Joking aside, Jameis Winston's shoplifting raises legitimate concerns

Wednesday April 30th, 2014

Florida State QB Jameis Winston received an adult civil citation for shoplifting crab legs Tuesday night.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

There were so many jokes.

Even Florida's agriculture commissioner got in on the action.

On the surface, it was pretty funny. Ridiculous, actually. Who steals crab legs? And what law enforcement agency holds a press conference to announce that it has caught someone stealing crab legs?

But the first thing is what defending Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston did on Tuesday night. The second is what the Leon County Sheriff's Office did on Wednesday. According to major Mike Wood, the Florida State quarterback ordered $32.72 worth of crab legs and crawfish from a Publix supermarket in Tallahassee, Fla., and walked out of the store without paying. Store employees had Winston on video, and when deputies went to Winston's residence and asked what happened, Winston told them he had left the store without paying and hadn't realized it until he got home. "But he, in fact, had made no effort to contact Publix or returned to pay prior to the deputies' arrival," Wood said.

Winston received an adult civil citation -- essentially a ticket for petty crimes committed by people with no previous criminal record -- that will require him to perform at least 20 hours of community service. Winston, who plays in the outfield and pitches for Florida State's baseball team, has been suspended from that sport until he completes his legal obligations. "I want to start by clearly stating that Jameis Winston has not been arrested for any crime," Wood said as he began his press conference. That doesn't change the fact that Winston committed one.

In the grand scheme, $32.72 isn't much. But stealing is stealing, and Winston is smart enough to know that. That might be the most surprising aspect of the Great Crab Leg Heist. For a guy constantly praised by coaches for his intelligence, Winston did something incredibly dumb. He admitted as much in a statement released through his attorney, Tim Jansen. "I went to the supermarket with the intent to purchase dinner but made a terrible mistake for which I'm taking full responsibility," Winston said in the statement. "In a moment of youthful ignorance, I walked out of the store without paying for one of my items."

If this was Winston's first and only brush with the law, the story would end right there, and the jokes would crank up again. His mistake -- and his contrition when caught -- would have resonated with everyone who did something stupid in college. (And that's pretty much all of us who ever set foot on a campus.) When the NC State band followed the advice of Austin, Texas, radio host Sean Adams and struck up "Under The Sea" -- featured lyric: "We've got a hot crustacean band" -- during the Seminoles' away game at Raleigh on Sept. 27, it would have drawn a good laugh and that would be that.

But this wasn't Winston's only meeting with law enforcement since arriving in Tallahassee. His pattern of behavior has long since passed the "boys will be boys" verdict he's obviously hoping he'll receive in the court of public opinion based on this part of his statement: "I hope and pray my friends and family will view me as the 20-year-old young man that I am, and support me through this unfortunate situation."

NFL scout: Jameis Winston's pro draft stock is rapidly sinking

The problem for Winston is this isn't the first unfortunate situation, and the fact that they keep happening could soon become very expensive for him. Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher can do whatever he wants with regard to discipline. With Florida State opening against Oklahoma State on Aug. 30, a suspension seems unlikely. But someone in Tallahassee might want to explain to Winston that inexplicable criminal acts by people who know they have a high profile raise legitimate red flags in NFL front offices. This isn't the kind of skinny-knees/doesn't-love-football tripe that pops up before every draft. This incident raises a legitimate concern that could cost Winston millions. Based on his football ability alone, he should be in contention for the top spot in the 2015 NFL draft. But teams could shy away from a player who hasn't seemed to learn anything from his time on campus.

There are the other petty incidents. He was questioned about a BB gun fight in November 2012 that broke windows. (Winston denied involvement.) In July 2013, a Burger King employee called the police and accused Winston of stealing soda from a fountain machine in the store. (Store management declined to prosecute.) Then there is the big one.

We're not going to rehash the entire case involving the rape accusation against Winston by a female Florida State student here. The complete investigative reports from the State Attorney's Office and the Tallahassee Police Department are linked in this column, and if you haven't read them, you probably should before deciding whether you think Winston committed a crime. State attorney Willie Meggs didn't feel the evidence presented a strong enough case to get a conviction, so he declined to prosecute Winston. The U.S. Department of Education is investigating Florida State's response to the case, so it's possible that more information will surface. But even the available evidence that helps Winston's case doesn't paint him in a great light, and the damage to his reputation even without a criminal charge is undeniable.

Winston knew the accusation placed him under the brightest possible spotlight. He talked about it the day before he won the Heisman Trophy. "Everything I do and [how] I carry myself is a form of character," Winston said in New York. "My parents brought me up right. I'm going to be myself no matter what's going on or what's happening." Basically, his actions would define his reputation. On Tuesday, Winston chose to steal something.

Winston certainly won't be the first recent Heisman-winning quarterback to deal with character questions in the draft. Cam Newton was selected first overall in spite of an incident at Florida in which he was accused of stealing another student's laptop. Johnny Manziel was arrested on disorderly conduct and fake ID charges after a fight outside a bar in June 2012, and Manziel is projected to be a top-10 pick next week. The difference is that Newton and Manziel avoided any other brushes with the law between their initial dealings with police and the end of their college careers. (Both were accused of breaking NCAA rules, but no one in the NFL cares enough about the NCAA's rules to allow that to impact a draft decision.) Winston has the charisma to win any press conference, but his meetings with team executives won't be press conferences. Executives will want to discern the reasons he makes the decisions he makes before they make him the face of the franchise. Any future incidents such as Tuesday's will make it impossible to formulate a satisfactory answer.

All Winston can do to help himself now is try to remember the words from his statement and work to make sure his attorney doesn't have to issue any more. "I must realize that my mistakes are magnified and can bring great embarrassment to all those who support me every day," Winston said in the statement. "I make no excuses for my actions and will learn and grow from this unfortunate situation."

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