Nike has suspended its partnership with Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson after more than 20 women came forward to accuse him of sexual assault or inappropriate behavior.
“We are deeply concerned by the disturbing allegations and have suspended Deshaun Watson. We will continue to closely monitor the situation,” Nike said in a statement released to CNBC on Wednesday.
The Texans paid Watson nearly $30m last season, and he makes millions more in sponsorship deals with companies such as Rolex and Beats by Dre who, until recently, had been keen to associate themselves with one of the most talented players in the NFL. Watson’s other sponsors have yet to issue statements on the allegations.
On Tuesday, two of the women who have filed lawsuits against Watson spoke publicly about the allegations. Most of Watson’s accusers are professional massage therapists who say the quarterback assaulted them or acted inappropriately during treatments.
“I come forward now so that Deshaun Watson does not assault another woman. … I am seeking justice not just on behalf of myself but for all survivors. … This is about having my voice heard,” one of the Watson accusers, Ashley Solis, told a press conference on Tuesday.
At Tuesday’s news conference, an attorney with the firm representing Watson’s accusers read a letter written by another of the women who has accused Watson of sexual assault and has also chosen to be publicly identified.
In the letter, Lauren Baxley called Watson “a predator with power” and alleged he touched her with his penis multiple times during a massage session. She said that after the session, she felt shame and terror that no one would believe her.
“There is trauma associated with unwanted sexual contact and assault in a place that’s meant to bring peace and therapy, but there are even deeper terrors that you have brought into my life,” Baxley said.
The Houston police department is investigating the allegations.
Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, has called the allegations “meritless” and has questioned the claims made against the 25-year-old, alleging they were made following a failed attempt to blackmail his client for $30,000.
“We welcome this long overdue development. Now we will learn the identity of at least one accuser. We will fully cooperate with the Houston police department,” Hardin said on Friday in a statement.
Watson is one of the league’s top quarterbacks and led the NFL in passing yards last season. He signed a four-year, $156m contract extension with the Texans last offseason, but he became unhappy with the direction of the team as Houston sunk to 4-12. Watson requested a trade in January.