A little over three years ago, when the majority of quarterback-needy NFL teams were doing some deep investigative dive on Jameis Winston, nearly every available bit of character-fluffing was being leveraged by his camp. From his silver-tongued attorney, David Cornwell, to his media savvy quarterbacks coach, George Whitfield, to his less-than impartial former college coach, Jimbo Fisher. And in between, all manner of characters lined up behind the eventual No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft, from former teammates to prospective mentors to fawning ex (and future) head coach Jon Gruden.
The design in play was implanting a singular narrative into the populace: Jameis Winston is a good guy who made some immature decisions.
One only needs an Internet browser and five minutes to cull the remnants of a media-wooing campaign that was a sales pitch built on future hope rather than past precedent. It’s worth revisiting because it’s going to feel familiar over the next two years.
Jameis Winston’s quest for $100 million
With a three-game suspension officially set on Thursday and Winston getting dragged by some of the same people who bought into the first sales pitch, the next two years will be a bug-fixing software update from the same cast of characters. Something along the lines of: Jameis Winston is a good guy who made some immature decisions … 2.0.
Here was part of Winston’s statement on the league’s punishment:
I know I have to hold myself to a higher standard on and off the field and that I have a responsibility to my family, community, and teammates to live above the platform with which God has blessed me. I apologize to my teammates, the Buccaneers organization and fans for letting them down and for not being able to be out there for the first three games of the season. Although I am disappointed in the NFL’s decision, I understand the NFL’s process, and I embrace this as an opportunity to take advantage of the resources available to help me achieve the goals that I have for myself.
“I now look forward to putting this behind me and I will continue to work hard every day to be a positive influence in my community and be the best person, teammate and leader I can be.”
This is what the NFL has to grapple with now with Winston. Two years from potential free agency, this will be the next iteration of this saga: Winston and his camp trying to again recreate the same pre-draft positivity; selling whatever they can to induce a white-knuckled, $100 million guaranteed gamble by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or some other NFL team. That’s where this Jameis Winston story is going. Back to the same place it was in 2015. Back to talking about a young quarterback with immense skills and charisma who is a complete crapshoot from a character standpoint. Back to the boom or bust franchise centerpiece who appears as likely to get management fired as take a team to a Super Bowl.
In the wake of this Winston suspension, no matter how much he wins or loses, there is going to be another sales pitch. One in which we’re implored to look at his charitable foundation or the family he’s building. Or we’re asked to ignore an alleged crotch-grabbing of an Uber driver from 2016 because there is no video evidence or legal accusation. We’ll be asked to trust Jameis again. Trust his people again. Trust the redemptive narrative. And above all, ignore the litany of stupid things Winston has either provably done or allegedly done.
But there will forever be a lingering question of horrific judgment when it comes to Winston’s past. The kind of thing that had former Buccaneers wideout Keyshawn Johnson openly questioning Winston’s mental health this week. Of course, Johnson isn’t a trained doctor or psychiatrist. But this is part of the deal with Winston now. His track record invites some deeply disturbing assessments from those who are disinclined to buy the sales pitch.
The case for and against $100 million
Whether or not the Uber allegations are proven to be true in a public space, one asinine part of the story alone has been verified. The night of the alleged groping – March 13, 2016 – Winston was spending time with ex-Vanderbilt football player Brandon Banks, who was free on bond awaiting his own rape trial — a trial that eventually resulted in a 15-year prison sentence.
That night was almost exactly one year from Winston’s pro day in 2015, when Cornwell, Whitfield and Fisher and everyone else was laboring to convince the world that Winston was just a good kid who had some maturity problems. That a rape allegation against Winston wasn’t true – and that with the draft on the doorstep he finally had his head screwed on straight when it came to life choices.
I distinctly remember Whitfield talking up Winston’s self-awareness and how he knew the eyes of the NFL world were upon him. And how teams had even gone as far as employing pre-draft spies to watch him. And how it was all part of Winston learning what 24-7 maturity and accountability meant.
“[The NFL has] staged people,” Whitfield told Yahoo Sports about league investigations into Winston. “Yeah, there are teams that have staged people on different flights he had, just to kind of be in the midst – a fly on the wall. I had a team official tell me that. … [They’ve used] private eyes. I know people have interviewed his elementary school teachers, bus drivers, team bus drivers, people that gave him rides at the Heisman ceremony. Pilots. … Local restaurants. The lady at the Florida State cafeteria. All that stuff. And hey, if that’s what they feel they need to do to ensure themselves so come draft day they can get up on the table for him, then that’s what you’ve got to do.”
The implication of Whitfield’s words at the time was that everything about Jameis was being sliced, diced and processed through the machine. And if someone was drafting him, they must have found out that he had the right character to make the choice. It was a fair assessment. And not nearly as aggressive a stance as one taken by Fisher, who that same month blamed Winston’s alleged character problems on – of all things – the media.
“Why is there a question [about Winston],” Fisher asked on Tampa Bay radio station WDAE in March of 2015. “Because of the character assassination that he’s lived through in the media, and the [misinformation] and half-truths that have been printed. What amazes me about this whole process is the un-professionalism of a lot of major newspapers, and a lot of major outlets that did not report the whole truth of the situation and only slanted it for their own opinion.”
One year later, Winston was hanging out with Brandon Banks as he awaited a rape trial. Then Winston allegedly got into an Uber drunk and crotch-groped the driver. And now he’s suspended for it by the NFL’s investigative unit.
For any NFL player, it would be considered a troubling and incomprehensible run of stupid. For Winston, it’s just the middle chapter between sales pitches about redeeming the flawed parts of his maturity or character.
One of those pitches successfully got him drafted No. 1 overall by the Buccaneers in 2015. The next will work feverishly to regain the footing on a $100 million contract in 2020. Inside it all, someone will have to resolve the Jameis Winston conundrum by weighing his past reputation against his future promises.
Same as it has ever been.
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