“That’s so shellfish,” ESPN columnist Rick Reilly tweeted.
“At this pace Jameis Winston will be a shell of himself next season,” quipped Will Brinson, who covers the NFL for CBS Sports.
“Really wonder about Jameis Winston’s decision making,” SportsIllustrated.com college basketball writer Brian Hamilton mused. “This entire episode was high-bisque, low reward.”
The news was practically made for the Internet. Less than a month after the U.S. Department of Education announced it was investigating Florida State University’s handling of a female student’s allegations that she’d been raped by football star Jameis Winston—allegations from which Winston emerged unscathed—the Heisman-winning, two-sport sophomore was suspended. From the baseball team. For stealing crab legs.
“Claws for Concern? Florida State Captain Nabs Nefarious Catch,” was Grantland’s headline following the announcement that Winston had been caught Tuesday night shoplifting $32.72 worth of crawfish and crab legs from a Publix grocery store. Twitter was flooded with “shellfish” puns and photoshopped images of a Winston as a Deadliest Catch cast member or doing the Heisman pose with crab legs under his arm where a football should be. A grocery store about two hours away from the University of Alabama, FSU’s rival, put “Jameis Winston King Crab Legs” labels on packaged seafood to give their Crimson Tide fans a laugh.
In a statement, Wednesday, Winston admitted to not paying for his dinner, insisting that he forgot. “I realize that I am in the public spotlight and my conduct needs to be above reproach,” he said. “Over the last year I’ve learned that my accomplishments on the fields can be a wonderful thing for my school, teammates, friends, and family. At the same time, I must realize that my mistakes are magnified and can bring great embarrassment to all those who support me every day.”
It was a surprisingly forthcoming apology from the same person who was shielded by his lawyer and coaches from talking to the press about the sexual-assault claims against him ahead of the Heisman Trophy presentation late last year. It took a full year after the night Winston’s accuser alleges she was assaulted for the local prosecutor to determine, following an investigation that is now widely considered to have been botched, that there was not enough evidence to press charges. During that time, Winston was sufficiently protected from making any public statements. Yet this week, Winston made a public apology and was suspended by the baseball team within 24 hours of being caught stealing seafood—not to mention the Leon County Sheriff’s Office even held a press conference about the incident, most likely a first for such a petty crime.
Sure, it’s impossible to compare shoplifting shellfish with sexual assault, especially because he was caught on camera and admitted to doing one, but was never charged with the other. But the crab caper isn’t just Winston’s second run-in with the law since setting foot on FSU’s campus in 2012, and it’s not even his third. Ahead of the rape claims, Winston was among a group of Florida State football players questioned about broken windows at an apartment complex following a BB gun fight, and was accused of stealing soda from a Burger King. Winston received an adult civil citation for the Publix rip-off instead of a criminal charge, meaning he only has to perform 20 hours of community service and pay a small fine because, despite this being his fourth encounter with police in 18 months, he’s never been arrested or charged with a crime.
When approached by TMZ for his thoughts on Winston’s latest indiscretion, retired NFL quarterback and current CBS sports commentator Phil Simms said, “He’s a young kid and we all did stuff in college that we always regret.”
True. And certainly it’s easier for FSU, the media, and everyone to laugh off Crabgate as “a moment of youthful ignorance,” as Winston described it in his statement, than to tackle far more serious sexual-assault accusations or the even bigger issue of valuable college athletes seeming immune from real-life consequences. After all, what kind of message is Florida State really sending by lightly punishing Winston for stealing seafood but shielding him from a thorough sexual-assault investigation?
Slate’s Emily Bazelon perhaps put it best. “Aspiring college athlete criminals, take note: If you get accused of a sex crime, you have a great shot at joining the parade of players who have escaped conviction or discipline,” she wrote. “But get caught stealing from the grocery store and you’ll be benched, at least for a nanosecond.”