"I'm not sure he's at a toxic level yet, but he's starting to get there. The alarm bells have sounded."

These are the words an anonymous NFL scout used to describe Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston to Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans. This is not a very nice way to talk about the defending Heisman Trophy winner, obviously, even one that has spent the last year behaving like a boorish jerk who apparently believes he's beyond accountability — that is, like a 21-year-old. But it's also both more and less than it appears to be. It is an object lesson in the strange and blinkered way that football talks about itself.

Winston inherited his Heisman from Johnny Manziel, with both of them winning the award as freshmen. Both deserved the award, both are able runners and passers, and both are notorious, if in slightly different ways, for acting like jerks.

Manziel was suspended for the first half of Texas A&M's 2013 opener for allegedly selling his autograph. For the former Aggie, the word "allegedly" applies to everything from being kicked out of fraternity parties at rival schools to being dismissed from Peyton Manning's football camp for being hung over. There is a longer list of confirmed antics.

Yet the Cleveland Browns drafted Manziel in the first round last April and his jersey became the top selling in the NFL. Though not a redeemer himself — that's LeBron James' job — Manziel is nonetheless seen as a cog in the Cleveland Renaissance. He's a professional football player, and he's very rich; Winston will almost certainly be both of those things at this time next year.

Manziel, NFL commentators agree, is polarizing, a word with something of a negative valence, but inherently possessive of two poles in an argument. In office cooler conversations he'll likely have a prosecutor and a defendant even if one or the other is just playing Devil's Advocate. Winston, for his part, has not been afforded the luxury of polarization. His verdict has already been established. He is trouble. The alarm bells are already ringing and can't be unrung. He is on his way to toxicity.


This is a silly distinction, in one sense — it's an anonymous grump's thumbnail summary of other anonymous grumps' opinions — if also one with real repercussions and potential consequences. It's also a distinction that has everything to do with race and class.

SI's report of NFL scouts' opinions of Winston made almost no mention of his playing ability, which would seem to be the bigger part of any assessment of his NFL future. What that report — and Mel Kiper and every other ostensible expert evaluating the recent drop in Winston's "draft stock" — are failing to mention is that they are comparing him not to a peer like Manziel, but to bigger names with bigger recent disgraces attached: to Adrian Peterson or Ray Rice, stars who have lately and belatedly become toxic after committing actual assaults. "Toxic" is a word reserved for a rarefied class of bad actor. These untouchables tend to look a lot more like Jameis Winston than they do Johnny Manziel.

Despite the warning signs and similar frequent and flagrant acts of entitlement, few reached similar conclusions regarding Manziel, a white quarterback from an affluent family. Though his attitude and personality made him polarizing, the general belief is that Manziel dropped to 22nd in the draft because he is undersized and an unproven pocket passer. While Manziel's antics appear to some more harmless than those associated with Winston — who, recent instances of criminal bro-ness notwithstanding, has also been accused of sexual assault — Manziel's baggage was not all boys-will-be-boys stuff. His mother admitted that she worried he had a real drinking problem at the age of twenty, and his actions offered at least some reason to worry.

Winston seems to lack the foresight to understand how his decisions and actions impact his future, his teammates and his university; if he understands how they could offend the broad public audience his fame has afforded him, he doesn't much seem to care. He has been ignorant, even by the usual standards for people his age, let alone those in the ethically corrosive environment of big-time college football.  

"He's a big-ass immature kid," is how another NFL scout put it. That scout claimed Winston needs to stay two more years at Florida State, to show he is capable of behaving. "The skill is there, but..." The scout left his statement open ended, as if implyiing a change in behavior was beyond the realm of realistic belief.


In football, and in the United States in general, entitlement is more easily excused than ignorance, and more readily excused for some people than others.

