Editor’s note: This story contains graphic descriptions of sexual assault allegations.
IN LATE FEBRUARY, Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson and his girlfriend, singer and model Jilly Anais, were photographed in front of Atlanta’s InterContinental Hotel as Watson arrived to participate in a charity rally of 70 colorful Ferraris, McLarens and other luxury sports cars.
Despite its flashiness, the event was in the wheelhouse of Watson’s humble and wholesome public image — a mission by his foundation to help feed some 12,000 families in his hometown of Gainesville, Georgia. Wayne Schneider, one of the event’s organizers, told ESPN that Watson delivered two semi-truckloads of food. “He really cares,” Schneider said.
“Life is a blessing to be a blessing and enjoy doing it!” Watson wrote on his Instagram account. “Thank everyone that was a part of putting this charity rally together to bless beautiful families!”
The following week, according to allegations in court documents, Watson did something else in the Atlanta area that those closest to him say they can’t fathom. He booked a discounted $55 massage and, according to a lawsuit, exposed his penis and caused it to touch the hand of the shocked massage therapist.
Watson, 25, has publicly denied wrongdoing, but he has yet to offer a detailed defense of allegations contained in nearly two dozen lawsuits filed against him. His attorney, Rusty Hardin, said in a news conference Friday that Watson has been targeted with “a new model for extortion.” He said Watson typically receives two or three massages a week, and any sexual activity with therapists who say he assaulted them was consensual.
An examination by ESPN of the 22 lawsuits and interviews with six other women who have massaged Watson reveal a complex portrait of a man on a seemingly insatiable hunt for massage therapy and of two groups of women — one that says he is a menacing sexual predator and one that suggests his actions must have been grossly misunderstood.
Nine of the 22 plaintiffs represented by attorney Tony Buzbee are licensed massage therapists, while the rest are either working toward massage licenses or specialize in skin treatments or other wellness therapies. Most live in the Houston area. Two are from Georgia and one each from California and Arizona.
There also is a 23rd therapist, not represented by Buzbee, who was first interviewed by Sports Illustrated and has since spoken with ESPN. All of the women allege behavior that ranges from unwanted sexual contact to groping to forced oral sex.
“We were all deceived into thinking Deshaun Watson was a good guy,” said Ashley Solis, one of two women who publicly identified themselves last week. “And unfortunately we know that good guys can do terrible things.”
On the flip side are 18 women whose statements were released by Hardin and who say they have massaged Watson a total of more than 130 times over the past five years. Collectively, they say Watson is incapable of coercing anyone into performing sex acts against their will. Watson “was always hospitable and communicated to make sure I always felt comfortable and safe,” said one. “My experience was nothing like the plaintiffs are describing,” said another.
At the center stands the franchise quarterback, who after a week that saw more lawsuits, confirmation of a police investigation and the evaporation of sponsor support, remains silent.
FOR THE PAST year, Watson’s alleged behavior occurred at least monthly, according to the cases against him, but at times the frequency would seem to barely fit in with Watson’s public responsibilities, not to mention the demanding schedule of an NFL quarterback.
Take, for example, the period around the Texans’ bye week, when Watson spent part of one late-October day buying Halloween costumes for charter-school kids and part of another purchasing shoes for children at a Houston-area Foot Locker. A few days later, as the Texans got back to work, allegations raised in three separate lawsuits played out privately while Watson’s football life unfolded in public view.
On or about Monday, Nov. 2, according to a lawsuit, Watson kept a massage appointment he made through Instagram with a Houston woman who owns a bodywork and stretch therapy company. She says he kissed her when he arrived and that she was shocked and left the office to compose herself. When she returned, she says, Watson exposed himself, and he moved during the massage in such a way that his penis touched her hand. She says Watson offered to pay extra if she worked on his buttocks and penis and then left upset when she declined.
That Friday, Nov. 6, Watson took part in morning practice and would have been finished with his responsibilities with the Texans by noon. He also, according to a lawsuit, had a massage session with a flight attendant who was also a massage therapy student he’d met on Instagram. They met at her mother’s home in suburban Pearland, and she says he urged her to massage him inappropriately around his groin and to “get up in there.” She says she refused, and he flipped onto his back, exposed his penis and tried directing her to his groin. She says he later texted from the driveway: “Hope that wasn’t bad.”
The weekend of Nov. 7-8, Watson and his teammates traveled to Jacksonville, where they captured only their second win of the season 27-25.
