month odyssey and information that we were able to amass and the reference work, and obviously working through due process and the legal process, that got us comfortable pursuing the trade for Deshaun."
The Browns traded six total draft picks — including first-round picks in 2022, 2023 and 2024 — and received a 2024 sixth-round pick from the Texans to complete the trade.
Stefanski said he understands the questions that have been asked about the transaction and the concerns about the Browns bringing Watson into the organization.
"This organization did a tremendous amount of work on Deshaun the person and a tremendous amount of background (research)," Stefanski said. "I am confident in the extensive work our group put into understanding Deshaun. I'm really looking forward to coaching Deshaun. I know he's ready to get to work. I'm looking forward to him being with our teammates."
Berry offered information about how the team completed their research on Watson, which included the assistance of an independent investigative team and third-party legal counsel that examined the allegations.
"It starts with the reference work and understanding and talking to people who knew Deshaun intimately and interacted with him frequently at different phases of his life, whether that is when he was in Gainesville or at Clemson, and then really multiple people up and down the Texans organization across multiple leadership regimes," Berry said. "We used independent investigative resources within the Harris County and Houston law enforcement community in order to get an unbiased, well-rounded and comprehensive perspective on the allegations. We did not want it just to be one sided. We used third-party legal counsel that allowed us to really analyze all of the information that we were able to collect and amass.
"We were advised by our attorneys against reaching out directly to the 22 women out of concern that it would be considered interfering with the criminal investigation. This, among several other reasons, made it important for us to use independent investigative resources that were unbiased and comprehensive so that we can get a full picture and a full perspective of the criminal and civil cases. It was through this time and through this work and what we learned about Deshaun and what we learned about the civil and criminal proceedings and obviously working through due process and legal process that got us comfortable with Deshaun, the person."
The Haslams spoke with reporters on a Zoom call after the press conference with Stefanski, Berry and Watson. They said they grew comfortable with making the transaction after listening to the legal counsel, forming conclusions after the team's personal investigative research and holding several conversations with their own daughters.
"We as a family, we as ownership and we as an organization realized this would be difficult and there would be people not comfortable with it who would criticize it," Jimmy Haslam said. "We understand it will take time. Some people may never get over it, but we're confident in Deshaun and the organization that over a period of time, we'll be able to gain their trust."
"This has been a hard and difficult journey for us and for our family," Dee Haslam said. "We spent a lot of time and evenings with our daughters and working through this as a family. It was really hard, and we had to work hard to get comfortable with the decision. We knew going into this that it could he hard on individuals and could trigger emotions from individuals who had been through sexual abuse. Our compassion for those individuals is really deep.
"I'll say again, we got really comfortable with Deshaun as the person, studying his background and spending time with people he knew. Speaking with Deshaun, he is a community guy and he wants to be involved in the community. I think he will work really hard to build trust within the community and build trust in our organization."