Kelly Stauffiger is a licensed massage therapist in the Buffalo area, her job for the past 15 years. She’s also had a contract with the Buffalo Bills for five NFL seasons, so she’s been closely following the news of the 22 women who have filed civil lawsuits accusing Deshaun Watson of sexual assault and misconduct during massage appointments. When she read the third lawsuit, the one that said the Houston Texans quarterback forced the massage therapist to perform oral sex, Kelly felt nauseous.
“I got sick after that,” she said. “I thought about the situation she was in, how she could be forced to perform oral sex, how she blacked out and then defecated on herself. That must have been so traumatic.”
The accusations against Watson have brought a spotlight onto the profession of massage therapy and its intersection with the world of professional sports, shoving onto the front of newspapers and websites a profession rarely mentioned in the sports pages or on sports talk radio. How do athletes and professional sports teams establish relationships with massage therapists? What resources do massage therapists have to protect themselves when they are propositioned for sex? And why would an NFL quarterback need or want to work with several dozen massage therapists?
Defector spoke to two NFL athletic trainers, licensed massage therapists who work with NFL players, and current and former NFL players to find out how teams and players use massage therapy, and what it’s like to be a massage therapist working with athletes. They described massage therapy as a key part of recovery for many NFL players, and the massage therapists who spoke to Defector said they were always treated professionally by pro athletes. Two of the NFL players who spoke said the number of massage therapists sought out by Watson, according to the lawsuits, did seem high to them.
And to the massage therapists, the scenario of a client assuming they would perform sex acts felt all too familiar.
Most NFL teams contract several licensed massage therapists to work on players during the season at the team facility. The therapists come in typically two days per week (sometimes more, depending on the training staff and budget): usually on Mondays, for post-game recovery, and Fridays, to get their bodies ready for the next game.
Massage therapy is a popular modality for recovery among professional athletes, and with limited downtime at the facility during a game week, there isn’t enough time for every player to get the treatment they need during the hours that the massage therapists work in the building. It’s normal for players to schedule one of the team’s contracted massage therapists to come to their home, or to schedule another therapist unaffiliated with the team. Both Stauffiger and Masako Jones, one of the 18 massage therapists who issued a statement in support of Watson, said that word-of-mouth referrals from their teammates are the most common way NFL players find a therapist.
Another female massage therapist, who has 13 years of experience contracting with a non-Texans NFL team, said she’s had to increase the amount of therapists she hires for the team because massage therapy has become a necessary part of recovery and injury prevention. Defector is keeping her name and team anonymous because she didn’t want to jeopardize her contract.
There are 22 women suing Watson, all represented by lawyer Tony Buzbee; five more reached out to Buzbee, but Buzbee said at a press conference there was not enough to bring lawsuits; one woman filed a lawsuit but declined to pursue it when the court said she had to use her real name; and one woman spoke with Sports Illustrated about her experience with Watson. There are also 18 women who provided statements supporting Watson, and five or six more therapists that the Texans hired. That’s more than 50 different massage therapists who said they have worked on Watson since he became a Texan in 2017.
Defector asked current and former players about their own massage therapy routines.
One current player, a cornerback, said he sees two different massage therapists during the season and gets three to four massages per week. In the offseason, he doesn’t get any massages. Another current player, a defensive tackle, said he gets two massages per week, and that he uses references to thoroughly vet the massage therapists that he hires to make sure they’re current in the latest technology of sports recovery, and to be certain they aren’t more interested in making money off him than doing good work.
One former player, a linebacker who retired in the last five years, said he got one massage per week during the season. He said most of his teammates had one per week, usually on Monday or Tuesday, and the two teams he played for only contracted a massage therapist if players asked, so most guys ended up finding their own in town who had worked on other players.
“Every player I know would find someone that is good and stick with them,” he said. “They would actually get possessive of other players stealing their time slots. I have never heard of anyone ever using 40 different people. I would bet a 15-year veteran that got massages weekly didn’t see half of the therapists Deshaun did.”
A former NFL quarterback said he was in the minority of players who didn’t utilize massage therapy, but that his teammates had the same one or two massage therapists that they used consistently. Another former player, an offensive lineman who retired in the last five years, said he got massages every Monday and Friday at his home throughout his career. His wife would get a massage after him, and sometimes, teammates would come over for massages, as a way to maximize the therapist’s time so they didn’t have to drive all around the city.
“I liked to find one and then stick with that person,” he said. “However, there’s a big issue with other guys poaching the good ones, since a good one is hard to find, and your time windows to massage can be small in season and everyone is trying to get the same people to massage in the same time windows. It can be quite territorial. Some guys even pay one person a salary to get priority times during the season.”