Back in Houston on Monday, Nov. 9, Watson’s only in-person team obligation was a daily COVID-19 test. That evening, he appeared in the office of a licensed aesthetician, whom he’d contacted via Instagram for a massage, according to her lawsuit. The woman says she told Watson she was not a massage therapist, but that he insisted on booking with her anyway. She says Watson grabbed her buttocks during the massage and moved his erect penis onto her hand. When the woman objected, she alleges, Watson replied, “You can sit on it.” She says she cut the massage short and that Watson said he would not pay her unless she signed a nondisclosure agreement. She says in her lawsuit that she signed the agreement and that Watson paid her $265 for a $65 session.
The next morning, he reached back out at 7 a.m. to the flight attendant he’d seen the previous Friday. Despite her earlier experience, she says, she wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, but he acted in a similarly inappropriate way and, at one point, ejaculated on her. She says Watson asked “incessantly” for another massage in the following days but she declined, and that she felt “violated, disgusted and betrayed.”
The plaintiff, according to the lawsuit, reached out to a friend “who played for the NFL” and relayed what had happened.
“This NFL player told her that there is a thin line between physical therapy and sexual pleasure,” the filing reads. “The NFL player said Watson crossed that line over into sexual pleasure.”
IN HIS LAWSUITS and in two news conferences at his office atop the Houston skyline, Buzbee has described Watson’s alleged modus operandi as systematic.
Watson, he says, reached out to most of the women on social media, primarily Instagram, and insisted that they be alone when he showed up. He occasionally would seek appointments with women who told him that they’d never even done massage. “Well, can you do a massage?” Watson would ask, according to Buzbee.
In some instances, Buzbee says, Watson asked for photos of the therapists or dictated what he wanted them to wear during the sessions. In screen grabs of a direct message exchange Buzbee provided to reporters on Tuesday, Watson appears to comment on the image of a woman wearing a sports bra and spandex shorts.
“Something like this is fine,” reads a direct message said to be from Watson to the woman. “It’s hot here.”
Often, according to the lawsuits, Watson would insist that no one else be around during the sessions. Watson would frequently insist on being covered only with a towel during the massage sessions rather than draped with a sheet, as is customary, Buzbee said. And, in some instances, he brought his own towel, which was closer in size to a “small washcloth,” Buzbee said.
He asked some of the women to sign a nondisclosure agreement either before or after the massages, and Buzbee provided reporters a copy of that two-page agreement.
At least once he is said to have gone to unusual lengths to book a therapist he found on Instagram. In August 2020, according to one lawsuit, Watson purchased a plane ticket for an Atlanta-based therapist and flew her to Houston. A direct message released by Buzbee, said to be from Watson, includes the woman’s itinerary, along with heart and rose emojis.
Another message sends the therapist an address for the Houstonian hotel.
“We will [meet] here,” the message says. “I have a suite.”
“Ok. Find table?” the woman asks. “Yep, Got one from my team,” the reply says.
All those who have sued Watson mention in their lawsuits feeling threatened when, they say, Watson unexpectedly appeared naked during massages or became sexually aggressive. Beyond his physical stature, they say, his influence wasn’t lost on them.
Lauren Baxley, the other plaintiff to make her name public last week, shared a statement through Buzbee that was addressed to Watson.
“With your millions of fans and followers, with your resources and income I felt both powerless, and trapped,” Baxley said. “My work contract with my building was tied to my lease, and at the snap of your fingers I knew my good reputation, my home, and my career might be lost.”
Ashley Solis says in her lawsuit that Watson could see her crying after she abruptly cut off her massage session on March 30, 2020, and asked him to leave. She says he replied: “I know you have a career and a reputation, and I know you would hate for someone to mess with yours, just like I don’t want anyone messing with mine.”
ACTIVITIES ALLEGED IN the lawsuits started with Solis and ran through March 5 of this year, during which much of the nation was shut down to varying degrees because of COVID-19.
But at least one massage therapist who has not sued Watson, a woman from Houston who has asked to go by the pseudonym Mary, told ESPN she felt “shocked” when Watson exposed his naked body and became sexually aroused during a massage session in the fall of 2019.
Mary, a licensed massage therapist in her late 20s, remembered being told before the appointment that Watson liked to use a towel instead of sheets. “I did get the biggest towel that I could find because I’m used to requiring a full sheet draping,” she said.
She said she greeted Watson at the back door to her rented office space and led him up a back staircase to the massage studio. Watson, she said, had asked her to focus her massage on his lower abdomen, inner thighs and quadriceps. She said Watson was on his back about 45 minutes into the session when he threw off the towel, exposing his naked body. Mary said she’d never experienced such a thing in more than 1,000 previous appointments.
