NFL quarterback Jameis Winston of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers visited an elementary school in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Feb. 22 to speak to and inspire the school’s students. Though Winston’s visit may have inspired some of the Florida youth he spoke to, many adults have attacked a controversial part of his speech in the aftermath of his visit.
As Winston was engaging with the students, he addressed the class using the phrase, “I can do anything I put my mind to.” In an attempt to energize the children’s response, Winston asked the boys in the classroom to stand and repeat the phrase again. He tried to raise their volume by saying that “a lot of boys aren’t supposed to be soft spoken.”
Continuing to excite the boys in the audience, Winston said, “But the ladies, they’re supposed to be silent, polite, gentle. My men, my men are supposed to be strong.”
The boys loudly echoed, “I can do anything I put my mind to.”
Winston’s efforts to enthuse the young males in the audience immediately backfired as many people harshly criticized his comments. Much of this backlash stems from Winston’s personal history: while attending Florida State University (FSU), he was accused of raping an FSU student in Dec. 2012. Despite the alleged incident, Winston was neither arrested nor charged with a crime. Florida State University then deemed that Winston had not violated the student conduct code for sexual misconduct in 2014. Even though it was not Winston’s intention to project sexism onto an elementary school class, he should have known that he does not have the leeway to be so careless in his remarks, especially given his history.
“At this point, Winston should have the self-awareness to understand how it looks when he tells girls in the room to be polite and silent,” ESPN’s Jane McManus said.
Winston has since acknowledged that he used a “poor word choice that may have overshadowed the positive message for some.”
Nevertheless, it’s difficult to ignore the connections one can draw between a young girl’s “politeness” and “silence” and sexist issues such as misogyny and sexual assault.
Are we overreacting to an accident made by an athlete with a shady past? Possibly. Yet, it’s not too much to ask that Winston be more aware of his position and set an example for America’s youth. While Winston’s history might disqualify him from being a role model for children, he should still be held to the high standards of character that we place on all professional athletes.
Children will look up to Winston, regardless of whether they ought to or not. Thus, Winston must learn to perform publicly off the field to avoid damaging his reputation. He can remove his jersey, but he cannot remove himself from the spotlight.