Roger Goodell said Jameis Winston’s name. But he did not shake his hand.
For the first time since 1994, when top selection Dan Wilkinson skipped the proceedings, the first pick in the NFL Draft stayed home. And ESPN cameras, conspicuously, stayed away from live shots emanating from Bessemer, Alabama.
The talking heads, too, avoided the 225-pound Seminole not in the room. After the commissioner announced that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had selected Winston, the ESPN crew of Chris Berman, John Gruden, Mel Kiper, and Louis Riddick quickly shifted conversation away from the story of the night. The network and the league couldn’t change the star. So, they changed the subject.
The Worldwide Leader shifted attention, quicker than they might have had the top two picks switched places, to second selection Marcus Mariota, this past season’s Heisman Trophy-winner. “He’s a hero in the fiftieth state,” Chris Berman gushed, adding, “The whole state is just celebrating and we hope Tennessee feels the same way.”
ESPN subsequently showed a taped shot of a business-attired Winston hearing news of his selection alongside a similar clip of Tennessee Titan Mariota back in Hawaii. Perhaps taking their cue from the top two selections, or learning from Johnny Manziel’s pained expressions after getting bypassed in last year’s draft, many marquee players, including fourth pick Amari Cooper (Oakland Raiders), didn’t travel to the Windy City. But Winston was the only no-show showing up in the commissioner’s office for several hours before announcing his decision to play hookie.
After dealing with the Ray Rice domestic-violence video, the Adrian Peterson child-abuse case, and the Aaron Hernandez murder conviction, the NFL, and its corporate partner ESPN, understandably wished to reorient focus away from a young man accused of rape. No matter that Winston escaped prosecution or even university punishment via the Florida State code of conduct proceedings. In Roger Goodell’s NFL, where players leave the field as a result of mere accusations, Jameis Winston proves an especially problematic figure. So, too, for ESPN, which has suspended television personalities merely for saying, rather than doing, the wrong thing on domestic abuse.
In a league putting a female referee on the field for the first time this season, dressing up players in pink cleats in past seasons, and in all hours of the day airing on a loop that obnoxious grandmother boring us with how her “Vikings family became a Vikings, Bengals, Eagles, Steelers, Cowboys family,” Jameis Winston complicates the narrative a bit. The NFL + Jameis = -Ladie$. That math doesn’t add up to $25 billion, the figure Roger Goodell seeks to grab in revenues sometime in the next decade.
But in Chicago, the fans contributing to the NFL’s current $10 billion coffers preferred the guy whose father fixes stop sign for the city to the guy whose dad represented New York in the United States Senate. The Chicago crowd greeted Jameis Winston with enthusiastic cheers. They energetically booed the commissioner. Rather than saving Roger Goodell from a public-relations problem, maybe Winston stayed home to avoid a public-relations problem of his own. Who wants a shake-and-a-smile with such an unpopular figure before so many cameras? Surely Winston’s agent advised him, in light of past troubles, to mind the company he keeps.