This player remembered a former teammate who got cut and moved on to a new NFL job in a different city. Instead of looking for a new massage therapist, the ex-teammate hired his regular therapist from his old city to travel to his new city every week during the season to work on him.
“It’s not like buy it now on Amazon,” the former offensive lineman said. “Ninety percent of therapists stink, because they are trained for relaxation, not sports deep tissue work. Deshaun is a very rich, high-profile person, so once he found a few people he really liked, I would think he would just take them wherever he went. Committing two hours to one person to see if they are any good, that’s a lot of trial and error and you don’t want to waste that time. That makes you think one thing: Why was he trying to get all these different people to be his massage therapist?”
Stauffiger, the massage therapist with the Bills, agreed.
“That [number of therapists] is ridiculous,” Stauffiger said. “Almost every single player that I have had, they start working with me at training camp and then they contact me and say, Hey, I want you for the season. Can I get on your schedule for the season? I rarely lose a player. I will work on them weekly, two or three times a week.”
Even Arielle Ball, a physical therapist who issued a statement of support for Watson, said she was “a bit surprised” by how many therapists Watson saw.
“Because when he first reached out to me I asked him, did he have a therapist? I would think that because he is a quarterback, a top QB, that you already have a therapist that you normally work with. So I did ask him that and he was like, ‘Oh no, I have one person I normally work with but she is not available.’
“So when all of this came out, I said, ‘Wow, he had a lot of therapists that he worked with.’ I typically do not see pro athletes have more than a handful of therapists that they trust,” she said. “Because, think about it, that is a very expensive tool and you don’t want to just have anybody working on it. That’s their body, this is their livelihood. So you really want to do your due diligence and figure out, who is good for me?”
Joni Honn is the owner of Genuine Touch Massage Therapy, a Houston-area massage therapy business. Honn said that since 2002, the Texans have contracted with her company to work on players during the season. (A spokesperson for the Texans confirmed and added that Genuine Touch is the only company the team has contracted for massage therapy.)
“I’ve got nothing to say because we have not been involved,” Honn said. “We have been on contract for 20 years, any of my therapists that have seen him, there’s been nothing that has gone on with Deshaun because he knows he would have to deal with me. So there is really nothing for us to say. It’s all these Instagram girls, this has nothing to do with Genuine Touch.”
Honn said that because of COVID-19 protocols, just three massage therapists from Genuine Touch were at the Texans facility this season, working there about four to five days per week. Honn said Texans players sign up for massages in 20-minute sessions, and if there’s room on the list, a player can sign up for more than one 20-minute session, extending their time to 40 or 60 minutes. When players get massaged at the Texans facility, Honn said they stay dressed in shorts because the massages all take place in one big room.
Honn added that, in Watson’s four seasons in Houston, he never signed up for a massage at the team facility. She said once she worked on his arm for a few minutes during training camp at The Greenbrier in West Virginia. Instead, Honn said, Watson would schedule one of her therapists to work on him at his home or at their office. Honn estimated Watson saw five or six of her employees and said none of them are among the 22 plaintiffs suing Watson, or the 18 who gave statements supporting him.
Stauffiger said she’s never experienced any inappropriate behavior from any Bills players during her time with the team. She trusts her clients, whom she calls her brothers, and said she regularly visits their homes for additional appointments outside of her limited hours at the facility. But Stauffiger and her best friend, who is also a massage therapist but doesn’t work with NFL teams, have had several tough conversations about the lawsuits, and have wondered, “What would it be like if it was us?” And before working in the sports massage realm, Stauffiger worked at a spa inside a casino for eight years. There, she said she experienced her share of clients trying to cross the line.
“I am very familiar with people trying to get happy endings,” she said. “So I learned very early on how to deflect that. We were taught in school that if you didn’t feel comfortable that you could stop a massage at any time. But it is a whole other world when you are alone with a person.”
Stauffiger remembered that many of her colleagues at the spa didn’t report the inappropriate behavior, either to the client who made the advances, or to their spa manager. They stayed quiet for many different reasons: shame, fear of not being believed, and even guilt that they didn’t pick up on the warning signs earlier.
This fear has, in some ways, already been proven correct. Since the lawsuits were filed, 18 women issued statements supporting Watson, and several said exactly that: They don’t believe the women. “My experience was nothing like the plaintiffs are describing,” wrote Sarah Fetherolf. “I don’t believe they are being truthful.” Ashley Solis, the first massage therapist to sue Watson and the first to use her name publicly, addressed this directly at a press conference earlier this month, saying, “I am deeply saddened but not surprised to see so many victim-blaming in the press or online commenters. They have no idea what happened to me. No idea.”
