In past cases involving allegations of player misconduct, the NFL ultimately has issued punishment in part for not telling the truth during the investigation. For example, the league fined Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre $50,000 in his final season for telling something other than the truth during his texting scandal. Three years ago, the league justified the four-game suspension of future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady by accusing him of destroying his phone, presumably in an effort to conceal evidence.
Enter Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston. When allegations of inappropriate conduct with (essentially, sexual assault of) an Uber driver first emerged, Winston was adamant: “A news organization has published a story about me regarding an alleged incident involving a female Uber driver from approximately two years ago. The story falsely accuses me of making inappropriate contact with this driver. 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, and given the nature of the allegation and increased awareness and consideration of these types of matters, I am addressing this false report immediately. At the time of the alleged incident, I denied the allegations to Uber, yet they still decided to suspend my account.”
It’s now clear that Winston was lying. It’s also clear that his former Florida State teammate (and two-time defender against supposedly false claims) Ronald Darby was telling something other than the truth when he rushed to defend his friend.
Said Darby last November: “I felt the need to come forward and clarify some inaccurate accounts of the evening of March 13, 2016 when myself, a friend and Jameis Winston took an Uber ride in Arizona. There were three of us in the car, not just one as has been reported. Myself and Jameis were in the backseat. I am 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.”
Apparently, what Darby said is just not true. Either because he wasn’t in the car the entire time Winston was in the car with the Uber driver (a fairly critical fact) or because Darby has, in the relatively short time since issuing a statement in support of Winston a relatively long time after the incident, forgotten everything.
So if Winston and Darby initially lied, why didn’t the NFL punish them for it? It’s possible that the NFL doesn’t care about lying to the public (even though the NFL should), and that neither man told anything other than the truth to investigators. If that’s the case, the NFL’s investigators continue to leave much to be desired.
In a case like this, when allegations become public and the denials become public and loud, the first order of business should be to lock in the version that was provided for P.R. purposes. Then, after gathering more evidence, the players can be re-interviewed to see whether their stories hold up under more informed questioning.
The NFL apparently didn’t do that with Winston and Darby, or the NFL did and simply doesn’t want to punish them for doing essentially what the league previously accused Favre and Brady of doing.
Even if it’s a product of the league’s new “get back to football” approach, it sets a horrible precedent and sends an awful message to any players who are accused of misconduct in the future — lie without consequence unless and until inescapably confronted with the truth, and then take the punishment that would have been levied if you’d just admitted it in the first place.