Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston has been suspended three games to start the 2018 season for an incident that took place over two years ago. The NFL suspended Winston under its personal conduct policy -- a broad and nebulous framework that operates at the discretion of the commissioner and came under significant scrutiny last season while Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott challenged it in federal court.
The Winston situation is complex. This isn't like a drug suspension, for which specific penalties are laid out for specific offenses in a collectively bargained policy. This situation involves a lot of factors, ranging from the conduct cloud under which Winston entered the NFL to the conflicting accounts of what happened on the night in question. It's one of those disciplinary matters the NFL so often seems to take on despite a lack of helpful precedent or self-imposed guidance.
But take it on the NFL has, and the result is that Winston was suspended. We're here to help try to answer some of the questions you may have about this whole thing and how/why it went down the way it did.
What's this all about, anyway?
In March of 2016, a couple of months after the end of Winston's rookie season in the NFL, Winston was partying with friends in Scottsdale, Arizona, and ended up in an Uber. The driver of that car, whose identity still has never been revealed, alleges that Winston grabbed her crotch while they were waiting in a restaurant drive-thru lane.
Did she press charges?
She did not and still has not, though she did report the alleged incident to Uber, which deactivated Winston's account shortly after the night in question.
So how did anyone find out about this?
The incident only came to light last fall, when Winston's accuser shared her story with BuzzFeed News. At that point, the NFL launched its investigation into the matter.
What has Winston said about it?
In a Nov. 17 Instagram post, Winston denied the allegations, writing in part, "I believe the driver was confused as to the number of passengers in the car and who was sitting next to her. The accusation is false." After the NFL announced the suspension Thursday, Winston released a longer statement, which read in part, "I would like to say I'm sorry to the Uber driver for the position I put you in." Winston has informed the NFL that he will not appeal his suspension.
Damien Woody says "hard decisions" have to be made about Jameis Winston after the Buccaneers QB received a three-game suspension for allegedly groping an Uber driver.
Are there any witnesses?
Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby, a former Florida State teammate of Winston's, issued a statement shortly after the publication of the BuzzFeed story saying he was in the car with Winston that night and that he was "confident that nothing inappropriate in nature happened in the car that evening and Jameis did not have any physical contact with the Uber driver. The accusations are just not true."
But Outside the Lines reported late last week that the other individual with Winston and Darby that night was former Vanderbilt football player Brandon Banks, who's serving a 15-year prison sentence for rape and sexual battery. Banks' attorney told Outside the Lines that Banks disputes Darby's account and says Banks and Darby put Winston in the Uber alone that night.
So how did the NFL figure out what happened?
Details of the NFL's investigation remain unclear -- the details of the Ezekiel Elliott investigation came out only after his appeal hearing last season, remember. But there are indications via league sources that Winston may have taken more than one Uber ride that night -- meaning that Darby's account and Banks' account aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. Whatever the league learned, it determined that it had enough evidence to suspend Winston for his behavior that night. The league's statement does say that its investigation found "that the driver's account of the incident was consistent and credible. As a result, the investigation had concluded that Winston violated the personal conduct policy by touching the driver in an inappropriate and sexual manner without her consent."
Does all that trouble Winston got into in college factor into this at all?
Well, it could, according to the letter of the policy. Winston came into the league with a long list of off-field baggage, the most serious of which was a rape allegation from his time at Florida State. The NFL may come out and say this punishment is only for the Uber incident, but the league's policy allows it to impose additional discipline for "repeat offenders." According to the league's personal conduct policy, "Players who have had previous violations of law or of this policy may be considered repeat offenders. When appropriate, conduct occurring prior to the player's association with the NFL will be considered." The policy says that "repeat offenders will be subject to enhanced and/or expedited discipline."
So, yes, it's entirely possible that the NFL could or has considered Winston's pre-NFL history when determining how to punish him here, but the short and somewhat inconsistent history of the personal conduct policy's application means it wouldn't have to do so. For example, when the NFL announced earlier this offseason that it would not discipline Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia for allegations of sexual assault while he was in college, it cited the fact that the allegations occurred long before Patricia's affiliation with the NFL.
Josina Anderson reacts to the NFL handing Jameis Winston a three-game suspension for allegedly groping an Uber driver and what it says that the Bucs QB is not appealing the suspension.
What does this mean for Winston in the short term?
He'll still be allowed to participate in training camp practices and preseason work, including games, but as soon as the Bucs' final preseason game ends, Winston must stay away from the team and the facility until the conclusion of his suspension. He will lose $124,411.76 in salary during the suspension. He will be eligible to return in time for the Bucs' Week 4 game against Chicago. He will miss games against the Saints, Eagles and Steelers.
Can he appeal the suspension?
Winston absolutely could have done what Elliott did -- appeal the suspension and challenge it in federal court, seeking stays of the suspension that allow him to stay on the field while the appeals process is heard. But in a statement, the NFL wrote, "Winston has advised the league office that he accepts this discipline."
What does this mean for Winston's future with the Buccaneers?
This is the final year of Winston's four-year rookie contract. He's due to earn a fully guaranteed $3.892 million in salary and bonuses this year. As a first-round pick (No. 1 overall in 2015), Winston's rookie contract includes a fifth-year team option for 2019. The team exercised that option in May, meaning it would pay him $20.9 million in salary if he's still on the team in 2019. However, according to the collective bargaining agreement, that option year is only guaranteed against injury right now. It doesn't become fully guaranteed until 4 p.m. ET on March 13 -- the first day of the 2019 league year. That means the Bucs could revoke the option and move on from Winston -- as long as he's not injured -- at any time between the end of the season and the start of the new league year. It's entirely possible that Winston's behavior and performance between now and the end of the season will affect Tampa Bay's decision about what to do with Winston beyond 2018.
Adam Schefter reports that any future violation of the league's personal conduct policy by Jameis Winston will result in a more substantial discipline, including a potential ban from the NFL.
Could he face any more trouble off the field from this incident?
Absolutely, he could. Many people connected with this situation believe Winston's accuser will eventually file charges -- more likely civil than criminal -- against Winston. It's possible she and her attorneys have been waiting for the league to act before bringing charges presenting their case, as the resolution of the case from the NFL's standpoint could be a factor in any eventual court proceedings.
Another violation of the personal conduct policy in the future would mean more substantial discipline, "including a potential ban from the NFL," according to the league's statement.