“I was in shock,” Mary said. “All I knew was the session was booked by someone who referred a lot of people to me. I trust what she says.” The woman whom Mary said referred Watson has not responded to requests for comment from ESPN.
Mary said that when Watson exposed himself, she decided to push down her confusion and shock and “continue to be professional and finish the session.”
Toward the end of her session, Mary said, Watson started clenching and thrusting, “like he was humping the air.” At first, she thought she was massaging too deeply and hurting him. She said he started thrusting even faster, and she later noticed what appeared to be bodily fluid on his stomach.
“I told him to calm down … and he stopped,” Mary said. “We ended the session about five to 10 minutes later.”
She stressed that Watson never forced her to do anything or touched her inappropriately, but his actions left her shaken. “The only thing I could think of was continuing the session and just finishing so I could get him out of my office,” she said.
On her drive home, she called her older sister, who also spoke with ESPN and recalled that conversation.
“She was very distraught,” the older sister said. But that distress eventually gave way to anger.
“We’re not sex workers, we’re massage therapists,” Mary said. “We work with cancer patients. We work with physical therapists. We’re professionals, and it’s just not fair for someone who honestly could have anything he wants to come and treat our profession the way that he did. So I want an apology for the community and just some respect.”
Mary said that Watson reached back out to her on Instagram twice after her session with him. ESPN has reviewed those direct message exchanges, which came from Watson’s verified Instagram account.
Mary said she thinks Watson had forgotten their previous encounter when he made contact with her again in November 2020.
“Hello, I got requested by a friend to see you as a massage therapist?!” a message from the account said on the morning of Nov. 26.
“I don’t mind working with you again but you have to respect my profession,” Mary replied, adding, “You made me feel uncomfortable last time you were in.”
“Oh gotcha, sorry there were no intentions for anything more,” came the reply.
Mary also reminded Watson of her policies in that same exchange: “I do require draping with sheets, i know last time you requested just a towel. So long as you’re cool with my policies we can 1000% get you booked,” she told him.
She said Watson never wound up booking with her again.
Instead, she and her sister reacted with shock and anger as the cascade of allegations started in March. “I didn’t know the extent. It was like, ‘Wow.’ We didn’t realize he was doing that to multiple people and his behavior has gotten worse,” Mary’s sister said.
Mary said she reached out to Buzbee’s law firm but declined to sign as a client after feeling “pressured.” She has since retained U.A. Lewis, a Houston civil rights attorney, who says she has not yet determined if Mary will file a case against Watson.
“If you’re a predator, you’re a predator,” Lewis said. “I think he needs help.”
ESPN ALSO INTERVIEWED five of the 18 women who, through Watson’s legal team, provided statements supporting the quarterback.
“I don’t know what could have happened with anybody else, but he was never aggressive, disrespectful, ‘rapey’ or anything toward me,” Kya Hillman, a military veteran and licensed aesthetician, told ESPN. She said she worked on Watson three times between October and December 2020. “I don’t think he has the capability of being aggressive with people like that. All he does is smile,” she said.
Dr. Arielle Ball, a licensed physical therapist, said in her statement released by Hardin that Watson “never made me uncomfortable and was always professional” during several sessions in 2019 and 2020.
However, Ball told ESPN she was “kind of shocked” that Watson worked with so many therapists.
“From my experience from working with athletes with sports performance, they typically have maybe a handful of therapists that they trust and that they know are effective, and then they would just utilize those,” Ball said.
Dany Craig, a licensed massage therapist in Atlanta since 2008, told ESPN she worked with Watson three times in early 2020 at her Atlanta home, where she typically sees clients. Craig, 46, said that when working on the groin area, it’s inevitable that massage therapists will brush up against the genitals of male clients.
“I’ve brushed several penises, testicles. It’s not a big deal. You just move the body part out of the way and you keep working,” she said.
But it became apparent during Craig’s interview with ESPN that she was not aware of the nature of the allegations made against Watson by nearly two dozen women and had not read any of the lawsuits.
“By no means am I saying that these women shouldn’t be able to tell their stories, because they should,” Craig said. “The women deserve to be heard, and people like me should probably tell their truth as well for some sort of balance, and then let the court of law decide what happened.”
Masako Jones, 39, told ESPN she was “flabbergasted” by the allegations against Watson. The six-year licensed massage therapist said she worked with Watson several times starting in October 2019 and always found him to be “professional, polite” and “respectful.”
Jones said it’s typical for athletes to ask for treatment in their groin areas and that less experienced therapists might have misunderstood Watson’s requests.
