The jokes came easy Wednesday once details of Jameis Winston’s latest immature episode started to surface, but none of them were as funny as the statements from Winston himself and a Florida State athletic department full of national title-level enablers.
Fewer than five months ago, those same folks were trying to whisk him away from reporters the day before the Heisman Trophy ceremony once questions about the sexual assault investigation that just concluded started coming his way. Though Florida State officials eventually realized their mistake and allowed Winston to complete the news conference, their instinct was to shield and protect rather than allow their then-19-year-old quarterback to feel the full measure discomfort that the circumstances demanded.
Now here we are again, and no one will suggest that walking out of a Publix grocery store without paying for $32.72 worth of crab legs and crawfish is anything close to what he was alledged to have done on Dec. 7, 2012. It practically goes without saying that one is a petty crime at worst; the other a serious, life-altering allegation for which there was not enough evidence to bring charges against the Seminoles’ two-sport star.
But Florida State really couldn’t do any better than a lame statement that amounts to little more than classifying this as the baseball team’s problem while football coach Jimbo Fisher sits back and nods his head? And Winston couldn’t do better than a statement through his attorney taking “full responsibility” for “a moment of youthful ignorance?”
Neither, of course, has any incentive to truly face Winston’s behavioral issues with the seriousness they deserve. But here’s who would: Corporate America.
With an antitrust lawsuit concerning the use of college athletes’ names and likenesses working its way through the courts possibly headed for trail this summer, it is not hard to envision a world where a college athlete such as Jameis Winston eventually earns the right to represent companies such as Nike, McDonald’s or even, yes, Publix in exchange for money.
The NCAA and its member schools are fighting hard against that concept, but perhaps they should embrace it because there will be no better way to regulate and monitor the off-field behavior of their athletes than giving them the responsibility of representing multibillion-dollar corporations that don’t need them nearly as much as the colleges they play for.
Even without the sexual assault allegation, this is still the third time Winston has been caught up in odd circumstances since he’s been on campus. Last November, the Associated Press uncovered city records that showed Winston and some teammates were questioned by police in regard to a BB gun battle one year earlier and that he had been accused by a Burger King employee of stealing soda from the restaurant last July.
All that stuff happened before Winston became well-known, even locally, so “youthful ignorance” might very well fit. But if Winston isn’t self-aware enough by this point to understand that the Heisman Trophy winner can’t walk out of the local Publix with groceries he didn’t pay for, something isn’t functioning the way it should.
The problem, of course, is larger than just Florida State and Winston. Some colleges do life lessons better than others, but far too many are built to protect-and-excuse because the only way a player like Winston can truly hurt his university is by not playing Aug. 30 against Oklahoma State. Having baseball in the picture to offer the veneer of punishment by suspending him a few games only makes it more convenient.
From drug use to theft to assault, a coddling coach and weak-willed athletics director can rationalize almost anything with internal punishments and token suspensions. They do it every Saturday in every conference in America. They don’t mind being embarrassed.
But do you think major corporations would feel the same way?
From the beginning, Winston has been handled with kid gloves by Florida State, and it’s apparent they will continue to treat him that way even after this latest incident. It would be interesting, however, to see the tolerance level from a company with Winston under contract and an enforceable termination clause about off-field behavior. It almost certainly wouldn’t accept the pattern of irresponsibility Winston has established in his two-plus years with the Seminoles.
One of the biggest arguments against paying college athletes, or at least allowing them to pursue endorsement deals, is that they are not mature enough to handle the money and everything that comes with it.
But those people have it exactly wrong. True responsibility brings real consequences, and football powers such as Florida State usually have too much to lose to deal with the latter.