Like Stauffiger, the anonymous massage therapist said that she’s never had an issue with an NFL player, and she also began her career working at a spa, where she regularly experienced inappropriate behavior from clients. “That was why I was more than willing to switch over to athletes,” she said. “I did not want to have to deal with that. It was disrespectful, it made me very angry. It delegitimized all my education, all my training and everything I stood for.”
Massage therapists are trained on how to handle a situation where a client crosses boundaries of traditional massage, and many take extra steps to de-sexualize their practice, like calling the massage table a table, not a bed, and using the title massage therapist or bodywork therapist instead of “masseuse,” which can have a sexual connotation. But the painful stereotype of the massage therapist as sex worker—especially in spas staffed by migrant or Asian workers—remains. Look no further than the mass murder of eight women in Atlanta when people, including local law enforcement talking to reporters, spoke as if all the women killed were sex workers. Six of the slain women were of Asian descent, and all were shot dead while working at a massage parlor. (One way to address this, which advocates for sex workers have been saying for years now, is to decriminalize sex work, which would allow sex workers to operate freely instead of having to conceal themselves.)
Before they were affiliated with NFL teams, both therapists said they experienced inappropriate behavior from male clients in spa settings. The anonymous therapist said that her affiliation with an NFL team means that she is viewed as part of her client’s “work team,” along with the coaches, trainers and team doctor, which gives her more credibility and respect.
Stauffiger and the anonymous NFL-affiliated massage therapist said that the NFL players they work with treat them with respect, and working on athletes has become a safe space for them. “They are there for medical treatment, they are not there to play any games,” the anonymous massage therapist said. “When I started working with the NFL, they changed my whole perspective on men. They made me realize that there are gentlemen out there and they do respect my job and my skill set and my education. I value working with football, 100 percent.”
Per the lawsuits, 17 of the 22 plaintiffs suing Watson had never worked with a Texans player before. Those 17 were not affiliated with professional sports teams, and just one of the 17 said she had experience working with other athletes. Five of the women said in their lawsuits that the assaults happened in Houston spas.
“If they don’t have a connection with the team, I think the situation could be manipulated,” said Matt Meyer, a licensed massage therapist and strength and conditioning coach who has been working with professional athletes since 2008 and with the Bills since 2016. “Unfortunately there is still a stigma around massage therapy.”
Seven of the lawsuits say that Watson specifically told the plaintiff he wanted a Swedish massage or was looking for relaxation, and not a sports massage. Swedish massage is the term used to describe the most common form of massage therapy, sometimes known as “classic massage,” and is intended to relax muscles with a gentler touch than the modalities that most sports massage therapists practice.
But the three NFL-affiliated massage therapists said that their work with players is not in the style of a relaxation massage. The NFL team-affiliated massage therapists all said that their work on players mainly takes the form of lymphatic flushes, sports massage, structural integration, and deep tissue work. “I do structural integration and deep tissue work,” the anonymous therapist said. “It is not relaxing at all, it can be quite painful, especially if you are inflamed or your muscles are sore.”
Stauffinger said that she’s never had a player request a relaxation massage, and if a player is too sore for deep tissue work, they’ll ask for a lymphatic flush to get the blood flowing to heal their muscles.
When applying the deep pressure required for sports massage work, therapists will use their elbows, knuckles, fists, and other tools. Seven of the lawsuits allege that Watson specifically asked the women to use their hands or fingers, instead of knuckles or elbows or tools to apply a deeper pressure. The eighth lawsuit says Watson asked the plaintiff to use “gliding motions with her hands.”
Defector tried to contact 17 of the 18 women who issued statements of support for Watson (one could not be located). Of the 17, eight could not be reached, four declined to comment, two initially agreed to comment and then could not be reached, and three agreed to speak: Arielle Ball, Ana Compean, and Masako Jones. All three said that Watson was not the type of client who ever scheduled an appointment in advance. They, like many of the women suing, said he would typically contact them wanting to get in for a massage on the same day. “I answered the phone all the time,” Compean said. “He would just be like, Do you have someone available in 5 or 10 minutes?”
Like in several lawsuits, Ball said Watson contacted her on Instagram. Nadiya Luqman, another massage therapist who provided a statement in support of Watson, said in her statement that she had one session with him in August at her Houston office. Luqman declined to comment further, but told Defector that she still isn’t sure how Watson got her contact information. To her knowledge, none of her clients referred him to her.
