The hearing on April 19 in the Harris County civil courts building was supposed to be routine—in essence a meeting about future meetings. It concerned the case of Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans, who stood accused of sexual misconduct by 22 massage therapists. But the docket that day was slated to address process questions, including evidence-discovery deadlines, and case consolidation. There was no reason for the plaintiffs or defendant to show up.
Still, the hearing offered a fine opportunity for a mini showdown that was unlikely to be passed up by either attorney: the flamboyant, excitable Tony Buzbee, who was representing the women, and Rusty Hardin, the dogged former prosecutor who was defending Watson. Both affect a country-boy manner that masks killer instincts that have made them stars of the trial bar in Harris County and beyond. But there the similarities end.
A hearing like this would normally include a few lawyers and the judge. Buzbee arrived with about ten of his conservatively dressed plaintiffs, who would later appear on the evening newscasts. Hardin showed up alone except for an associate, with documents stacked neatly on the table in front of him. Somewhere, the theme from High Noon was playing.
Much to Buzbee’s displeasure, Hardin had recently won a big victory when the court ruled that Buzbee’s clients could not remain anonymous in a civil proceeding. In turn, Buzbee was slow-walking some of the accusers’ proper names, addresses, driver’s license numbers, and other information, preventing Hardin from investigating their claims and their backgrounds. He had filed a request for sanctions against Buzbee—kind of like a legal spanking—which added to Buzbee’s pique. As the hearing began, both parties tried to play nice. “I want to do this as cleanly and efficiently as possible,” Buzbee assured the judge, Rabeea Collier, who assumed her seat on the bench in January 2019. “Me and Mr. Hardin have known each other a long time. I’m sure we can work together cooperatively.”
Hardin, who told me he actually didn’t know Buzbee all that well and had recently accused him of conducting “a trial by press conference,” did a pretty good job of masking his vexation behind his plastic anti-COVID face shield. But it wasn’t long before each lawyer began accusing the other of hiding information, and accusing the other lawyer’s clients of erasing posts on social media. “Some of the plaintiffs have been altering their previous posts,” Hardin declared. “Watson unsent his messages to my clients,” Buzbee retorted. Judge Collier’s eyes grew wider, and her smile more rueful, with each verbal volley. Her head began to swivel from one attorney to the other, like a chair umpire’s at Wimbledon.
Going forward, she might find herself in need of a neck brace. On one level, the Deshaun Watson cases are fairly typical ones, involving a celebrated athlete who stands accused of impropriety. But they also exemplify the ways in which the #MeToo movement has changed how cases involving alleged sexual misconduct proceed. To put it in football terms, the goalposts are moving. And no one knows exactly where to find them—not even Buzbee or Hardin.
“I just want to grow tomatoes,” Tony Buzbee told me recently, opining about his role on the plaintiff’s side of the messy Watson suits. “I did not want this case,” Buzbee continued. “I wish we could resolve it.”
Those who know the 52-year-old Buzbee have their doubts. He ran a flashy, if unsuccessful, mayoral campaign in 2019, and has never been known as a shrinking violet. His law firm’s website proudly quotes the New York Times describing him as “a big, mean, ambitious, tenacious, fire-breathing Texas trial lawyer.” In a 24-year career, he’s led high-profile suits against Amarillo eccentric Stanley Marsh 3—accused of sexual abuse of local boys—and against BP in the Deepwater Horizon case. Buzbee has racked up at least $1 billion in verdicts, and more in out-of-court settlements. He’s also engaged in splashy publicity stunts outside of court, including parking a World War II tank in front of his mansion on River Oaks Boulevard.
Still, Buzbee is a curious choice for the suits against Watson. He has not heretofore been known as a feminist. He hosted a fundraiser for Donald Trump in 2016 and infamously received a lap dance from a stripper during a party for Hurricane Harvey relief. Buzbee told me, resignedly, that his daughter shamed him into taking on this battle and that he also got a push from a female lawyer at his firm who used to try sexual abuse cases in the district attorney’s office.
The first plaintiff to appear was a massage therapist since identified as Ashley Solis, who alleged that Watson had touched her with his penis during a session. Hardin says her case had been shopped unsuccessfully to at least one other lawyer before it reached Buzbee, who would soon morph into a cigar-smoking version of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. (One reason Solis initially failed to attract much interest, according to Hardin, was because it was hard to determine what the monetary damages might be for what seemed, at first, to be a case of alleged indecent exposure. Buzbee says Solis’s case was not shopped to any other lawyers.)
Altruism aside, Buzbee is not one to take on a losing case. Before he decided he was in, he interviewed Solis on the phone and conducted an informal survey of Harris County residents, trying to see how a possible trial would play before a jury. In those conversations, he detected a shift in local attitudes toward sexual mores that reflected the nationwide reckoning, sparked by the #MeToo movement, that has given more credibility to women’s allegations of sexual misconduct.
