“I know I have to hold myself to a higher standard on and off the field and that I have a responsibility to my family, community, and teammates to live above the platform with which God has blessed me,” said Winston, 24, adding, “Although I am disappointed in the NFL’s decision, I understand the NFL’s process, and I embrace this as an opportunity to take advantage of the resources available to help me achieve the goals that I have for myself.”
In announcing the suspension Thursday, the NFL said that it had conducted “a comprehensive investigation that included interviews with several persons, including the driver, Winston and others with relevant information,” and that it “also examined an extensive amount of other evidence, including telephone records, business records, data from electronic devices and other communications.”
The NFL described the Uber driver’s account of the incident as “consistent and credible,” adding, “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 and that disciplinary action was necessary and appropriate.”
The league could have suspended Winston for six games, under a personal conduct policy revised in 2014 following the outcry from a two-game ban initially handed to then-Ravens running back Ray Rice for physically assaulting his fiancee. However, that policy includes a provision for the possibility of “mitigating factors,” and NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported Thursday that, according to sources, Winston’s apology was part of a “negotiated settlement,” including no appeal of his three-game suspension.
“First and foremost, I would like to say I’m sorry to the Uber driver for the position I put you in,” Winston said in his statement. “It is uncharacteristic of me and I genuinely apologize. In the past 2 1/2 years my life has been filled with experiences, opportunities and events that have helped me grow, mature and learn, including the fact that I have eliminated alcohol from my life.”
Pelissero said his understanding was that Winston told “NFL investigators and others close to him through this process” that “he does not believe that he did what was alleged; however, he also was drinking that night, and said that he does not clearly remember the events.” Pelissero added that “it has been a while, over a year, since Jameis Winston drank alcohol,” a period during which the quarterback got engaged and announced that he was expecting a child with his fiancee.
Winston had previously denied the allegations made by the driver regarding events said to have taken place around 2 a.m. on March 16, 2016, when she was driving him in Scottsdale, Ariz. She reported the episode immediately to Uber but did not press charges, and her claims only became public in November 2017, when BuzzFeed published comments from her about the incident, including, “He sexually assaulted me, and I have every right to tell the damn truth about it.”
Saying that Winston, seated in the passenger seat, reached over and groped her for several seconds while they were waiting in a restaurant’s drive-through line, the driver said that other men had helped put Winston in the car and told her that she would be chauffeuring someone famous. The driver, identified only as “Kate,” told BuzzFeed that as soon as she began driving him, “Jameis behaved poorly,” in part by shouting homophobic slurs at pedestrians.
“If I’m silent, I fear that further harm will come to other women, if it hasn’t already,” the driver said.
The NFL commenced an investigation after that story was published, and Winston quickly issued a rebuttal to the allegations, saying in November on his Instagram account, “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.”
“While I am certain that I did not make any inappropriate contact, I don’t want to engage in a battle with the driver and I regret if my demeanor or presence made her uncomfortable in any way,” Winston said in his post.
Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby, who played with Winston at Florida State, said at the time that he and the quarterback were in the back of the Uber car with an unidentified third companion in the passenger seat. “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,” Darby said. “The accusations are just not true.”
An attorney for former Vanderbilt linebacker Brandon Banks told ESPN last week that his client was the third companion that evening and that Banks “was never in the car with this victim.” Banks’s account, according to the attorney, was that the three players were in another Uber, with a different female driver, earlier in the evening, and that the car driven by Kate was summoned after Winston became intoxicated and “unruly.”
Banks is now serving a 15-year prison sentence in Tennessee after being convicted in June 2017 of having participated in the 2013 gang-rape of an unconscious female Vanderbilt student. Winston was accused of rape by a fellow FSU student in 2012, but after an investigation, Tallahassee authorities declined to bring charges against him. In December 2016, Winston came to an undisclosed settlement of a lawsuit brought by his accuser, and she also settled with the university for $950,000, with FSU admitting to no liability in its handling of the case.
The NFL said that Winston will be “required to obtain a clinical evaluation and fully cooperate in any recommended program of therapeutic intervention,” in addition to serving the suspension. He is set to miss games against the Saints, Eagles and Steelers, with backup quarterbacks Ryan Fitzpatrick and Ryan Griffin competing in training camp to determine his replacement.
“All members of our organization are expected to conduct themselves in accordance with the Personal Conduct Policy of the NFL,” the Buccaneers said Thursday in a statement. “We are disappointed that Jameis put himself in a position that has been found to violate the policy and accept today’s decision by the Commissioner.”