By the time Ashley Solis met with NFL investigators, via Zoom call in April, she had already cleared many of the hurdles that come with bringing serious allegations against a high-profile celebrity. The 28-year-old licensed massage therapist was the first woman to file a suit against Deshaun Watson, describing sexual misconduct by the Texans quarterback. She forfeited her privacy by naming herself even before the courts required it, opening her up to a torrent of online abuse. She also met with Houston police to file a report. Even after all that, Solis was taken aback by questions posed by NFL investigators.
“This woman asked me what I was wearing, which honestly really pissed me off,” Solis told Sports Illustrated in what was her first interview with a media outlet. “She explained that that’s something that she has to ask—which I don’t believe at all. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be wearing that would suggest that I don’t want you to put your penis on my hand. Do I need to wear a turtleneck?”
While Lisa Friel and Jennifer Gaffney, the former prosecutors who now run the NFL’s personal-conduct investigations, needed a detailed account of her March 2020 massage appointment with Watson, Solis says their approach left her “worried my words were going to be used against me.”
Lauren Baxley, a 33-year-old licensed massage therapist who is also among the 22 plaintiffs suing Watson, spoke to SI in a separate interview, her first since filing suit. She says that Friel and Gaffney also asked her about what she was wearing during her June 2020 appointment with Watson. She perceived the overall tone of the league’s investigators as “patronizing” and “victim-blaming,” as she says they also questioned her response to Watson’s behavior, including why she froze and did not end the session. (Freezing, along with fight or flight, is a common physiological response to danger.) Baxley was the first of the plaintiffs to file a report with Houston police, on April 2, and says she was disappointed in the NFL’s handling compared with the adult sex crimes unit of Houston PD’s special victims division.
“My forensic interview [with HPD] was very respectful and trauma-informed,” Baxley says. “They let me speak uninterrupted, whereas with Lisa Friel and the [other NFL investigator], they would cut me off, they would question things, they would circle back.” Baxley believes that they were “trying to trip me up. They didn’t, but they were really looking for the weaknesses that they thought they could exploit.”
The NFL did not make Friel or Gaffney available for interviews, saying it is the investigators’ policy not to comment during ongoing investigations. In an email, a league spokesperson wrote, “We are grateful to the women who came forward to share their experiences, and we recognize how difficult talking about these issues may be as we try to understand the facts of the matter.” Rusty Hardin, Watson’s attorney, did not respond to emails from SI requesting an interview with Watson and seeking comment on the civil suits, specifically those filed by Solis and Baxley. Hardin has previously said that all 22 plaintiffs are lying about Watson’s conduct and that any sexual acts that took place during Watson’s massage appointments were consensual.
Solis and Baxley have not made any public comments since the early April press conference when they became the first two plaintiffs to name themselves (Solis read a prepared statement that day, and Baxley asked one of her lawyers, Cornelia Brandfield-Harvey, to read aloud a letter Baxley had written to Watson). But last week both women agreed to an interview request from SI. They expressed frustration with how the public focus on Watson’s sports career has seemed to minimize their accounts, and they shared more details on their sessions with Watson, the aftermath of coming forward and dissatisfaction with the NFL’s investigation and inaction. (Brandfield-Harvey was on the call for both interviews, but spoke only once, to confirm the date of Baxley’s NFL interview.)
The NFL’s statement at the beginning of training camp that there are “no restrictions” on Watson’s participation in team activities came more than three months after Solis and Baxley gave detailed accounts to league investigators about the star quarterback’s conduct. It also came in light of the NFL’s stated commitment to investigating and punishing players for off-field misconduct—and a recent history of following through in several high-profile cases—including use of the Commissioner’s Exempt List to remove players from the field while allowing them to collect salary during investigations. And it came while the women who have cooperated with the NFL have had their lives upended.
“I want to rehumanize us,” Solis says, “and make people remember what this is really about.”
In late July, Watson reported to training camp with the Texans. Solis and Baxley couldn’t avoid seeing his face and name dominate another news cycle, with the focus almost entirely on his football career and his still-unchanged desire to play for a different team. Reporters for NFL Network, the league-owned media arm, led the discussion about potential trade partners and compensation for Watson, with one of the outlet’s reporters posting “the price is high for a player of his caliber, and should be,” without specific mention of the 22 civil suits or ongoing criminal investigation.
Meanwhile, the NFL made clear that Watson would not at this point be placed on the exempt list, which serves the purpose of taking a player off the field in the face of serious allegations of misconduct. Several media outlets simultaneously cited a league source saying, in near-identical terms, that the league had not been given access to talk to many of the plaintiffs or to third parties who might have relevant information.