Manziel is viewed as entitled, which is annoying; this is how he's framed by those that are fed up with him. But annoying will be fine in the NFL; annoying just annoys. Ignorance strikes a different nerve, and means different things. In reality, ignorance in any matter possesses a very obvious solution: to become informed in that matter. Ignorance is not a permanent condition; it is a provisional quality. Perceptions aside, it's solvable — one can learn his or her way out of it. Entitlement, too, is not inherent; the cure for the unmerited belief that one deserves more than others based on an elevated perception of one's self worth is, simply, an adjustment of that self worth. Neither Johnny Manziel nor Jameis Winston is a finished product any more than any young person is.

And yet it seems clear that Winston's road forward will be more difficult, regardless of how he might grow and change, if for no reason other than that perceptions and reputations are, sadly, less fluid for black Americans. "Ignorant" is a racially charged term because of the harsh and discriminatory ways it has been applied to black Americans — as well as other minorities, the sort routinely derided in conservative politics as "low-information voters" and smeared as near-animals in less-polite comment sections and elsewhere. This sort of "ignorance," which is mostly a matter of perception, drops the conditionality that exists in the true definition of the word. When Jameis Winston is called ignorant in this way, the implication is not that he has a lot to learn. It is that he will never, can never change.

There's another set of strange priorities evident in Winston's apparent reputational slide. Winston was still a near consensus top five pick in the 2015 NFL Draft after being accused of a 2012 campus sexual assault; the needle didn't move after the incident was dropped. Following Winston's recent one-game suspension, though, Kiper made a point of dropping him over 20 spots to the end of the first round in his much advertised mock draft; scouts muttering about his perceived toxicity spiked.

This suggests that the damage was done not by an accusation of sexual assault, but by the other micro-scandals noted in Sports Illustrated: "allegedly stealing a soda at Burger King, crab legs from a local grocery store and... carrying a pellet gun near campus." Stealing soda from a Burger King does not belong in the same "incident" paragraph as rape. And yet these forgettable meme-moments, added together, somehow outweigh the possibility of Winston having committed an unforgivable crime. The question raises itself: who is making these assessments, which can only be described as ignorant?


"You never saw RGIII or Andew Luck or Peyton Manning doing this kind of stuff," one scout told Thamel and Evans.

This is true. Peyton Manning, whose father played in the NFL, never stole crab legs from a grocery store. Luck, whose father also played in the NFL and is the Athletic Director at West Virginia University, never stood on a table at Stanford and yelled an obscenity. Robert Griffin III, whose father was in the military, never carried a pellet gun around for no apparent reason. No one in the world would care if any of them stole a soda from a Burger King, but then no one has ever accused any of them of having done it. Their contexts limited their potential to be perceived as toxic, which makes it all the more remarkable that they have apparently bothered to live up to their reputations for high character.

Winston has been wrong numerous times. It would be justifiable to dislike him based on his poor choices. But based on what we actually know, he is not a fraught figure like Ray Rice or Adrian Peterson or Michael Vick, at least not any more than Johnny Manziel is one of those people. Based on what we know about football, and national tendencies regarding racial perception, we should also know that Winston will always be at greater risk of being perceived as such than Manziel.

Winston's fall as a top NFL prospect has been often qualified by "…with everything going on in the NFL recently..." inevitably followed up with the word "risk." The nation is upset with NFL teams over their lack of concern for prevention and curiously undisciplined discipline in a number of crucial areas. Of course, it's hard to figure out how to prevent actual acts, and recent experience has shown that even discipline is more complicated than the NFL has long imagined it to be. It's much easier to follow an insultingly oversimplified formula in order to guess what kind of person might commit the acts and prevent yourself from drafting them.

Scouts have reason to worry about Winston's future; there are non-football reasons why a team might not want to make him its quarterback. A multi-million dollar investment demands such concern. But it would be good,. for the NFL and Jameis Winston and everyone else, if those making these assessments and authoring these anonymous quotes worked a bit harder at separating perception — and all the bias that feeds into it — from reality.

Connecting the dots is always easy, but the picture that results rarely comes out as accurate and clear as the subject, any subject, deserves. In the case of Jameis Winston, NFL scouts, and everyone else, are guessing at what they can't really know. That's their job, and our pastime. We all might as well do it with our eyes open.