“I’m not quite sure how these women may have misconstrued what he was requesting as anything sexual,” Jones said.
Jones told ESPN she can recall at least two occasions when Watson developed an erection during her massage sessions with him. That detail was not included in her statement released by Watson’s legal team. But, Jones told ESPN, “erection does not equal being turned on or sexually aroused. It could just be a relaxed state.”
One of the 18 massage therapists who made a public statement in support of Watson has since been accused by Buzbee of saying something completely different in a private text exchange.
Jas Brooks, a licensed massage therapist who is currently part of the medical staff for Team USA track and field, said in her statement released by Hardin that she massaged Watson at least 40 times starting in 2018 and “never had a single uncomfortable or inappropriate experience.”
On Tuesday, Buzbee released a portion of an undated text message exchange that Brooks has since described as being between herself and one of her “closest friends.” In the exchange, Brooks addresses her working relationship with Watson.
“I told you i stopped working with him?” Brooks texted her friend.
“Yeah why” the friend responded.
Brooks then replied in a series of messages:
“Bc i was hearing too much stuff about him messing with other people”
“Like other therapist and esthetician’s. He’s been doing a lot the last 3-4 months”
“And i even told his ass he needed to be careful Bc his name is getting around”
“I just hope don’t nobody call me to question me”
In an Instagram post on Wednesday, Brooks attempted to add context to her comments and accused Buzbee of “playing a very dirty game and manipulating words to work in the favor of his clients.” Brooks said she stopped working with Watson “for reasons unrelated to his current pending case(s).” She also wrote that she “had been hearing things from another therapist” about Watson. While she didn’t elaborate, she did say she stopped working with Watson “due to my personal preference of not liking to work behind other therapists.”
THE TEMPEST AROUND Brooks’ comments is telling, and likely frightening for all the women who have come forward to either accuse or defend Watson. All of them can expect to receive the scrutiny of attorneys and investigators who will place their public statements and private correspondence under a microscope.
On Friday, two Houston judges ruled that most of the plaintiffs must identify themselves. Buzbee presented evidence that Solis, the first therapist to come forward, had received profanity-laced death threats online.
“You signed your own death warrant for your life,” read one.
“I’ll probably kick your ass or put u in a ditch,” read another.
The center of the burgeoning scandal, Watson, has yet to make extensive public comments beyond an initial Twitter post in which he denied Solis’ allegations.
“I have never treated any woman with anything other than the utmost respect,” Watson tweeted on March 16. “The plaintiff’s lawyer claims that this isn’t about money, but before filing suit he made a baseless six-figure settlement demand, which I quickly rejected. Unlike him, this isn’t about money for me — it’s about clearing my name, and I look forward to doing that.”
Three days later, his agent, David Mulugheta, posted this to Twitter: “Sexual assault is real. Victims should be heard, offenders prosecuted. Individuals fabricate stories in pursuit of financial gain often. Their victims should be heard, and those offenders also prosecuted. I simply hope we keep this same energy with the truth.”
Companies that once paid Watson millions for endorsements have begun to shrink from his name. In recent days, Nike, Beats by Dre, Reliant Energy and the H-E-B grocery chain all announced that they have either suspended, ended or decided not to renew endorsement deals with Watson. And his playing status in Houston — on a four-year, $160 million extension signed last September — will remain in limbo as the cases unwind and the NFL considers how to react.
In a statement, NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy has said the league has launched an investigation under its personal conduct policy and is “continuing to closely monitor all developments in the matter.”
Watson has not appeared in public since the first case was filed, and those who know him are at a loss to explain the mounting allegations.
“I don’t know what’s true and what’s not true, but there was never a red flag, never once,” an NFL source who has been close to Watson told ESPN. “Hoping it’s not true and really having a hard time even grasping that. I cannot, even today, even fathom him assaulting somebody. I just don’t see it. I can’t even picture it.”
Billy Voltaire, 37, a former Texans strength and conditioning therapist who was fired last year amid other team changes, described Watson as a loyal friend who supported him through a difficult divorce. He said the two have continued to work out together into this year. Voltaire said he found out about the allegations on Twitter as he approached Watson’s front door before a workout on the morning of March 17.
“I was in complete shock … I was literally at the door when I found out,” Voltaire said. “It’s terrible because I know him personally. It’s not him. It’s sad to see. It’s clear as day to me that something deeper is happening.”
Voltaire and Watson didn’t work out that day: “It was his idea to just focus on this and not be distracted by anything else.”
They haven’t worked out since.