To date, 10 of the 22 plaintiffs represented by Houston attorney Tony Buzbee’s firm have done interviews with the NFL, with an 11th scheduled. Four additional plaintiffs have also provided sworn declarations to the NFL, given under penalty of perjury, though Buzbee says his firm received a letter from Friel stating that the league would not consider these sworn statements in its investigation. (The NFL’s investigative protocol requires all individuals to sit for a recorded interview for their testimony to be used.)
While the NFL has not yet had access to police files, some of these women have also provided to the league the same corroborating information they gave to HPD, including messages they exchanged with Watson and contact information for contemporaneous witnesses, some of whom the NFL has contacted. And while the NFL’s messaging appears to be that they have not had enough access to the women who have said Watson assaulted and/or harassed them, they have not yet reached out to a massage therapist, not among Buzbee’s clients, who in March told SI her account of Watson’s misconduct during an appointment. SI referred to her by a pseudonym (Mary), but her attorney, U.A. Lewis, was named in the article, which was published nearly five months ago. In the meantime, NFL investigators have talked to other women who are not among the plaintiffs, including massage therapists with the company contracted by the Texans.
When the NFL rewrote its personal conduct policy in the wake of the league’s mishandling of Ray Rice’s domestic assault in 2014, it created its own independent investigations unit to work parallel to, but not interfere with, any law enforcement investigation. While that means the NFL may await the outcome of law enforcement proceedings before completing its own investigation, the policy gives commissioner Roger Goodell broad discretion to place a player on the exempt list in the interim.
He has used the paid leave designation when players have been charged with a crime, including when Adrian Peterson was indicted on child-abuse charges in 2014 (he later accepted a plea deal for misdemeanor reckless assault) and when Reuben Foster was arrested during a domestic dispute in 2018 (the misdemeanor charge was later dropped). Goodell also used the designation in response to the public release of personal documents in which Josh Brown appeared to admit to abusing his wife in 2016 (part of a police investigation in which no charges were filed) and when video surfaced of Kareem Hunt shoving and kicking a woman during an incident in 2018 (no charges were filed).
The NFL’s use of paid leave does not require criminal charges, and the conduct policy explicitly gives the commissioner the power to use the exempt list if information collected during the league’s ongoing investigation gives him reason to believe a player “may have violated” the policy. In the Watson case, the information collected so far includes firsthand accounts of at least 10 women who say he engaged in sexual misconduct after hiring them for massage therapy.
There is no apt precedent for a case like Watson’s, given the number of women who have come forward. But one recent example that may be pertinent is Antonio Brown: The league did not put him on the exempt list immediately after a civil suit was filed by a former trainer alleging rape in 2019 (the lawsuit was settled out of court in April). But later that season—once league investigators met with the plaintiff as well as an artist he threatened after she told SI her account of Brown’s sexual misconduct—several outlets, including NFL Network, reported the NFL was prepared to place him on the exempt list if any team signed him. Solis and Baxley have been disappointed in both the league’s inaction and, whether intended or not, the message it sends in light of the NFL’s stricter actions in the past. Additionally, an NFL Network reporter posited that the NFL’s not using the exempt list on Watson indicates “the league’s ongoing investigation hasn’t led Roger Goodell to believe a major violation occurred.”
The description of behaviors that could qualify for the exempt list focuses on “crimes of violence” and includes specific examples that have embarrassed the league, including domestic violence and animal abuse. There is a catch-all category for “other conduct that poses a genuine danger to the safety or well-being of another person,” though the specification of sexual assault “by force” or of a person who was incapable of giving consent, has the potential to exclude some assaultive behaviors, given that the standard for sexual assault varies state to state and can occur by other means, such as coercion or threat.
Says Baxley, “How do you define violence? Because I felt like I was violently attacked psychologically when I was stuck in that room with him. I know that I’m not the only one who felt that way, and I’m not the only one who continues to feel that way.”
Solis built her own massage therapy business on the north side of Houston, wanting to bring access to therapeutic healing and self-care to her community. She was surprised but excited last year when she received an Instagram DM from a verified account with well over one million followers. Many of her family members are Texans fans, but Solis does not avidly follow sports, so she looked up more about Watson and saw the work he has done in the community highlighted. She says she felt reassured by that reputation even as his actions became irregular, such as asking whether she would be alone during the appointment and bringing his own small towel to use as his covering, as detailed in her civil complaint.
