A year ago, with Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston on the verge of gutting a highly touted Clemson team, I placed a few calls to some of his old coaches, who told me he was, and had always been, a stoutly focused child prodigy, and who assured me he had his act completely together.
“He just knows,” one of them told me. “He had it in him.”
This is, of course, not the first story that took a complete left turn in the weeks after I reported it. This sort of narrative implosion occurs so often these days that it’s almost required to build a disclaimer into any profile you write (I will admit, I did not anticipate the chilling and sudden turns of Winston’s story, but I did wonder if perhaps he might burn out or lose himself somewhere along the way, as prodigies often do.)
Even so, it’s discomfiting to realize that only a year ago, Jameis Winston appeared to be the type of breathtaking talent who glides straight through college and plays twelve years for some NFL team starving for a franchise quarterback, wins two Super Bowls and lands in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Because all of that seems like a dicey proposition now. One year later, as Florida State prepares to face Clemson again, he’s sliding down draft boards, and appears to be on the verge of becoming the sort of preternatural talent who fades into obscurity based entirely on the dubious nature of his own choices.
This week, Winston was suspended for the first half of Saturday’s Clemson game, ostensibly as punishment for standing up on a table and reciting a crude Internet meme about fornicating with a woman in front of hundreds of witnesses. In a vacuum, this seems like the sort of idiotic act that college students pull in order to call attention to themselves, except that Jameis Winston no longer resides in the prodigal vacuum he did when he was younger. Soon after I talked to his coaches, we all learned that Jameis Winston had been accused of sexual assault in December 2012, though he was never charged; soon after that, The New York Times reported that the investigation into the case had been severely botched by local police.
In that moment, the questions about Jameis Winston transformed into something far more fraught than issues with his arm angle or his pocket presence; in that moment, whether guilty or innocent, Jameis Winston became a metaphorical totem for every college athlete who had ever considered themselves above the law. At the very least, you would have thought this might have prodded him to accrue a certain amount of self-awareness, but it’s almost like Winston chose, instead, to embrace the stereotype that others had put upon him. It’s almost like, when faced with the notion that he was coddled and protected by sheer force of his athletic abilities (he’s also a gifted baseball pitcher), Winston decided to put this notion to the test.
It’s almost as if he said, I know what you think of me, and I’m going to prove you right.
In the spring, Winston walked out of a Publix supermarket with an armful of crab legs, having neglected to complete the transaction by actually paying for them. This might have been an amusing display of either brashness or fatuousness if it were anyone else, but because it was Winston, it further burnished his image as an athlete who gets away with whatever he wants in Tallahassee. In July, while at the Manning Passing Academy in Louisiana, a still-oblivious Winston told a group of teenagers that the perk of playing quarterback was that “we get all the women.” And now this: A quarterback who had been accused of sexual assault shouts a crude sexual meme in a public space, without any apparent recognition of how this might appear to reflect on his own recent history.
On Wednesday, Winston made a public apology that referred to overcoming adversity, which mostly served as further proof that the word “adversity” has slipped loose of its bearings and sunk into the graveyard of meaningless sports clichés. But I imagine the words didn’t mean much to him at this point, anyway. I imagine Winston will play well in the second half against Clemson, and I imagine Florida State will win by 21 points, and I imagine the Seminoles will remain the No. 1 team in the country and after that, I imagine Winston and his agent will spend months attempting to convince NFL teams that his character problems have been overblown. Perhaps they will even succeed.
I am generally reluctant to criticize college students for acting like college students – all the Sturm und Drang over Johnny Manziel felt a little Abe Simpson onion-on-our-belts for my taste – but Jameis Winston lost these privileges months ago, when things got dead serious. What’s remarkable about this whole thing is that he doesn’t seem to recognize the kind of problematic archetype he’s become. I don’t know if it’s too late for him to change, but I wonder if this what he really had in him all along.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb.