Photo: Jason Behnken (AP)

The NFL was very pleased with itself back in 2014 when it announced its new hardline policy that “violations of the Personal Conduct Policy regarding assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault that involve physical force will be subject to a suspension without pay of six games.” Though the policy went on to allow for “mitigating factors,” that language seems pretty clear.

Yesterday, the NFL suspended Bucs QB Jameis Winston for groping an Uber driver, saying in its statement that Winston “violated the Personal Conduct Policy by touching the driver in an inappropriate and sexual manner without her consent.” Again, that language seems pretty clear.

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Winston was suspended for three games. Not six. I guess it’s no longer so clear, huh?

Well, at least it’s clear what the “mitigating factors” appear to be in this case, and they don’t make anyone involved look better. First, Winston still denies it, despite the league’s investigation finding otherwise. Second, Winston told the league that even if he did do it, he doesn’t remember doing it because he was too drunk. Third, and most important to the NFL, Winston promised not to appeal his suspension.

Yes, this suspension was a negotiated settlement where the NFL, the NFLPA, and Winston all agreed to bury this as quickly and quietly as was possible.

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As part of the settlement, Winston was forced to apologize to the Uber driver whose crotch he grabbed, but was not forced to admit to any guilt. That led to Winston’s bizarrely worded statement which read, “I’m sorry to the Uber driver for the position I put you in.”

Winston was forced to admit to drinking, which he blamed the entire incident on (but which he also maintains didn’t happen; I’m not sure how that works, exactly), and as part of the agreement must undergo a a clinical evaluation and potentially an intervention program. Winston says he’s quit drinking, but he’d reportedly quit drinking before last November, when he lied in his statement about how many passengers were in the Uber at the time of the incident.

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The NFL agreed not to release the results of its investigation or its letter to Winston explaining its findings, both of which it memorably published when it suspended Ezekiel Elliott for six games

All of this feels so insane to me that I keep having to lay it out and see if it starts to make any more sense, and it never does: Winston was allowed to maintain his innocence, and to keep buried the NFL’s evidence against him, and to receive a reduced suspension. In exchange for what? Agreeing not to appeal and not to go to court. Because that’s what this is all about, ultimately, for the NFL: Making things go away quickly.

The league now gets what it wanted, I suppose. No weeks and months of continued coverage, fueled by the emergence of details of what happened in that Uber. No appeal of the suspension to an arbitrator who might note the NFL’s inconsistent discipline and enforcement. No prolonged court battles, like what happened with Elliott—and related to that, no protracted war between Goodell and another team owner. Nothing to distract from football, basically. Protection of the shield. Because no matter how many new policies the league puts into place, nothing ever really changes.