The curious case of Deshaun Watson and the swanky hotel in Houston

NFL quarterback Deshaun Watson liked to go somewhere special when he wanted to relax as a player for the Houston Texans.

It’s called The Houstonian, an upscale hotel and club that once served as the residence of former President George H.W. Bush. According to court records, Watson had an account there, liked to get massages there in his room and had his marketing manager arrange those rooms in advance.

But it’s also where at least two women say he exposed himself to them and touched them with his genitals during massage sessions in 2020.

And now it’s part of the fight for pretrial evidence after 22 women sued him last year and accused him of sexual misconduct during massage sessions, including the two at The Houstonian, according to court documents filed recently in Houston.

“He takes women in some of these cases to The Houstonian, which (offers luxury massage services to customers), but he’s bringing in women who aren’t even licensed in massage?” the attorney for the women, Tony Buzbee, said to USA TODAY Sports earlier month.

Watson's activity there has been subject to increased scrutiny in recent weeks as the pretrial discovery process has intensified. In one case, two weeks after meeting a woman on Instagram, he flew her in from Atlanta to give him a massage in his suite at The Houstonian, where she said he exposed himself and caused his genitals to touch her inappropriately on Aug. 28, 2020, according to her lawsuit against him.

New Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson is facing lawsuits from 22 women.
New Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson is facing lawsuits from 22 women.

Instead of arranging to have this unlicensed therapist come all the way to Houston, there were easier massage options available to him that day, when his team, the Houston Texans, did not practice after holding a scrimmage the day before. The Houstonian offered professional luxury massage spa services at the Solaya Spa & Salon by The Houstonian, just three miles away from the hotel. The hotel even provided a free shuttle to get there and back, plus discounts to all guests in 2020 and gifts with treatments to hotel guests, according to the hotel.

In another case, Watson suggested another unlicensed therapist come to his suite at The Houstonian in July 2020, weeks before Texans training camp opened on Aug. 14, 2020. He first contacted this woman on Snapchat and saw the women for four sessions from July to September 2020, with Watson’s behavior getting “progressively worse,” including exposing himself, touching her with his genitals and ejaculating in front of her, according to her lawsuit.

Watson, 26, denies any wrongdoing, and two grand juries declined to indict him on criminal charges in 10 cases that were reported to police. But the 22 civil lawsuits march on separately and have proceeded to dig for evidence that still could affect his future even after getting a record contract with the Cleveland Browns worth $230 million guaranteed over five years. The NFL has said it is monitoring developments and could suspend him for a violation of it personal conduct policy.

“The fact that he went to such lengths to obtain massages tends to bolster the credibility of the plaintiffs,” said Kenneth Williams, professor at South Texas College of Law Houston. “The plaintiffs probably want the jury to think that a star NFL quarterback wouldn't have to go to such lengths to obtain a massage unless the massages were a pretext for something else.”

His attorney, Rusty Hardin, said Watson took to Instagram and social media to find massages because of his busy schedule and because “spas shut down” during the pandemic. In the case of The Houstonian, the famed spa there called Trellis Spa did shut down for much of that year because of a renovation project starting Feb. 2, 2020 – before the pandemic. But The Houstonian still wanted to make sure its guests and members could access these services. So it opened its sister spa, Solaya, that same month three miles away.

That spa and others were ordered closed during a pandemic shutdown ordered by the state governor in March 2020 but reopened in May 2020, after which all but only a few of the alleged incidents took place among the 22 women. In pretrial testimony, Watson “couldn’t say any place was shut down because of COVID,” Buzbee previously told USA TODAY Sports. “He didn’t reach out to any place that shut down. He didn’t even ask.”

Another attorney for the plaintiffs, Cornelia Brandfield-Harvey, recently told a judge at a hearing in Houston they were seeking evidence that shows Watson had a pattern and motive when scheduling these massages through social media – that it was to get sex and not just a massage, even if that desire wasn’t mutual. Brandfield-Harvey sought documentation from Watson of where he got massages in 2019 and 2020, how they were paid and any excerpts from his Texans contract in which obtaining massages was discussed.

“The burning question in the jury’s mind, I believe, will be why did he not use the facilities that were available” to him instead of looking for massages with people he didn’t know on social media, Brandfield-Harvey told the judge.

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Despite an objection from one of Watson’s attorneys, the judge agreed to compel Watson to provide massage location history and payment information from late March 2019 to late March 2020, as well the massage information sought from his Texans contract.

Another recent court filing shows the plaintiffs also are seeking other documentation involving The Houstonian and another hotel. They filed a notice in court that shows they are seeking information from the Texans, including records of payments to The Houstonian for Watson, records of rooms at the Houstonian for use by players and any correspondence between the Texans and The Houstonian regarding Watson from 2019-2021.

It was not the only place this alleged misconduct occurred, according to the lawsuits. Other locations describe incidents at Watson’s house, the house of a woman’s mother and other incidents in California, Georgia and Arizona. Most happened in or near Houston from early 2020 to March 2021.

Hardin has said the women are lying, out for money and there were “sometimes consensual encounters.”

Citing hotel policy, The Houstonian said it does not provide information on customers and declined comment on Watson.

“Watson can argue he simply wanted a private place for a massage (and) did not want to go to a spa,’ said David Ring, a Los Angeles attorney who has represented sexual assault victims but is not involved in the Watson case. On the other hand, Ring called it “highly suspicious conduct.”

“This evidence could be used to show that Watson’s plan was to lure a masseuse to the hotel under the guise of a massage, when his real intention was to engage in sexual activities,” Ring said.

The hotel also came up several times during a pretrial deposition in February for Watson’s marketing manager, Bryan Burney, who testified he sometimes arranged to get hotel rooms for Watson to have massages.

“Where would you get these rooms for him?” Buzbee asked him. “Were they all at The Houstonian or different places?

“Mostly at The Houstonian,” Burney answered.

Buzbee circled back to it.

“When Deshaun Watson asks you, 'Hey, man, get me a room at The Houstonian; I want a massage,' how do you bill him for that, or do you?” Buzbee asked.

“I don't bill him because he had an account with The Houstonian, so there was nothing to bill him on,” Burney said.

Buzbee then asked if he knew how Watson found the women who provided him with massages on those occasions.

Burney said he didn’t know.

Watson is required to provide the massage history and location information by about May 6, according to the judge's ruling this month. Meanwhile, the cases might not go to trial until after February 2023 unless they are settled out of court before then.

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: bschrotenb@usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Deshaun Watson lawsuits: How a swanky Houston hotel holds a key