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The smoke that often looms in Jameis Winston's vicinity returned last week. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback reportedly faces a three-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy.
The punishment stems from allegations that in 2016 Winston groped a female Uber driver, a matter that didn't become public until November 2017. Winston denied the allegations then, contending he rode in the back of the car and that the woman must have confused him with the individual sitting in the front passenger seat. The NFL launched an investigation and soon will hand down its judgment.
Fair or not, Winston's past will always linger. Because of that, and the high-profile position he plays, he can't afford more transgressions.
As of Friday morning, the Bucs had yet to receive notification from the league. But a three-game ban, reported by local and national outlets, puts Winston's team in a difficult position. With a season opener at New Orleans, then home games against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the Bucs face the toughest three-game opening stretch for any team in the Super Bowl era, according to NFL.com. They'll have to do so minus their best player. In Winston's place: Ryan Fitzpatrick, a 34-year-old journeyman.
On paper, the Bucs appear to boast a talented roster. But a stumble out of the gates could potentially derail their season even after Winston returns.
But the gravity of this situation encompasses more than wins and losses. Sexual assault dwarfs just about everything, and it's not Winston's first such allegation. Dating to his days at Florida State, his history features nearly half as many troubling incidents (from perplexing to serious) as it does NFL wins.
At this point, Winston -- who in 2013 won the Heisman Trophy and led FSU to the national title and in 2015 was named NFL rookie of the year and reached the Pro Bowl -- is known nationally more for troubling behavior than for on-field heroics and supreme physical traits.
However, people close to Winston, both inside the Bucs organization and out, have struggled to fathom the idea of the quarterback sexually assaulting the driver.
Yes, his past is littered with lapses in judgment. But from the time he joined the Bucs, Winston has conveyed an understanding of the responsibility that comes with being a franchise quarterback. He exhibits an appreciation of the role and a passion for the game that has earned the respect of everyone from grizzled veterans to high-ranking team officials.
Off the field, Winston has busied himself with both his own charitable work and that of the team's foundation. He rarely turns down a request, from attending special events, to sending videos to sick children, to donating resources.
He says he wants to inspire children and help them overcome poverty. He respects his elders and jumps at the chance to spend time with former Buccaneers greats, both to learn from them and show them appreciation.
The Bucs see the guy that has learned and remembers the names of everyone who works in the organization, down to the secretaries and security guards.
But what of this sexual predator reputation? More lapses in judgment or are we to believe that all the allegations against him are false?
The impending punishment would suggest the NFL's investigation turned up evidence of punishable behavior. Although, let's be real. The NFL's disciplinary system displays great inconsistencies. The pendulum swings from grossly overboard in some situations to far too lenient on others. And because no official word or findings have been released, it's hard to really say.
But this is clear: Because of his past, outsiders will always struggle to give Winston the benefit of the doubt. And while the latest chapter in the already controversy-laden Jameis Winston story puts the Buccaneers at risk of a debilitating start to their season, it could prove more costly in the long run for the quarterback if he doesn't finally grasp the ultra-high standards that he must meet, given his past.
If Winston accepts the punishment without appeal, it would cost him $124,000, three-seventeenths of his base salary of $705,000. If he appealed and that process dragged out that the suspension hits next season, when his salary will jump to $20.922 million, it would cost $3.7 million.
This season represents a contract year for Winston. The Bucs picked up his fifth-year option for 2019, but they could instead award him a multiyear deal. But this situation could cause Buccaneers brass to pause and ask themselves if they can entrust megabucks to Winston.
Guilty or not, it's hard for Winston to win here. His best bet could entail accepting the punishment and learning from the situation. Whether on the clock or off, he must avoid even a hint of questionable behavior. At the time of the Uber driver incident, Winston was in Arizona to attend Kurt Warner's charity flag football game, and yet he still found trouble. If his narrative is true and it was an associate who did in fact grope the driver, the quarterback must distance himself from questionable individuals.
If guilty, Winston the quarterback deserves the suspension, and Winston the man needs to get help.
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