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College football feels the heat: Jameis Winston punished for crude comment

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was suspended on Wednesday for half a game for making a lewd and offensive statement in a public forum.
Jameis Winston of the Florida State Seminoles walks off the field after a game at AT&T Stadium on Aug. 30, 2014 in Arlington, Texas.  Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty
Jameis Winston of the Florida State Seminoles walks off the field after a game at AT&T Stadium on Aug. 30, 2014 in Arlington, Texas.

A college football star behaving badly is nothing new. But when the student-athlete in question has previously been accused of sexual assault and his actions take place amid a period of national scrutiny when it comes to the sport — then the stakes are raised.

Florida State Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston was suspended on Wednesday for half a game for making a lewd and offensive statement in a public forum on campus on Tuesday. 

"As the university's most visible ambassadors, student-athletes at Florida State are expected to uphold at all times high standards of integrity and behavior that reflect well upon themselves, their families, coaches, teammates, the Department of Athletics and Florida State University," interim president Garnett Stokes and athletics director Stan Wilcox said in a joint statement. "Student-athletes are expected to act in a way that reflects dignity and respect for others."

The comment Winston made was intended as a nod to an Internet meme, where bystanders shout the crude phrase when a reporter is conducting a live report. "First of all I just want to apologize to the university, to my coaches and to my teammates," Winston said. "I'm not a me person, but in that situation, that was a selfish act and that's not how you do things around here, so I really just want to apologize to my teammates because I've now made a selfish act for them and that's all."

Winston has been a lightning rod during the past year following allegations that he sexually assaulted an 18-year-old woman in 2012. The state prosecutor in Tallahassee did not bring charges against Winston, citing a lack of evidence and problems with the investigation, but in the months since, there has been widespread speculation that Winston may have benefited from special treatment because of his superstar status.

"This is criminal investigation 101, it seems to me. It's a real failure," Samuel Walker, author and emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha told Slate last year. "The question in my mind is: Are they incompetent or was this willful?"

Patricia Carroll, the lawyer for the accuser, has claimed that police attempted to convince her client not to press charges against Winston and failed to collect DNA evidence from the quarterback. Tallahassee detective Scott Angulo is alleged to have told Winston's accuser that Tallahassee is a "big football town" and said she should "think long and hard before proceeding against [Winston] because she will be raked over the coals and her life will be made miserable," according to ESPN. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement did eventually match a DNA sample given voluntarily by Winston to one taken from the alleged victim’s underwear.

Carroll called on the Florida State Attorney General's office to re-open the case last December. Winston has not spoken publicly about the encounter but has reportedly told his representatives that he had a consensual encounter with the accuser. The local authorities have maintained that the case failed to go forward because the alleged victim broke off contact with police during the investigation.

The 20-year-old quarterback led the Florida State Seminoles to a BCS national championship earlier this year and won the Heisman Trophy in 2013. Despite the baggage in his personal life, he had been heavily hyped as a likely first round draft pick for the NFL next year.

Yet his behavior since news of the sex assault allegations became public has raised concerns both in and outside the world of sports. In May, he was accused of shoplifting $32 worth of crab legs from a local supermarket. A Florida-based Burger King also reported that Winston stole soda without paying for it last July. He was also questioned over his involvement in what has been described as a BB gun battle which reportedly left 13 broken windows at an apartment complex near the Seminoles' Doak Campbell Stadium. This half-game suspension is the first playing time he's missed for his off-the-field infractions to date.

"It was not a good decision," Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said. "You can't make certain statements that are derogatory or inflammatory to any person, race or gender. You have to understand that."

The Winston news broke amid weeks of headlines and negative publicity about violent behavior of NFL stars. Former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice has been suspended indefinitely from the league and his contract was terminated by his team for physically abusing his fiancée in February. The NFL has said they have no intention of considering his appeal of their decision. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings have deactivated Adrian Peterson as he faces charges for allegedly abusing his 4-year-old son. Both athletes have lost major endorsement deals in the wake of their controversies.

Chris Huston, who runs the Heisman Pundit website, told The New York Times that the latest Winston controversy "continues to reinforce the notion that he’s a bad-character guy — something we were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt over after he wasn’t charged with rape."