Once we reach the statement-releasing phase of any NFL controversy, the place beyond the sought-after penalty announcement where the findings are released and the true desires of parties are laid out in banal legalese, our eyes tend to gloss over.
Our takeaway from Thursday’s news was that Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston has been suspended for three games, and that Ryan Fitzpatrick will be Tampa Bay’s quarterback for almost a quarter of this season. Next in the stick-to-sports playbook is to pivot toward Winston’s future, and we’ll get to that, because that’s what we’re supposed to do. But before we do, here’s what you missed from a pair of air-tight, spit-shined-by-a-lawyer statements released by the NFL and Winston. Here’s what they assume you slept through:
• After an investigation prompted by a Buzzfeed News report, the NFL determined that Kate, an Uber driver from Scottsdale, Ariz., was “consistent and credible” in her recollection of the incident. She alleged in 2017 that the Buccaneers quarterback was shouting “homophobic slurs at pedestrians” and, in the drive-through of a Mexican restaurant, “reached over and ... just grabbed [her] crotch.” The NFL said “the investigation had concluded that Winston violated the personal conduct policy by touching the driver in an inappropriate and sexual manner without her consent and that disciplinary action was necessary and appropriate.”
• Winston, in his own statement, said that he was sorry to the driver “for the position I put you in” but did not apologize specifically for the alleged crime. He also added that “I have eliminated alcohol from my life.” This is after Winston initially called the accusation “false,” saying “I am certain that I did not make any inappropriate contact.”
• This was, as many have pointed out, a negotiation between the NFL, Winston and the NFLPA. Much like Tom Brady had the option to apologize and take a much shorter suspension during the Deflategate incident (he declined), Winston essentially had the chance to say he was sorry for … something … and avoid the league’s baseline standard for offenses of this nature, which is a six-game suspension.
• The league is leaning on a part of their personal conduct policy that mentions consideration for “aggravating or mitigating factors.” Winston taking responsibility for, again, something that is not specifically grabbing the crotch of the Uber driver, appears to be the mitigating factor. The NFL didn’t respond to a request for more specifics about why exactly his suspension was reduced from the six-game baseline.
Does that all feel a little gross? Does it seem like an authentic turning point away from this incident for Winston, who previously settled a rape case with accuser Erica Kinsman in 2016 and screamed obscenities about the female anatomy while standing in the middle of a college campus? Do you feel OK with the NFL’s much ballyhooed policy on issues of sexual assault and domestic violence that, according to a 2017 Bleacher Report Mag story, delivered the full six-game suspension for two out of 18 offenders?
If you’re Winston and truly maintain your innocence, doesn’t this seem radically unfair? If you’re the Uber driver who came forward, does an apology for being put in a bad position solve anything?
Are you still curious about the on-field fate of Winston, or has it become fairly obvious at this point?
• Winston plays exceptionally well upon his return from suspension, and the momentum creats sparks another awkward redemption tour. He is credited with keeping the focus on football and rewarded with a lucrative contract extension.
• Winston does not play well and the Buccaneers miss the playoffs. In an effort to reclaim the moral high ground, the team either passes Winston on to another quarterback needy coach who “believes in second chances,” or hires a new, gritty coach who “believes in second chances” and rewards him with a slightly less lucrative contract extension.
If that all seems fine, don’t be surprised when it happens a few months from now. But when the end game is so clear—to return all eyeballs to the field with the perception that justice has been served, letting performance ultimately dictate decision-making—it’s hard not to pick up on.
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