What was a hunch last week has become a reality. The NFL, despite a reputation for meting out discipline without compromise, reached a compromise with Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, giving him a three-game suspension in exchange for an agreement not to appeal and to apologize generally to the victim for whatever it is that he did.
So why did the NFL do it?
With an internal legal system that has been collectively bargained over the years to give the NFL full and complete discretion to impose whatever penalty it wishes and to make it stick in court, the NFL opted instead to do a deal with Winston. At a minimum, it’s a stunning reversal for a Commissioner who has never been one to split the difference with players. At most, it’s a recognition of the reality that, in the #MeToo era, the labeling of a player as a sexual abuser with graphic details and harsh public rhetoric could do more than justify punishment. It also could spark a movement that gets the player shunned by his current team, along with every other NFL franchise.
If that’s the reason for league’s the willingness to agree to a three-game suspension when the NFL easily could have (arguably should have) slapped Winston with the baseline ban of six games and with a potential enhancement for his pre-NFL misconduct, the NFL has become surprisingly magnanimous. It could be that the NFL, as it desperately tries to bring the P.R. focus back to football, didn’t want the next two months to be consumed with news stories delving into the nuts and bolts of the case, with Winston’s camp working the media and eventually taking to court a case that, as Ezekiel Elliott did a year ago, will make the NFL seem to be incompetent at best, malicious at worst.
It’s possible that the NFL ultimately was motivated by both considerations, but not necessarily as a favor to Winston. How does it benefit the NFL to paint Winston with the kind of scarlet hashtag that makes a three-game suspension a de facto permanent banishment? He remains an engaging personality and a competent quarterback. A strategically engineered slap on the wrist, done in a way that minimized the P.R. consequences (indeed, Winston’s camp initially leaked that the suspension would arise from a failure to report the allegations only, and that item of #fakenews surely took some of the sting out of the eventual discipline) allowed the NFL to send a strong message without wrecking Winston’s career.
Look for more deals like this to be considered in the future, given that the court of public opinion now has far more power over a celebrity’s career than Roger Goodell ever will enjoy.