After years of declining ratings and attendance, the National Football League has another huge problem on their hands.
The FBI has opened an investigation one of the league’s star players, multiple reports claim.
An attorney for 22 women who have filed lawsuits accusing Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson of sexual assault and harassment said Wednesday that he and some of his clients have spoken to the FBI about the case.
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Tony Buzbee told The Associated Press that the FBI “reached out to me, and I responded.” The FBI’s involvement was first reported Tuesday by League of Justice, a website that reports on sports and the law.
The revelation by Buzbee of the FBI’s involvement prompted Watson’s lead attorney to hold a news conference on Wednesday to say that the FBI had spoken with the quarterback earlier this year about allegations of extortion by one of his accusers.
In their lawsuits, the 22 women accuse Watson of exposing himself, touching them with his penis, or kissing them against their will during massage appointments.
Watson and his lawyers have denied the accusations. His lawyers have said “some sexual activity” happened during some of the appointments but that he never coerced anyone.
Houston police are investigating some of the accusations, but no charges have been filed. The NFL has launched its own probe.
At a news conference Wednesday, Rusty Hardin, Watson’s lead attorney, said FBI agents approached him in April over allegations that one of the women who has sued Watson tried to extort $30,000 from him. Hardin said agents interviewed Watson. The woman alleges Watson forced her to perform oral sex.
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In an email, Christina Garza, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Houston office, said she could neither confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.
Hardin said grand jury subpoenas have been sent out in the investigation by local authorities, but he does not know details about them.
“When (prosecutors’) investigation is over, their findings will be presented to a grand jury. We will be given opportunity to appear … to tell our side and we will be given an even handed hearing,” Hardin said.
Hardin said he welcomed the FBI’s role in the case. But he also criticized Buzbee for revealing the agency’s involvement, saying FBI investigations are usually kept confidential.
Buzbee “knows those lawsuits have no future in the long run,” Hardin said. “What he wants is to be out there and promote himself and the lawsuits and try to get Deshaun to settle them and pay them money so he can ride into the sunset.”
Buzbee denied he is seeking publicity or money and accused Hardin of trying to change the narrative and of “trying to defend the indefensible.”
At his news conference, Hardin read what he said were text messages to Watson from the woman he is accusing of extortion. In them, she does not mention an alleged attack on Dec. 28, 2020, during a massage session, Hardin said.
According to Hardin, the woman said in one text, “Hey Deshaun just wanted to say thank you for trusting me with your massage today. I’ll be here til Jan. 3 if you’d like to get another one.”
Hardin said that in another text, the woman wrote, “I just want to say I apologize for my actions. That was not me. And if I could take back that moment I would. I really devalued my integrity and professionalism.”
Buzbee accused Hardin of attacking the women who have sued Watson.
“Deshaun Watson has a problem and his lawyer is not focused on that,” Buzbee said. “He’s focused on trying to attack me or my clients and I’m tired of it.”
Watson’s lawyers have sought to balance their defense of the NFL star while simultaneously condemning sexual violence against women.
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But Watson’s attorneys have called the lawsuits against him a “money grab” and fired back that all 22 women who have filed suit are lying, a strategy some experts and advocates say relies on long-used tropes designed to minimize such accusations. Buzbee has said some of his clients have faced criticism and even death threats.
Buzbee said he had no plans to settle the lawsuits.
“We’re going to have a trial. I’m pretty sure that (Hardin) against me, I’m feeling quite confident,” he said.
Watson’s future with the Texans remains unclear. Watson reported to the Texans training camp last month to avoid being fined. Watson signed a four-year, $160 million contract extension with the Texans in 2020 and led the NFL in yards passing last season. But before the lawsuits were filed, he had asked to be traded.
The Associated Press contributed to this article