Warning: this piece includes descriptions of sexual assault and rape
When Jameis Winston was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ quarterback and he played against the Saints in the Superdome, I was one of many fans in the terrace talking shit about him. I assumed some of our collective animus had to do with the sexual assault allegations against him, but his reception as the Saints’ starter this year has proved me wrong. While there’s been plenty of skepticism about him as a player, the credible accusations that he raped a woman and groped another in separate incidents have hardly made a blip.
Local media acknowledged Winston’s history when we (I can’t help but refer to the team in the first-person plural) signed him as a backup to Drew Brees before last season. Coverage quickly pivoted to his value as a player, though—he came cheap after the Bucs let him go, and under the tutelage of Brees and head coach Sean Payton, might yet become a winner. He spent most of the year on the sideline, where I could comfortably ignore him. When he came off the bench in the playoffs and threw a touchdown I reflexively raised my arms over my head, then felt gross about it.
Winston’s time as a backup in 2020 seemed to acclimate Saints fans and media to the sight of him in black and gold. When he won the starting job this summer there was no accounting of his background for fans getting to know him as the new face of the team. When I groaned about his baggage to some friends at the start of the season, they thought I was referring to the game in 2017 when he instigated a fight with Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore, not realizing there was anything darker in his past.
I didn’t remember the particulars myself so I looked them up. When Winston was a redshirt freshman at Florida State University in 2012, another student, Erica Kinsman, accused him of rape. According to a lawsuit she filed, Kinsman was out drinking with friends at a bar and left in a cab with three men, later determined to be Winston and two of his teammates, Chris Casher and Ronald Darby. Her memory of these events was spotty—a victim advocate she’d speak to later that night would testify that this could have been a response to trauma. Kinsman said her next clear memory was Winston raping her in his bedroom, her telling him to stop, and him holding down her arms when she tried to get away. She said Darby came in and told Winston to stop, but he carried her into the bathroom, locked the door, and held her face to the floor until he was done. As she gave her account to Tallahassee police from a hospital bed a few hours later, bruises appeared on her arms and legs.
The New York Times detailed how the officer handling the case, Scott Angulo, then failed to carry out a proper investigation, resulting in the loss of evidence. He didn’t look at footage from the more than 30 security cameras at the bar, which was eventually taped over. He didn’t identify Winston or the other two players (of the three, Kinsman recalled only Casher’s first name). Angulo didn’t find that Darby posted on Facebook the day after the alleged rape, “I feel the worst I almost felt in my life.” Angulo also didn’t learn that Casher recorded video of part of Winston’s encounter with Kinsman in his bedroom, which he later deleted.
A month later, Kinsman said she learned Winston’s name when they coincidentally enrolled in the same class at FSU. She reported it to Angulo, but he didn’t question Winston or obtain a DNA sample from him. Angulo did, however, tell Kinsman’s lawyer that her client would be “raked over the coals” by FSU fans if she pressed charges. He then suspended the investigation ostensibly because Kinsman was “uncooperative,” but she said she never dropped the case.
The accusation stayed quiet for most of a year, but word got out as Winston was leading FSU to an undefeated season in 2013. Angulo was right: Kinsman was berated and threatened on social media, and left the school. Some accused her of lying to get at the money Winston would make in the NFL, but she reported being raped without identifying her assailant, and did so a season before Winston first played for FSU, years before he’d be eligible to go pro—if Winston had been charged he may have never been offered an NFL contract.
When the news broke, the Tallahassee Police Department reopened their investigation. In the meantime Winston’s lawyer had secured statements from Casher and Darby supporting Winston’s claim that he had consensual sex with Kinsman. With no video and no witnesses, prosecutors didn’t have a case, though Chief Assistant State Attorney Georgia Cappleman told the New York Times, “I don’t necessarily believe he’s innocent.” She’d learned of a second woman who quietly sought counseling after an upsetting sexual encounter with Winston. The woman didn’t consider it rape, but the incident suggested to Cappleman that Kinsman’s experience could have been part of a pattern “rather than some type of misunderstanding that occurred in an isolated situation.”
Though Winston faced no criminal charges, federal law required FSU to “promptly” conduct an independent investigation. According to the New York Times’ reporting, the athletic department learned of Kinsman’s allegation soon after she identified Winston but waited a year, until after he delivered the 2013 national championship, to look into it. In a hearing, Winston said Kinsman expressed her consent to sex by “moaning” and refused to answer further questions, as did Casher and Darby. A former judge found insufficient evidence to meet the burden of proof and cleared him. (Kinsman sued FSU for “refusing to investigate and covering up” her allegations; the university settled without admitting any wrongdoing.)