In their consultation before the March 2020 session at her home, Solis says Watson told her he has a team of therapists who take care of his body, so he was instead looking for a full-body massage for relaxation. But as the session got underway, she says he began directing how and where she was working, steering her toward his groin area and telling her to use her fingers and not her fists or elbows, as also described in her suit. Solis says she was confused by what she saw as shifting requests during the session. (In the response filed by Watson’s lawyers to the 22 suits, they wrote that Solis’s “skewed perception” of a “legitimate therapeutic inquiry” by Watson “became a prototype for the assembly line of similar allegations in subsequent lawsuits.”)
“Any time I started to feel uncomfortable, I just kept hearing everybody’s voice about how great of a person he is and how much he does for the city,” Solis says. “So I was undermining myself in what was really happening, what was really going on. I thought, ‘This can’t be happening. He’s a good person. There’s no way.’ … I just kept telling myself, O.K., one more time; if I feel like something’s not right one more time, I’m going to say something. Unfortunately, I didn’t speak up as quickly as I would like to have, maybe the way that everyone thinks that they’re going to respond when something like that happens. But with somebody who does have a status and could literally just take your career out, when I’m just getting started and I don’t have any certifications or degree in anything else—where does that leave me?”
Solis says “the final straw” came when Watson purposely moved his penis onto her hand. In her civil complaint, Solis describes Watson’s moving his body to expose himself from under the small towel and then moving his hips to touch his erect penis to her hand. Solis shared additional details in her interview with SI: She had just finished working on his leg and was moving toward his hip, when he asked her to work on his abdominal muscles. As she began to focus on that area, she remembers his penis being in the way, so she asked him to readjust himself away from where she was working. Solis says Watson instead grabbed his penis and put it onto her hand.
“I just started crying. I couldn’t hold it in anymore,” Solis says. “I felt disgusting. He looked disgusting. I wanted to go shower and scrub myself until I bled. I just wanted him gone.”
Solis says Watson’s demeanor changed and seemed “less rehearsed” once she became upset and asked him to leave. As also detailed in her suit, she recalls him telling her he knows she wouldn’t want anyone to mess with her career and reputation, just like he wouldn’t want anyone to mess with his. After he left, he apologized over text, writing, “Sorry about you feeling uncomfortable,” and asked her to let him know if she wanted to work together again. Solis’s lawyers posted a screenshot of this message, dated March 30, 2020. SI also previously reviewed a Facebook Messenger exchange, sent the day after the appointment, in which one of Solis’s former colleagues asked a veteran therapist for advice about how to handle another massage therapist, Solis, being “solicited during a session by a professional athlete.”
The same day, Solis says she told her father what had happened. Though she instructed him not to tell anyone, he reached out to one of her aunts, and she heard from a lawyer shortly thereafter. Solis says this lawyer was ready to represent her but after running it past a higher-up at his firm, he told her they could not take her case. Each lawyer she spoke with put her in touch with another firm they thought could help, but Solis says it seemed like when Watson’s name came up, “nobody really wanted to touch [the case].” She says she gave up for a few months, in part because telling her account over and over again from scratch was exhausting.
In early December 2020—about a month before Watson made his trade demand to the Texans—Solis was connected with Brandfield-Harvey, an attorney at Buzbee’s law firm who previously worked at the Harris County Attorney’s Office on human-trafficking and prostitution cases against illegal massage parlors and strip clubs. Solis was hoping to hold Watson accountable, though she didn’t have a sense of what that would look like. Emails released by Watson’s legal team earlier this year show that Solis’s lawyers initially sought to privately settle her case with a mediator. They later made a settlement offer of $100,000 in a back-and-forth with the general counsel at Athletes First, the sports agency that represents Watson, then broke off talks when that offer was not accepted. As Solis prepared to file a lawsuit March 16, she says she began to recognize that she was likely not the only massage therapist who had experienced what she did, which became more and more of a motivating factor for her in coming forward.
On the morning of March 17, when Baxley read news coverage of Solis’s lawsuit—then under a Jane Doe alias—she felt like she was reading her own story. Baxley says she quickly typed an email to Buzbee’s law firm, offering to testify in support of Solis. She didn’t initially consider filing her own suit because she says she hadn’t fully come to terms with what had happened in her appointment with Watson. But in reading another account that was so similar to hers, Baxley says she started to see Watson’s actions as “calculated” and part of a playbook.