Buzbee’s survey showed that opinions about Watson’s alleged behavior and that of his accusers consistently split along age and gender lines. “Old white men think that, even if true, Watson did nothing wrong or that women should have expected it,” Buzbee explained to me. “Younger people, not football fans, are outraged by the alleged conduct.” Though he wasn’t surprised by the former group, Buzbee said, he “was a bit surprised about the level of passion from ‘the other side’ about how egregious and outrageous the conduct was.” In that passion he saw a way to turn the case into a winner.
And there is probably another reason for Buzbee’s own passion for this fight. A former Marine, he remains a macho guy quick to take offense at anyone who he feels is “disrespectful,” a word he uses often. Some defense lawyers in town dread dealing with him because, they say, one unintended slight can result in scorched-earth tactics in return. This pattern was repeated in February, when Buzbee’s $100,000 settlement offer for the Solis allegation was rejected by the attorney for Watson’s sports agency. “This is Houston, Texas,” Buzbee wrote in an email ending negotiations. “Perhaps you should find him a lawyer here so [he or she] can apprise both you and your client of the landscape here and who you are dealing with.”
In a nice flourish, he added, “Talk soon.”
On March 16, Buzbee filed his first lawsuit, representing Solis, against Watson. “I am extremely proud to represent those who have no perceived power against those who have PERCEIVED power,” he told his more than 44,000 followers on Instagram, his communication method of choice. “Too many times women have put up with behavior that we all know no one should put up with.”
After two weeks of flogging the case through frequent updates on social media, Buzbee was representing 21 other women who sued Watson for similar offenses, sometimes so graphic in detail that news stories came with trigger warnings. The women claimed that, while on the massage table, Watson committed various offenses that ranged from displaying his erect penis—indecent exposure in Texas—to forcing one woman to perform oral sex. No criminal charges have been filed as of yet, but the Houston Police Department announced on April 2 that it had opened an investigation into a complaint against Watson. The Harris County DA’s office would not say whether it has involved itself in the case.
At first, Watson tried to control his own communications strategy, never a great idea. Responding to Buzbee on social media, he insisted he had never treated any woman with anything other “than the utmost respect.” He went on to evoke Buzbee’s “baseless” earlier settlement demand, adding, “Unlike him, this isn’t about money for me—it’s about clearing my name, and I look forward to doing that.”
It became clear very quickly that doing so would be difficult. On April 6, Ashley Solis stepped out of the shadows and gave a tearful press conference in Buzbee’s office that would have made any defense lawyer reach for the Xanax.
Even though no criminal charges had been filed, the cases had already been remanded to the court of public opinion. Whatever happened between Watson and Solis and 21 other women quickly became topic A, not just in local, traditional media, such as the Houston Chronicle, but on social media and on the myriad 24/7 sports gabfests on radio, TV, and websites across the country. There were so many cases against Watson that helpful bloggers started publishing their own timelines of the alleged assaults.
That professional athletes often face category 5 excrement storms would not be news to Rusty Hardin, the lawyer Watson finally hired in mid-March when he must have realized that posting on Instagram did not constitute an adequate defense. A former Harris County prosecutor, Hardin has, over the decades, successfully defended other athletes accused of wrongdoing, including former Astros pitcher Roger Clemens, former Houston Oilers quarterback Warren Moon, and NBA Hall of Famer and Rockets star Calvin Murphy.
More popular with his colleagues than Buzbee, and known for his sartorial splendor, Hardin radiates a near-religious faith in his clients’ innocence. Watson is no exception. “I think they are lying about being traumatized,” he told me in May about the plaintiffs. “To me, there’s a whole other different story here.” According to Hardin, famous Americans—celebrities, athletes, billionaires, politicians, etc.—who face accusations that involve “hot-button issues” such as prescription drug abuse and sexual harassment or assault have a very tough time defending themselves. “The accusation is all it takes. People don’t look or care. You are the Antichrist. If you get caught in the crosshairs of a hot-button issue—that’s where the presumption of innocence and due process go to die.”
Hardin believes that Watson got into trouble during the pandemic by using massage therapists who were less experienced in working with athletes and not always licensed. In doing so, Hardin said, Watson became the victim, not his accusers. “You look at the first lawsuit filed,” he said. “That petition says she felt uncomfortable. She asked him to leave. He paid her and left. That’s not a lawsuit. There’s not a jury that would give her a dime.” (Solis alleges Watson touched her with his erect penis and says she felt threatened at the time and has since suffered from fear and anxiety.) “The media goes crazy, and here is this guy horribly traumatizing these women.” For good measure, Hardin added, “How does a naked guy force a fully dressed woman to give him a blow job?”
