Almost exactly one year ago, Ashley Solis, a 28-year-old licensed massage therapist, filed the first lawsuit against Watson, saying that he purposely touched her hand with his erect and exposed penis during a March 2020 massage appointment at her home. Over the ensuing weeks, similar allegations against one of professional football’s brightest young stars piled up at a stunning pace.
Watson has denied any wrongdoing, and Hardin has said any sexual acts that happened during massage appointments were consensual.
Understand the N.F.L.’s Recent Controversies
A wave of scrutiny. The most popular sports league in America is facing criticism and legal issues on several fronts, ranging from discrimination to athletes’ injuries. Here’s a look at some of the recent controversies confronting the N.F.L., its executives and teams:
A demoralizing culture for women. After the 2014 Ray Rice scandal, the N.F.L. stepped up its efforts to hire and promote women. But more than 30 former staff members interviewed by The Times described a stifling corporate culture that has left many women feeling pushed aside.
Sexual harassment claims. Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington Commanders, is the subject of an N.F.L. inquiry after sexual harassment allegations were made against him by former employees. In July, the league fined the franchise $10 million after an investigation into allegations of harassment in the team’s front office.
Cases involving allegations of sexual misconduct can be difficult to prosecute, and often do not result in consequences through the criminal justice system. “It’s very unusual for allegations to result in criminal charges, much less a criminal conviction, and this will be yet another instance of that,” said Deborah Tuerkheimer, a law professor at Northwestern University and former prosecutor.
The fact that the grand jury decision, which would not have determined guilt or innocence, held such importance for those involved reflected the stakes of the case. The women who were subpoenaed to the grand jury on Friday wanted their accounts of misconduct against a star athlete to be taken seriously. And Watson sought not just to be cleared of wrongdoing, but to position himself to be traded from the Houston Texans in order to resume his N.F.L. career with a different team.
The N.F.L.’s free agency period opens on March 16, the day the league’s new year starts.
Watson, one of the N.F.L.’s best young quarterbacks, has not played in a game since the final week of the 2020 regular season. Disenchanted with the Texans after a desultory 4-12 season amid front office dysfunction, Watson requested a trade. But the effort to resolve the rift between Watson and the franchise took a back seat to the avalanche of lawsuits filed last March that accused Watson of sexual misconduct.
Since then he has been in N.F.L. limbo. The league opened its own investigation but did not opt to punish Watson or sideline him, in part because he had not been criminally charged. In a statement after the grand jury declined to indict Watson, an N.F.L. spokesman said the matter “remains under review of the personal conduct policy.”
A spokesman for the Texans declined to comment Friday on the conclusion of the grand jury investigation. Last March, the team said it was taking the situation “seriously” and would not say more until the league’s investigation had ended, a process with no public timeline.
David Montgomery contributed reporting from Houston.