Before entering the NFL, Winston addressed team executives at a press conference, saying, “I want to let you all know I know I made mistakes. I know I have a past.” The mistakes he copped to were relatively trifling: taking $33 worth of crab legs and crawfish from a store without paying (a misunderstanding, he said); and, at another point, standing on a table in FSU’s student union and shouting a line from a viral video: “Fuck her right in the pussy!”
Days before the draft Kinsman filed a civil lawsuit against Winston. At that point she sought monetary damages (an unspecified amount above $15,000). If Kinsman hoped to hinder Winston’s earning potential, as he alleged in a countersuit, she failed: Tampa Bay made him the first overall pick, and he signed an endorsement deal with Nike. (Kinsman and Winston ultimately agreed to a settlement outside of court.)
In 2016, after Winston’s first season with the Buccaneers, another woman accused him of sexual assault. An Uber driver identified in court records as “Kate P.” said she picked up Winston at 2 a.m., after he’d been partying. She said he got into the front passenger seat alone, shouted homophobic slurs at pedestrians out the window, and had her bring him to a drive-through for some food. While they were waiting in line, she said, “he reached over and he just grabbed my crotch,” keeping his hand pressed against her until she got over the shock and said, “What’s up with that?” She reported this to Uber and told several people about it but did not go to the police or reveal her last name because, as she told BuzzFeed, she feared a backlash.
Winston denied the allegation, suggesting he was not the person in Kate’s passenger seat. “I believe the driver was confused as to the number of passengers in the car and who was sitting next to her,” he tweeted. The NFL conducted an investigation and found otherwise, reporting that Winston violated league policy by “touching the driver in an inappropriate and sexual manner without her consent.” He was suspended for three games. Uber investigated too, and banned him for life. Winston admitted no guilt but said in a statement, “I’m sorry to the Uber driver for the position I put you in. It is uncharacteristic of me and I genuinely apologize.” He also said he had matured since the alleged assault, and quit drinking alcohol.
Winston and the Saints stage-managed his introduction to New Orleans, submerging concerns about his past in a narrative about his capacity to evolve as a quarterback. The media generally followed their lead, conflating his record of sexual assault allegations with his tendency to throw interceptions, as if they stemmed from the same impulse control issue that could be coached out of him. As the AP put it, Winston “hasn’t always been known for making the wisest choices.” Locally, Sean Fazende of Fox 8 News said, “He doesn’t strike me as a bad guy, just someone who struggled with maturity.”
A lot of press coverage echoed the same talking points about Winston’s growth: he’d gotten married, had a kid, gone vegan, turned to God. Daring to dream, Chris Price wrote in Biz New Orleans that “Saints fans may potentially be on the front row of one of the greatest comeback stories in sports history.”
Saints coaches and executives, who spoke loftily about bringing in players of “high character,” faced no questions about Winston’s behavior off the field. Tampa Bay’s investment in him signaled the acceptability of the rape allegation, and he’d served his suspension for the groping incident, so, as Rod Walker wrote in the Advocate, “That’s all in the past now.”
Still, the Saints seemed not to trust Winston entirely. There was a condescending tone in Assistant General Manager Jeff Ireland’s remark that “It’s a compliment to Jameis Winston to understand where he’s at in this world and sign a one-year deal here, and learn behind” Drew Brees. The next beat in Winston’s redemption story was the former starter humbling himself as an understudy.
At this point the narrative around Winston veered toward racist tropes about the mental fitness of Black quarterbacks. At times both he and fellow backup quarterback Taysom Hill—white and relentlessly wholesome—struggled with decision-making, but only Winston had to be “reeducated” (the AP again) to curb his instincts. After deferring to Payton, Brees, and Hill in 2020, Winston won the starting job this year and the racially coded critique continued. After the Washington game in October, Mike Jones wrote in USA Today that Winston “remains in the process of harnessing his aggressive nature and developing greater discipline.”
Through five games this season Winston has mostly played well, with some frustrating moments. Online, a segment of the Who Dat Nation assailed every bad throw in a tone that reminded me of the hate directed at Aaron Brooks, the Saints’ last Black quarterback. Yet even low-key racist commentary skipped over the sexual assault allegations, opting for memes about Winston shoplifting crab legs, an easier subject to bring up, perhaps, while still throwing shade related to gluttony and criminality. With Winston’s performance on the field standing in for his character, the conversation assumed a twisted logic in which throwing interceptions had a moral valence while Kinsman’s and Kate’s accusations did not.
