On Thursday afternoon, the NFL announced that it had suspended Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston for the first three games of the 2018 season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. The suspension stems from a March 2016 incident that occurred in Scottsdale, Arizona, in which an Uber driver said that Winston groped her. The NFL determined that the driver was “consistent and credible” in her recollection of the night in question, and the league’s statement on the matter included the following passage: “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.”
After the suspension was levied, Winston issued a statement of his own, claiming that the incident was part of a stretch of life experiences that have helped him “grow, mature, and learn.” Winston also apologized to the driver, though he never acknowledged any wrongdoing. As NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported later Thursday, Winston did not admit guilt as part of his negotiated suspension settlement with the league.
The ruling—and the settlement that led to it—reveals systemic failures by every institution involved. That begins with the NFL, as this represents the latest instance of the league’s maddening inability to properly adjudicate the personal conduct policy that it put into place in December 2014. That policy appears to mandate a six-game suspension for violations such as Winston’s. Yet Winston will serve half that time because he was willing to offer a half-hearted apology to commissioner Roger Goodell and the powers that be. To anyone with even a tenuous grasp of reason, this makes zero sense.
After Tom Brady was accused of plotting to deflate footballs in 2015, he was unwilling to show the same contrition. Brady was suspended four games after a prolonged legal battle. Former Giants kicker Josh Brown was accused of (and admitted to in journal entries) repeatedly assaulting his now-ex-wife; he was initially suspended a single game in 2016, before the league tacked on six games a year later (when Brown, notably, wasn’t on an NFL roster). Ezekiel Elliott was given a six-game punishment last season on the heels of an investigation into multiple accounts of violence against an ex-girlfriend. And Martavis Bryant was suspended for all of 2016 for missing multiple drug tests for marijuana. Attempting to find consistency here is a fool’s errand. Apparently violations of drug policies get you crushed, while those violating the league’s nebulous conduct policy are reprimanded differently, depending on their willingness to repent at the feet of Goodell, the Great Decider.
The Winston ruling also provides context for just how misguided the league’s priorities continue to be. Barely more than a month ago, owners passed a rule designed to prevent players from kneeling on the field during the national anthem—a rule that was reportedly motivated, at least in part, by a desire to satiate the president of the United States. Rather than finding ways to adequately enforce the policies it already has in place, the NFL has chosen to devise a new rule to appease a political bogeyman. The league’s total failure to handle seemingly any situation without creating a public relations nightmare is unceasing, baffling, and, at this point, exhausting. Even for the staunchest football lovers among us, embracing the sport has never been more difficult.
Then there’s the Buccaneers’ role in all this, which is also worth examining. This is an organization that has tried to explain away Winston’s transgressions at every turn, and as a result both player and team face increasingly uncertain futures. This suspension could spell the end of Winston’s tenure in Tampa Bay.
The Bucs’ first three regular-season games this fall are against the Saints, Eagles, and Steelers. Even with Winston at quarterback, it seemed possible that Tampa Bay could start 0-3. Now that feels like a given. The Bucs picked up Winston’s fifth-year, $21 million option in April, but that figure isn’t guaranteed against injury. And after all this, the notion that the team would consider keeping Winston on the roster next year is getting harder to believe.
Of course, this is also a franchise that has rationalized all of his ills until now, valuing the idea of what he could become over what he’s been. Since arriving in Tampa Bay, Winston has displayed the same penchant for awful decision-making that he showed at Florida State. The Bucs have consistently proved willing to look past it. Thinking that way in regard to Winston’s traits as a player was faulty. That the same type of thinking extended to his traits as a person is downright troubling.
When the Bucs took Winston with the first overall pick in the 2015 draft, he was, at best, someone who had chronically displayed terrible judgment. At worst, he was someone capable of committing violence against women. This latest incident suggests that he can be both. The Bucs were willing to ignore that when drafting him, though, including an account of rape he faced in 2012, because he was occasionally a spectacular quarterback. In repeatedly prizing flashes of on-field promise over everything else, the Buccaneers became just the latest institution to enable Winston.
The question now is what institution will enable Winston next. It could be Tampa Bay, which could choose to keep Winston on the roster, hide behind his nonapology, and once again frame this incident as a “learning experience” that the quarterback must bravely overcome. If the Bucs move on, some other NFL team will likely give Winston a chance, signing him in what would surely be spun as a reclamation project.
If that tone sounds resigned, it should. Both the NFL and its teams have proved countless times that they’re willing to overlook actions and behaviors far worse than the ones they punish most harshly. Winston getting multiple chances to rehabilitate his image and resurrect his career feels inevitable. That’s the reality of the NFL, and it’s a reality that simply should not be accepted.