Compean told Defector that she worked on Watson several times at a Houston spa, where he was a regular client, along with several other Texans players and athletes from the Rockets and Dynamo, the MLS team. Compean said Watson saw at least three therapists at that spa and he never acted inappropriately in her sessions with him, but at the spa she’s had clients who showed her a stack of hundred-dollar bills, telling her she could earn it if she’d give them a hand job or oral sex. She always rejected their advances, and two or three times, she said she left the room to end a session. After she rejected the advances of one client at the spa, Compean said the client told her, “I admire you, you’re different.”
Defector reached out to Watson’s defenders before the plaintiffs’ names became public and asked the all three who agreed to speak: What if everything is true? Is there a reality where you are telling the truth, and so are the 22 plaintiffs?
Jones and Campeon didn’t directly answer the question. Jones said she is trying to keep an open mind, but she repeatedly used victim-blaming language, questioning the behavior of the 22 women and the words they chose in their lawsuits. Campeon also blamed the women, saying that because some of them continued to work with Watson after experiencing more than one instance of sexual assault, she didn’t think Watson forced them to do anything they didn’t want to do.
Ball saw it differently.
“You never want to say that their experience did not happen, because it could have,” she said, four days before before two women, Ashley Solis and Lauren Baxley, would give public statements with their names about what they said Watson did to them. “Just because my experience is different than theirs, it doesn’t mean theirs is not valid.”
Another massage therapist who supported Watson, Norma Reyna, an LMT and former director of Memorial Hermann Massage and Spa Therapy School, wrote in her statement, “If a therapist feels uncomfortable at any time during the session, he or she has the ability to end the session and immediately file a complaint with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulations and vice versa.”
But a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulations told Defector that the TDLR does not have a mechanism to track complaints filed about massage clients because the TDLR does not regulate clients. They only track complaints filed against licensed and unlicensed massage therapists. In 2020, there were 28,820 active massage therapy licenses in the state of Texas, a number that includes licensed instructors, schools, and establishments. In 2020, TDLR received just 147 complaints from clients that claimed sexual misconduct against massage therapists.
Of the lawsuits that include the plaintiff’s experience in the bodywork and wellness industry, 10 of the women have three years of experience or fewer. Ten of the lawsuits don’t mention the plaintiff’s specific amount of experience, and just two of the plaintiffs have more than five years of experience: One has been in business for 11 years, and another for nine years. Because so many of the women were specifically young in their careers, 13 of the 22 lawsuits include this same paragraph:
“Plaintiff found it somewhat peculiar that a NFL player would request a massage from her, because she is not yet a well-known masseuse and it was her belief that a player like Watson likely had access to an entire team of trainers and the like. However, at the same time, because Plaintiff, like many small business people, had been actively trying to grow her business and expand her client base, Plaintiff was excited and encouraged that a local professional football player would seek her services.”
The first woman to sue Watson, Solis, had been in business since 2018. She said Watson contacted her through Instagram to set up an appointment, and she then massaged Watson at her own home on March 30, 2020. Even though she was uncomfortable when Watson only covered himself with a small towel he brought with him and asked that she focus on his groin, her lawsuit said, “She did not want to confront Watson, because she feared for her safety or possible retaliation or injury to her fledgling business.”
Breaking into the pro sports wellness world isn’t easy, and massage therapists rely on referrals and word-of-mouth marketing to build up their client list, which puts them in a delicate position when dealing with high-profile clients. Stauffiger’s career goal was to get into sports massage therapy and work with professional athletes, and she said that if she hadn’t connected with the Bills through Meyer, whom she met while taking continuing education courses, she would have been in a similar position as many of the plaintiffs describe. Stauffiger said some of her friends encouraged her to use social media to message players to promote her business, but she never had to do that because she met Meyer.
“I remember trying to get in with the sports teams, and it was really hard,” she said. “I got really lucky.”
Stauffiger has stayed current on the allegations against Watson through updates on the Yahoo Sports app, which sends notifications to her phone. She said she’s seen multiple notifications hit her home screen that use the word “masseuse” in the headline.
“That’s a slang term,” she said. “Derogatory, not everybody knows that.”
Stauffiger talked to Defector because she felt compelled to publicly defend her profession against those who abuse it and misunderstand it. She wants to make sure massage therapy is seen as a professional treatment. “Athletes rely on our treatments to play the game,” she said. “As a professional, these were not the headlines I wanted to see.”