Watson had also reached out to Baxley over Instagram, as he did with the majority of the plaintiffs, but she did not find this odd since she had several Texans players at the time as clients. Watson told her over the phone, according to the civil complaint, that he makes a lot of massage therapists uncomfortable and it’s hard for him to find someone “who will meet my needs.” Baxley added in her interview that, in this pre-appointment phone consultation, Watson also told her he was looking for a “professional” and “nonsexual” massage. Just as Watson’s reputation in the community had stuck with Solis, Baxley says she kept thinking back to what he said during their initial conversation to reassure herself, even as his actions became more troubling. (The response from Watson’s lawyers to the 22 suits did not include any specific rebuttals to Baxley’s petition.)
Baxley keeps her treatment room between 68 and 70 degrees, but she says Watson told her he would be too hot under the sheets on the massage table. She told him he could instead use a towel to cover him if he preferred. But when she returned to the room after allowing him to take a shower and get set up on the table, she found him lying face down and uncovered with his buttocks exposed, as detailed in her suit. She adds that his legs were spread apart so his scrotum was also visible.
“From the very first minute of the session, he was exposing his genitals to me,” she says. “I thought, O.K., if I can just get through this, I’ll cover him up and he’ll stay covered. I kept justifying it to myself, because I thought, ‘Well, he said he wanted a professional massage. He said he wanted a nonsexual massage.’ I kept getting stuck in this cycle of him saying one thing and doing another.”
Baxley says in her petition that Watson requested a glute focus, which is not unusual among her athlete clients. But she tells SI that Watson did not want her to work on his hamstrings, despite her explaining that therapeutically she needs to work on both areas, since the muscles are connected. Instead, she says he kept directing her to the inside of his glutes, toward his anus. (She also described this in her letter to Watson that was read aloud at the April press conference.) He fidgeted with the towel during the session, so Baxley says she eventually switched it out for a soft microfiber covering, which he told her was also too rough and itchy. He also kept insisting she remove her face mask, she says, which she declined to do.
Baxley began to see his irregular actions as a “veneer” for his intentions to get her to see and touch his genitals. But she worried about the ramifications of upsetting him. She recalls thinking, why can’t I step toward the door? Why can’t I get out of here? She’s since learned in weekly therapy that she was experiencing a “freeze” response to danger, but while it was happening, she was frustrated.
“I knew he could destroy my reputation as a professional massage therapist, if he somehow turned it around that I had initiated some sort of sexual contact,” she says. “I was terrified. Not just for my career, not just for my license getting revoked, but also for my personal relationship with my partner. … There were layers and layers to what was happening in my mind, but physically, I felt like I was chained to that table.”
Baxley’s suit describes him exposing his penis to her “several times” and moving his body to make his penis touch her “multiple times.” She shared additional details with SI: She was working on the adductor muscles in his inner thigh when she says Watson tugged off the covering, moved his hips and flexed his now-erect penis so that it fell on her hand. She reacted by moving her hand away and covering him back up, but says he told her to “just grab it” if his penis was in her way. She told him no and was alarmed that her pinched voice and tense body language didn’t dissuade him. Says Baxley, “He was smiling. He was pleased with himself. That, in and of itself, was terrifying, how casual he was being about it.”
Baxley says he repeated this move and touched her hand with his penis two more times. At that point, they had reached their time limit, and she told him the session was over. She did not expect to hear from him again but says he contacted her several more times. Her petition states that she declined or ignored his requests, but Baxley says she told police and the NFL that on one occasion she did respond by offering a time for him to come in. She explains that years earlier, she went to the police with concerns about a client who asked her for “tableside entertainment” and was told one option for protecting herself in the future would be to audio record sessions with new male clients. She didn’t consider doing so when Watson first came in, in part because of his status as a celebrity, but she says she planned to do so if he returned. Watson couldn’t make that appointment slot, though, and Baxley says she never worked with him again.
Buzbee says he initially did not want his clients to speak to the NFL, because it is standard practice to limit interviews during active litigation, but Solis and Baxley were among those who chose to do so because they wanted the NFL to hear unfiltered accounts directly from them. Buzbee says after he heard concerns from the first three plaintiffs who met with the NFL and other lawyers at his firm who were present, he sat in on the fourth one and attempted to re-set the tone. The last several, he says, have been better received by his clients.
Trauma-informed forensic interviewing is a process that was developed to help survivors of crimes like sexual assault, which has a low reporting rate, be more able to come forward and share the information authorities need. A person with knowledge of the NFL’s investigative process says while league investigators try to ask questions in a trauma-informed manner, they do not engage in uninterrupted, trauma-informed forensic interviews. Among the constraints the NFL has in its investigation is that witnesses are under no obligation to participate, as the league does not have subpoena power, so it operates under the assumption it will get only one chance at each interview.
