Jameis Winston touched an Uber driver “in an inappropriate and sexual manner without her consent.” That was written in an NFL press release Thursday, announcing the findings of a league investigation into a March 2016 incident in Scottsdale, Ariz. It’s a plain and straightforward conclusion, with no equivocation.
If only the same could be said for his punishment. The Buccaneers quarterback was suspended for three games by the NFL—three, not six, the baseline punishment for first-time offenders stated in the league’s personal conduct policy.
It’s ironic, given that consistency was a driving force behind re-writing the policy in 2014, months after the league’s mishandling of discipline for Ray Rice after he struck his then-fiancée in a casino elevator. But the six-game standard has been far from that; in truth, it’s been the exception rather than the rule, applied to just a handful of cases since 2014. There’s a big problem beyond simple optics or ticking off opposing teams when you undercut the supposed baseline, allowing for mitigating factors in imposing discipline, or for the penalty to be negotiated down in a settlement, as our Albert Breer reported happened with Winston. The problem is that you end up qualifying bad behavior.
You hear things like, Well, groping is “not as bad as” rape. Or, because Winston told NFL investigators he had been drinking the night of the incident, as NFL Network reported, and supposedly did not remember everything that happened that night, we do not require him to apologize or take responsibility for his actions. By treating bad behaviors as “not as bad,” we enable and excuse them.
If the personal conduct policy has been violated—and in its statement the NFL concludes that, based on interviews with several people including the Uber driver, plus evidence including phone records and electronic data, it clearly has been—then the baseline punishment should be applied. (The driver did not go to the police, but she immediately reported the incident to her employer, writing in her incident report, “He is NOT safe for other drivers.” Uber removed Winston’s account from the ride-share service.)
The NFL, to its credit, did that with Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, whose former girlfriend said he was physically violent against her. The league’s investigators cited evidence like photos, electronic records and input from the local prosecutor—even though Elliott did not face charges—and the NFL held fast to its stated six-game standard, despite a battle in the courts and between influential club owner Jerry Jones and commissioner Roger Goodell. Why, then, soften that stance with Winston?
Perhaps Winston earned lenience for cooperating with the NFL investigation, but his public words have fallen short of taking responsibility for the actions the NFL concluded he has committed. In Winston’s statement regarding the suspension, he apologized to the Uber driver “for the position I put you in.” That’s not an apology, though, for grabbing her in an inappropriate and sexual manner without her consent. And the fact that he reportedly told investigators he doesn’t remember everything that happened that night because he was drinking is convenient. Last November, when BuzzFeed News first reported the account from the Uber driver, Kate, who said Winston grabbed her crotch while waiting at a fast food drive-thru, Winston swiftly released a statement calling her account “false” four different times. “I am certain that I did not make any inappropriate conduct,” he said, just seven months ago.
While the NFL personal conduct policy allows for mitigating factors, it also allows for aggravating ones, among them, “similar misconduct before joining the NFL.” During Winston’s career at Florida State, a fellow student, Erica Kinsman, said that he raped her. Winston maintained the sex was consensual and was not criminally charged; an investigation in the New York Times later concluded that the police and the university did little to determine what happened. In 2016, after Winston had been drafted No. 1 overall by the Buccaneers without the team even reaching out to Kinsman to hear her side of the story, Kinsman won settlements in lawsuits against both FSU and Winston.
A second woman sought counseling at FSU after a sexual encounter with Winston, the Times investigation reported. Georgia Cappleman, an assistant state attorney in Tallahassee, was quoted in that article saying the incidents involving Winston indicated “a recurring problem rather than some type of misunderstanding that occurred in an isolated situation.” Her assessment stands in stark contrast to Winston’s statement this week regarding the Uber driver: “It is uncharacteristic of me and I genuinely apologize.”
There’s always going to be an uncomfortable element to applying a suspension for a certain number of games to serious off-field misconduct like sexual assault and domestic violence. Yet the policy serves an important purpose: to penalize employees who act badly, regardless of whether or not they face criminal charges.
Winston and the league settling on a suspension that cuts the baseline suspension in half was the quickest way for both sides to move past this, avoiding yet another legal saga over player discipline that could have been damaging for both sides. But in doing so, the NFL is doing the very thing that brought us here—enabling and excusing.
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