Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston violated the NFL's personal conduct policy by touching a female Uber driver in Arizona in 2016 "in an inappropriate and sexual manner without her consent," the league stated in officially announcing his three-game suspension Thursday afternoon.
After denying the allegations against him for the past seven months, Winston released a statement, saying "I genuinely apologize" to the female Uber driver he is accused of groping. The NFL investigation, citing both testimony and evidence such as phone records, said her account was "consistent and credible."
"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," Winston wrote.
An NFL statement said that in addition to missing three games, Winston, 24, will be required to "obtain a clinical evaluation and fully cooperate with any recommended program of therapeutic intervention." Failure to do so will result in additional punishment, "including a potential ban from the NFL."
Winston will miss the first three games of the upcoming season, when the Bucs play at the Saints and at home against the Eagles and Steelers. He had previously denied any wrongdoing when accused in November, specifically calling the driver's allegations "false."
"I know I have to hold myself to a higher standard on and off the field, and I have a responsibility to my family, community and teammates to live above the platform with which God has blessed me," Winston said in Thursday's statement. "I apologize to my teammates, the Buccaneers organization and fans for letting them down, and for not being able to be out there for the first three games of the season.
"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 my goals that I have for myself.
"I now look forward to putting this behind me and I will continue to work hard every day to be a positive influence in my community and be the best person, teammate and leader I can be."
No criminal charges have been filed against Winston, but the language of the NFL's statement lines up with what would constitute felony sexual abuse, defined in Arizona as "engaging in sexual contact with a person age 15 or older without consent." The statute of limitations for a Class 5 felony in Arizona is seven years.
Because of that, the threat of a criminal charge would be leverage in any kind of civil lawsuit brought against Winston by the Uber driver. The NFL's findings and Winston's acceptance of those findings could be used elsewhere.
The unnamed Uber driver in November retained John Clune, the same attorney who represented Zephyrhills' Erica Kinsman in her civil lawsuit against Winston. That lawsuit was settled out of court in December 2016. While she was a student at Florida State, Kinsman accused Winston of rape. He was never charged and a university Title IX hearing found him not responsible of wrongdoing.
Clune declined to comment Thursday.
The NFL conduct policy uses six games as a "baseline" suspension for violations "involving assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault." The legal definition of those terms can vary from state to state, which may explain why Winston's attorneys were able to mitigate the suspension to three games.
The Bucs issued a brief statement after the NFL released the findings of its investigation.
"All members of our organization are expected to conduct themselves in accordance with the Personal Conduct Policy of the NFL," the statement read. "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."
It remains to be seen what impact this suspension and admission will have on Winston's long-term future with the Bucs. The team has exercised a $20.9 million option for Winston in 2019, but it is only guaranteed against injury, so the team could walk away even next March without having to pay him beyond his four-year rookie contract that ends after this season.
The Bucs will likely move forward with veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick as their starting quarterback during Winston's suspension. Fitzpatrick, 35, went 2-1 as starter last year when Winston was sidelined with a shoulder injury. The Bucs are hoping to bounce back from a 5-11 record in 2017, one that put the future of head coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht in jeopardy.
How much will Thursday's news change the way the Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, perceives Winston as their franchise quarterback? As recently as March, knowing what Winston was accused of doing, Bucs co-chair Joel Glazer had been unwavering in his support of Winston, calling him "a first-class individual, hard-working, wonderful in the community, a leader and everything that we would've hoped for in our quarterback."
Contact Greg Auman at email@example.com. Follow @gregauman