This person does not deny that NFL investigators asked Solis and Baxley what they were wearing, but says because some of the complaints against Watson detail his requesting women to wear certain attire to appointments, all have been asked whether he did so, whether they complied with his requests and what they did wear for his appointment. Neither Solis nor Baxley were questioned by Houston police about what they wore during the appointment, and both perceived the NFL’s line of questioning as judgmental by putting the focus on their conduct rather than Watson’s.
A primer on trauma-informed victim interviewing issued by the International Association of Chiefs of Police lists “What were you wearing?” as an interview question to avoid. “Asking questions like that, without prefacing the reasoning behind it, conveys to the survivor that they were somehow culpable,” says Elizabeth L. Jeglic, a clinical psychologist specializing in sexual violence prevention at New York’s John Jay College. “That can exacerbate some of the feelings of guilt, shame, confusion, if that’s the message that you’re getting from those who are questioning you.”
The NFL declined multiple requests from SI for an on-the-record response to Solis’s and Baxley’s descriptions of their interactions with league investigators. But under the condition of anonymity, the person with knowledge of the NFL’s investigative process says that the questions about the women’s attire and whether they complied with any such requests from Watson “would bear on Watson’s credibility and the suggestion [from Watson] that any questionable conduct was consensual.” Jeglic explains that it’s very difficult to freely give consent in a situation where there is a power differential between a hired contractor and an important client. She adds that in what is essentially an employer-employee relationship, a therapist may feel compelled to comply with the client’s requests, such as what to wear, to keep their business.
The civil court process moves slowly, and, in Texas, any indictment on felony charges would need to go through a grand jury. But the NFL’s personal conduct policy makes clear that it is not guided by the same standards that would apply to traditional law enforcement. The league has centralized, sweeping powers to hand out discipline—and has often done so in the name of public relations.
“The NFL recently made it clear that they were taking a stand against women and survivors of sexual assault when they stated that Watson would be able to participate in team activities without restrictions, despite the dozens of women whose experiences and testimony prove a pattern of mental and sexual abuse,” Baxley says. “Watson deserves a fair day in court. But the NFL and Roger Goodell have failed me. And they have failed the other women by choosing inaction.”
Solis and Baxley understood that when they named themselves publicly, their lives might change, though they did not know exactly how. Solis, who appeared in person at the press conference, says she’s been heckled while out in public. People she’s never worked with have left fake online reviews about her business, and her lawyers submitted in a court filing screenshots of some of the threatening messages she’s received: one told her, “you signed your own death warrant,” and another said, “i hope u really get raped,” then called her by a Spanish word for prostitute. Solis says someone attempted to break into her private studio shortly after the press conference, damaging the door and windows. She has since added additional locks and security cameras, and now keeps the address of her studio private.
Baxley says she became concerned for her personal safety after reading comments on the livestream of the press conference, so her partner began walking her to and from her car with a weapon. After a concerning interaction with a grocery delivery person, she changed her name on several service apps and pays cash whenever possible.
Both women say their livelihoods have also been affected. Solis says she has had to cut back on the hours she is able to work, because of the mental strain. She now only takes new clients who are referred by someone she knows, while Baxley no longer accepts new male clients, which has meant turning down booking requests from other Houston pro athletes. Baxley estimates her income has decreased as much as 40%, coupled with the costs of weekly therapy and regular therapeutic massages. Baxley says her therapist diagnosed her with complex PTSD, which can develop out of repeated trauma and for her has also manifested in physical ways, including pain in her joints and tension headaches. Each time she places herself back in the appointment with Watson, including in interviews with the police and the NFL, can trigger a response.
“The assault and my experiences during the session last year, that’s just one trauma,” Baxley says. “But every day since [coming forward] has carried new traumas.”
Solis has a Reiki mantra that she uses any time she feels herself dissociating during a massage appointment or as though a panic attack may be coming on: “I am the light, the light surrounds me, the light guides me, the light protects me. I am the light.” It helps her continue.
“I am not somebody who wants any of this attention,” Solis says. “I’m just somebody who’s trying to live my little life as peacefully as I can. And it was 100% disrupted by somebody who didn’t care about that. He chose to disrupt my life, and I’m going to choose to hold him responsible for it as best as I can, no matter what people may think or say about me. The only two people who were in that room were him and I. And we both know the truth.”
And she has an answer for the NFL, or anyone else worried about what she was wearing the day of her appointment with Deshaun Watson: “I wear what I always wear when I massage: yoga pants and a T-shirt.”
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