The consensus around town is that Hardin is going to have a difficult time with his defense. The cases are being litigated on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and beyond, and the 79-year-old Hardin publicly admitted that social media was not his area of expertise. This has forced him into a game of catch-up against Buzbee, who has continued to filet Watson in myriad Instagram posts, in between photos of the rescue buffalo at his ranch, his blue Rolls-Royce convertible, his beautiful fiancée, and his son eating sushi.
But more important, “boys will be boys” has been eclipsed in recent years by #BelieveWomen. The latter sentiment is now being shouted from the rooftops of some of the most traditionally male-dominated institutions in the country, as their leaders have seen what can happen to their businesses if they suggest otherwise. The NFL launched an investigation into Watson’s behavior immediately after Buzbee filed his first lawsuit. Companies that had courted Watson to the tune of millions in endorsements didn’t wait for due process. Two days after Solis’s press conference, Nike suspended him, and Beats by Dre cut endorsement ties completely.
The most curious example of this tectonic shift came from Watson’s employer. Instead of offering the expected “wait and see” defense of its star, Texans management was conspicuously mute through March, allowing Buzbee to continue dominating the narrative. The cases had sprung to light during a tumultuous off-season for the team: Watson had demanded to be traded after a disastrous 4–12 season and the hiring of a top executive without his input. (Owner Cal McNair’s silence on the case of a gifted athlete was seen by some Texans fans as an indication that he might have sandbagged Watson by setting up a massive massage therapist sting, a “silly” claim, according to Buzbee. “I don’t know the McNair family. I wouldn’t recognize Cal or Hal or whatever his name is if I saw him on the street,” he told the press, though bloggers later contested the veracity of this assertion.)
McNair finally made a statement to long-suffering season ticket holders on April 5—nearly three weeks after Buzbee filed his first lawsuit. “We want to assure you that we take these allegations very seriously,” McNair intoned, underscoring his deep respect for the legal process and his respect for all people. “While we await the conclusion of these investigations, we express our strong stance against any form of sexual assault.”
Unable to settle the cases quietly, Hardin had few tools with which to try to counter public opinion without sounding like an attorney for Harvey Weinstein. “I want to emphasize at the outset that we and Deshaun recognize that sexual assault and harassment are not only unlawful, but morally wrong. . . . We do not take these allegations lightly,” he said in a press release. But to defend his client, Hardin’s only choice was to make an old trope look somehow new again: exhuming the notion that women can lie as well and as frequently as men.
That is exactly what he did. At the end of March, Hardin released statements from eighteen other massage therapists, all of them licensed or certified in their respective fields, who attested to Watson’s gentlemanly behavior on their massage tables. The quarterback’s use of a towel to cover his genitals, instead of a drape—which some of the plaintiffs were accustomed to using—was described as normal behavior among sports clients. So, too, was the need for many athletes to be massaged in their nether regions, because they often suffer from groin strains. Erections were not unheard of. (“I teach my students to use a firmer touch or move to a different area if a client gets aroused during a session,” said one of the massage therapists who defended Watson.)
In mid-April Hardin finally submitted to the court his response to the allegations against Watson. The filing contained allegations about some of the plaintiffs, who bragged about working with Watson after what they say were traumatic encounters, or offered to work with Watson again after their alleged trauma, or admitted to someone that they wanted to “get in on the action.” (Watson’s marketing manager swore in an affidavit released by Hardin that a representative designated by one plaintiff demanded $30,000 in exchange for her silence, causing him to accuse the representative of extortion. “It’s not extortion,” the representative allegedly clarified. “It’s blackmail.”)
Other plaintiffs, Hardin insisted, had simply misunderstood Watson’s intentions: “Innocent questions about whether the therapists were comfortable with the therapy Mr. Watson sought evolved into sexual inuendo that the plaintiffs used to bolster their claims for money,” the pleading asserted.
There was some speculation that the lawsuit might be settled in late April during the NFL draft, but that didn’t happen, so now the case goes into legal limbo as it proceeds through the courts, the league continues its investigation, and Watson’s career goes on ice. Many of the accusers’ personal lives have also been scrutinized: a video of one of the plaintiffs twerking in a transparent bodysuit made the rounds of Houston attorneys recently. “Does that mean a person gets to assault somebody because there is a video?” Buzbee asked.
In this era of polarization, many don’t have room for nuance. As one psychotherapist who has worked with pro athletes as well as ordinary couples told me, “People proclaim to have the truth, but there are twenty-three different truths [in this case]. Twenty-two women and DeShaun Watson, and so whose truth trumps the other truth?”
That may be the only question in this case with an easy answer: Tony Buzbee’s or Rusty Hardin’s.