Deshaun Watson was booed on his return to the NFL after 700 days away from the league as he made his debut for the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
Watson heard jeers before taking each snap throughout the first half on Sunday in his first game since returning from an 11-game suspension for sexual misconduct. Watson’s debut with Cleveland came against the Houston Texans, where he was a three-time Pro Bowl pick in four seasons.
After an interception gave the Browns their first possession, Watson threw a pair of incomplete passes. He spun away from a sack on third down, and fans cheered when his throw to David Bell hit the ground.
A group of the women who accused him of sexual harassment and assault during massages had planned to attend the game. Attorney Tony Buzbee, who represents the women, didn’t respond to a text message seeking to confirm their attendance. He said earlier in the week about 10 women wanted to attend “to kind of make the statement, ‘Hey we’re still here. We matter.’”
The few fans in their seats when Watson and the Browns jogged onto the field about an hour before kickoff booed.
Watson sat out the 2021 season after demanding a trade from Houston. After two grand juries in Texas declined to indict him over the allegations, the Browns traded several draft picks to get Watson and then signed him to a fully guaranteed $235m contract.
Several Browns fans at the game said they were uncomfortable rooting for Watson. “I’m cheering for the jersey and the team but it’s hard to accept him as my quarterback,” said Brandon Collins, who traveled from Ohio for the game.
After warming up before the game, Watson signed jerseys for fans behind the end zone. A couple from Houston wearing Texans jerseys also got Watson’s signature on their jerseys.
“We don’t really know what happened and everyone deserves a second chance,” said Sherry Holden, explaining her support.
The NFL wanted to suspend Watson for at least one season but settled for 11 games after an independent arbiter initially gave him a six-game ban. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell pointed to former US District Judge Sue Robinson calling Watson’s behavior “egregious” and “predatory” in seeking the full suspension.
Watson also was fined $5m and required to undergo professional counseling and therapy. Watson has maintained his innocence but also apologized to the women who made claims against him.
The Browns beat the Texans thanks to two defensive touchdowns and a special teams score. Deshaun Watson finished 12-of-22 passing for 131 yards and one interception. He posted the worst passer rating of his NFL career at 53.4.