How Hard Are NFL Teams Actually Vetting Draft Picks?

AP Photo/Chris O'Meara

Tampa Bay General Manager Jason Licht said the team read depositions from a woman who accused Jameis Winston of rape, but the team didn't talk to her in person.

Following the NFL draft, when general managers and coaches were asked to talk about the potential impact players they'd just selected, some were delicately approached about the character and legal issues their rookies have faced.

The answers reveal what due diligence looks like from inside the NFL bubble, where a roster of 75 witnesses may be carefully curated.

Peter King spoke to Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht about the investigation into a rape allegation against Jameis Winston, and why that didn't involve making Erica Kinsman the 76th person interviewed. Were the Bucs just listening for what they wanted to hear?

"That's not the case," Licht said adamantly in King's story. "We are not talking about this now ... but we read the depositions. We knew what she was going to say. This was a thorough investigation. We were not going to mistake charisma for character."

Tampa coach Lovie Smith said before the draft how important it is to "look a guy in the eye and feel comfortable with the answers that you're getting."

But looking a woman in the eye? Getting answers that might make you uncomfortable? After months of education on sexual assault and domestic violence, NFL teams still don't seem to be ready to sit down and talk to women. In that case, it appears a deposition will suffice.

And Tampa Bay isn't the only team with that approach.

In the wake of the first NFL draft held since Ray Rice was caught on tape punching his then-fiancée in the face -- the first draft since a new code of conduct -- these anecdotes reveal how many teams are still uncomfortable talking about sexual assault and domestic violence.
Jane McManus

Before the draft, the Chicago Bears hired defensive end Ray McDonald, who was released by the San Francisco 49ers after separate back-to-back allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault. No charges were filed. Bears owner George McCaskey was asked if he had spoken to any of the women involved or their counsel in those cases.

"An alleged victim, I think -- much like anybody else who has a bias in this situation," McCaskey told the Chicago Tribune at owner meetings in March. "There's a certain amount of discounting in what they have to say."

McCaskey talked to plenty of others friendly to McDonald. It's likely that McDonald's mom and former high school coach have their own biases -- likely favoring the player in question. Checking a player out means taking those interviews in context, but not completely discounting a person who might not see him as a good guy.

Perhaps a general manager would interview an alleged victim, look her in the eye, and come away with the feeling that there was a grudge, or that she wasn't being forthcoming. But to go into the process with that assumption and not seek out an interview is a bias of its own.

McCaskey, by the way, is a member of the NFL's new conduct committee. That's right, he will be leading the NFL on issues like domestic violence and sexual assault, even as he dismisses a potential victim's story as biased.

The NFL still has a long way to go.

Talking to women who may have been abused and assaulted is problematic because what if, when you look them in the eye, you believe them, too?

WIVB Buffalo Bills reporter Lauren Brill reported from the Bills' training facility, where the Bills drafted Florida State's Ronald Darby, who witnessed the encounter between Winston and Kinsman, which Kinsman describes as rape and Winston said was consensual. The Bills also drafted FSU's Karlos Williams, who was never charged in connection with a domestic violence investigation last October.

Asked if many teams had questions about the domestic violence investigation, Williams said, "Not really."

"Once I had a chance to really sit down with the organization and talk to Coach [Rex] Ryan and talk to the coaching staff," Williams said, "they really understood the situation at hand was not the same person, that I was a totally different person."

Buffalo general manager Doug Whaley was asked what would make a player off limits. This is from the transcript of that news conference.

Q: Are there indiscretions that are non-starters for you or you would just not consider a player?

A: For me, the one that I would not even want to sit down and talk to a player would be if a guy stole from his teammate. To me that is stealing from your family and that to me is just not something I can deal with for what we're doing. We're trying to build a team and a family and that locker room is sacred. And for that, I have a hard time with that. Obviously, there are some other things that if they're guilty for murder and all that stuff, of course, but the indiscretions we're talking about, yes that would be it."

So, stealing from a teammate and murder.

In the wake of the first NFL draft held since Ray Rice was caught on tape punching his then-fiancée in the face -- the first draft since a new code of conduct -- these anecdotes reveal how many teams are still uncomfortable talking about sexual assault and domestic violence.

The teams seem to be at odds with the league on this. The NFL wants to be seen as a leader on this issue, but teams still want to win and women are still seen through the gaze of suspicion.

The NFL has hired people like investigator Lisa Friel and Vice President of Social Responsibility Anna Isaacson to serve as voices from outside the bubble and break down the insulated thinking that brought the league so much criticism after a two-game suspension for Rice. But individual teams don't have many women involved in the scouting and vetting process.

Ultimately, this means the NFL can appear to be making progress with an issue, even as teams remained mired in their old ways.

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