Ronn Torossian, CEO, 5WPR
Fresh off their star turn in HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” the Tampa Bay Buccaneers entered the 2017 NFL season with high hopes and great expectations. At quarterback, they had what GM Jason Licht called “the best leader I’ve ever been around” under center, a star receiver tandem and an improved defense in a city that won a Super Bowl on the backs of one of the best D’s in NFL history. Then, calamity. Underwhelming does not begin to cover the 5-11 season that saw the Bucs miss the playoffs, again, and see the rest of their Division tear it up with marquee quarterbacks and stout defense.
Coming into off-season workouts, the Bucs made some big moves. A good draft and the signing of two Super Bowl winners along the D-line inspired fans to begin hoping again. Then the news dropped: franchise quarterback Jameis Winston would miss the first three games of the season. Suspended due to allegations of groping a female Uber driver back in 2016. Winston denies the allegations. Just as he denied the allegations of rape made against him at Florida State. And therein lies the heart of the PR problem. Allegations do not confirm, guilt. People can allege all kinds of things. Sure, Winston settled with the rape accuser, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s guilty. Not with any certainty. But it does create doubt. And, with Winston, there’s more history of “bad” behavior.
Winston also made headlines when the millionaire quarterback stole crab legs from a local grocery store. A weird, almost farcical story that had everyone asking, “Why?”. Then there was the scene of Winston standing on a picnic table in the middle of his college campus yelling “lewd” comments. It doesn’t matter that he was just another college kid caught up in a stupid, meme “game.” Because Winston wasn’t just any other college kid. He was the Heisman-winning quarterback of a top NCAA powerhouse program. He missed half of a game of the 2014 NCAA season for that incident. Then there was the time he was caught shooting BB guns at an apartment complex, causing thousands in property damage.
Despite the red flags, the Bucs drafted Winston with their first pick, and almost immediately made him the face of the franchise. Homegrown FSU fans rejoiced, and longsuffering Bucs fans saw Winston’s talent and leadership ability as their ticket to the glory days. But that hasn’t materialized. One disappointing season after another, Winston has been erratic, trading signs of brilliance with terrible decision-making, on and off the field. Whether Winston is guilty of either the rape or the groping, one thing is certain, the smoke in Tampa is becoming thick. Local sports writers, and more than a few Bucs fans, are calling for Winston to be cut. He will be on the sidelines for the Bucs for the toughest three games of the season anyway, they argue.
This is a PR problem the Bucs thought they had handled. They worked the “Winston’s history” story with kid gloves when he joined the team, massaging fans’ misgivings. But Winston hasn’t held up his side. He continues to create distracting and doubt-increasing headlines. Sooner, rather than later, the Bucs will be forced to address the source of the problem.