My partner, who moved to New Orleans around the same time as Brees, became a Saints fan as he carried the team to its post-Katrina glory. She usually watches them play, but when I turned on the season opener she left the room; she couldn’t root for the Saints with Winston under center. I felt conflicted but stayed put. Surely I could cheer in good conscience for our defense, special teams, and running game. But as Winston threw for five touchdowns I realized there was no way to leave him out of the picture.
I started thinking of arguments for accepting him. Shouldn’t he be presumed innocent, and considered in light of the history of false accusations against Black men for the rape of white women? Without a doubt—he shouldn’t have been charged with a crime in the absence of evidence. But in this case the powers-that-be in Tallahassee appeared to protect the accused, if only to exploit his unpaid work on the football field. In any event I’ve learned not to rely on the criminal justice system to make value judgments.
Even if Winston had been charged, I don’t think employers should discriminate against people with criminal records. Should the Saints judge Winston by his worst alleged actions, when he was a month shy of 19 and 22, and not his conduct of the last several years? Since arriving in New Orleans he’s said all the right things and won over his teammates and coaches, who sing his praises. More substantively, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida he contacted the mayor’s office to offer assistance, and made several contributions to the recovery effort. He may have turned a corner personally, but his good works, unlike those of others who could fill the role, come with a cost: the tacit approval of credible allegations of abuse.
Maybe I could make peace with Winston if I gave up the idea that the Saints are a kind of civic institution. The organization is under no illusions about the transactional nature of its business—why should I be? My partner pointed out that, whether I liked it or not, the Saints’ quarterback would be held up as a community leader. He’s a household name, with “New Orleans” appearing next to his face on national television. It’s a role Winston intends to play: Referring to Brees’ turn after Hurricane Katrina, he said, “I would love to be able to provide the excitement and joy and resilience that he provided for this city.”
Sexual assault accusations against influential men come with varying degrees of certainty and severity, and from various points in their lives and careers—Winston’s history isn’t as unambiguous as Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson’s, which includes allegations of sexual misconduct from 22 women in 2020 and 2021. But there’s one part of Winston’s record I got stuck on: his countersuit against Kinsman, which seeks to refute her account point by point, had nothing to say about the bruises on her arms and legs, which emerged after she reported being restrained by an unnamed assailant.
This isn’t to say Winston can’t evolve and live a productive life, but, taken with the groping incident from his time in the NFL, I hoped it would prevent him from being celebrated, again, as a public figure. As a video of him playing catch with a kid on his front lawn racked up over a million views on Twitter recently I stopped holding my breath.
The Saints have embraced Winston and helped rehabilitate his image, though they appear willing to reject players based on past personal conduct when it suits them: They didn’t audition former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for the opening here. His only disqualification was protesting police violence and racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem in 2016.
And here I am paying them for a season ticket I’ve had since 2006. Following the NFL is an exercise in moral accommodation, and I’ve looked past off-the-field behavior by Saints players before. Darren Sharper, a key player in our 2009 Super Bowl run, is now a convicted serial rapist. His first known assaults came two months after he retired, so, I figured, they didn’t take any shine off the Lombardi trophy from the prior year. Brees is a straight arrow, but I had to compartmentalize his politics, evident recently in a cheerful family photo with professed crotch-grabber Donald Trump (26 accusers spanning 40 years), and his disparaging mischaracterization of Kaepernick’s protest (which he later apologized for, awkwardly). I felt differently about him but was still all-in for the team.
The difference now might be me: This spring I learned that a prominent former New Orleanian, author Blake Bailey, reached the heights of the literary world after allegedly raping several women, including someone I know. I had a visceral reaction to that news, like my partner did when she saw Winston.
I’ve kept watching the Saints, though I find myself less maniacal than usual about wins and losses. The lean, pre-Brees years taught me to invest in the ancillary joys of fandom—lacing up black and gold Converse for a long walk to the Dome, eating friends’ cooking on a Sunday, listening to the Saints remix of “The Way I Live.” As I watch Winston week after week and everything around him operates as usual, I can imagine giving in to the excitement of a playoff run, if we make one. But I’d give that up if it meant he’d leave town when his contract expires at the end of the season.
illustrations by Kallie Tiffau