Jameis Winston got a needed assist from an old teammate. He also got some heat from an old adversary. The key to getting out of his latest troubles, though, may rest with a mystery “friend.”
Winston is accused of groping an Uber driver in March, 2016, while he was in Scottsdale, Arizona. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback strongly denies any sexual misconduct, saying the driver is confused about the number of passengers in the car. As of Sunday, he has a familiar voice to back him up: Ronald Darby, the Philadelphia Eagles cornerback who was Winston’s teammate at Florida State, released a statement saying he was in the vehicle as well.
“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,” Darby’s statement read. “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.”
Now two NFL players are involved, and there is still a third unnamed person who was present, according to Darby’s statement. That puts public pressure on whomever that passenger is to come forward. And if that person was in the front seat, coming forward will surely mean putting an intense spotlight on himself.
“If you didn’t do anything wrong, just name the third person,” says Katie Phang, a partner at the Berger Singerman law firm in Miami. “When is the third person going to come forward? Does that look suspect if he doesn’t?”
The other aspect of this situation is the continuing national focus on sexual assault, and the increased willingness of women to tell their stories. Phang says that may increase the chances of a law enforcement probe – even though the driver did not file a police report.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if this thing does get more legs,” she says. “Not because it’s a witch hunt, and not because every man is a target, but because an allegation has been made, so will the local law enforcement feel obligated?”
A call to the Scottsdale Police Department was not immediately returned.
Darby was also present on the night Winston was alleged to have sexually assaulted Erica Kinsman at Florida State. Winston was never charged with a crime, and he settled a civil claim with Kinsman last year. Darby’s account was a factor then, and it’s a factor now because the Uber driver says no other passengers were in the car, and she herself has retained Kinsman’s lawyer.
“To be clear,” Colorado-based attorney John Clune tweeted on Sunday, “No one else was in the car besides Mr. Winston and if anyone is ‘confused,’ it isn’t the Uber driver. Mr. Winston’s friend from his FSU days is just making things worse by inserting himself into this.”
A call to Clune’s office was not returned.
Winston’s supporters can argue another woman is trying to extract money from the quarterback through the very same lawyer who Kinsman used. And if there were indeed other passengers in the car, it undermines the driver’s story as well as her new lawyer’s comments. The spotlight could then move away from Winston.
If Darby cannot show that he was present that night, however, it’s potentially damaging for both NFL players and their teams.
“We have asked the NFL this morning to investigate Mr. Darby,” Clune tweeted Sunday, “and are demanding he immediately turn his phone over to the NFL so the GPS history can be forensically examined.” (Darby has reportedly not been contacted by the league thus far.)
How quickly will the NFL move on this? The league has taken months to complete investigations into player conduct before, and it already has a credibility issue from prior outcomes. Ray Rice’s suspension was too short, as was Josh Brown’s. Meanwhile, the six-game suspension of Ezekiel Elliott has led to a headline-worthy fissure between commissioner Roger Goodell and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. In this particular investigation, there isn’t enough evidence yet to determine anything for certain, and CBS reported Monday, “this case does not rise to the standard of the commissioner’s exempt list.”
Winston isn’t playing anyway; he’s dealing with a shoulder ailment. So for now, the focus is on Winston, to some extent Darby, and perhaps a third “friend.”
Darby did his old teammate a favor by speaking out. Winston might need another witness yet.
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