By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The NFL has some strange patterns of enforcement when it comes to discipline, and that system apparently includes some wiggle room for any player who wants to negotiate.

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On Thursday, the NFL issued a three-game suspension to Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. Specifically, after an investigation, the NFL determined that Winston touched an Uber driver “in an inappropriate and sexual manner without her consent.” Even more specifically, Winston had been accused of grabbing the crotch of the female driver and holding his hand there “for three to five seconds.”

The NFL’s history of issuing punishment has varied greatly. Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was forced to serve a six-game suspension for domestic violence allegations which were not proven true and which were actually discounted by the lead investigator who was put on the case. On the other end of the spectrum, former quarterback Brett Favre received no suspension and just a $50,000 fine for allegedly sending explicit photos and messages to a female Jets employee in 2008. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was issued a six-game suspension after he was accused of sexual assault in 2010, but Roger Goodell shortened that suspension to four games after Roethlisberger personally appealed his case to the commissioner. Former Giants kicker Josh Brown was suspended for one game for domestic violence, though he was later placed on the commissioner’s exempt list once the general public found out about what Brown did. A year later, for no reason, the league suspended Brown for six games, even though he was out of the league.

So, clearly, the NFL does not have a uniform standard in place for incidents of sexual assault. And according to one report, Winston’s punishment came after some negotiating from the league, the players’ union, and Winston’s own representatives.

Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer and NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported shortly after the suspension news broke that the three-game ban had been agreed upon by all sides. Breer said there was “mutual benefit,” because the league would not receive the months of negative publicity that can accompany a long appeals process, and because the player would not have to serve a suspension that’s too lengthy.

It’s not altogether surprising, but it is nevertheless an odious practice. The NFL can’t claim in one breath that it takes matters of sexual assault seriously while at the same time opening the door for players to negotiate their suspension length in exchange for limiting the PR hit. The league either stands against sexual assault, or the league stands against receiving negative attention for players accused of committing sexual assault. Cutting a deal with Winston shows that the priority is quite clearly the latter.

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(It’s worth noting that the Winston news came shortly after the league announced that it concluded that soon-to-be-former Panthers owner Jerry Richardson had been found responsible of all of the sexual harassment claims made against him. The punishment for the multi-billionaire 81-year-old was a $2.75 million

It’s important to note that the NFL concluded that the Uber driver’s claims were accurate. Here’s what she said, as was originally reported by Buzzfeed News:

“I started driving, and right away, Jameis behaved poorly” by shouting, in part, homophobic slurs at pedestrians, said Kate, who did not want to be identified by her full name for fear of negative attention and potential backlash from football fans. He then asked to stop for food.

Waiting in line at the drive-thru of Los Betos Mexican Food, “he reached over and he just grabbed my crotch,” Kate said, alleging that Winston held his hand there for three to five seconds and removed it only after she looked up in shock and said, “What’s up with that?”

“I wasn’t just creeped out,” said Kate, who had been driving with Uber for more than two years at that point. (She no longer drives for the service.) “I was frozen.” She described Winston as “very physically imposing.”

“I mean he’s an NFL quarterback and I’m 5 ft 6. I’m not prepared for that. So I completely froze,” she said, worried that she might provoke an unwanted reaction.

It is likewise important to note that in Winston’s statement upon accepting his suspension, he did not deny the allegations made against him. He apologized to the Uber driver “for the position I put you in” and then said that he no longer drinks alcohol. Again, he did not deny the charges, even though in November he vehemently denied the story, saying that it “falsely accuses me of making inappropriate contact with this driver.” Winston said in November that he believed the Uber driver was just “confused” regarding the situation. Seven months later, Winston apologized to that driver in a boilerplate statement in which he accepted responsibility.

To be fair, the NFL did impose some punishment on Winston outside of the three-game suspension. The league mandated that Winston must undergo a clinical evaluation and then “fully cooperate in any recommended program of therapeutic intervention.” If Winston does not participate in that evaluation, then he may face further discipline from the league. That’s actually a positive development, as being forced to miss some football games doesn’t actually help a sexual assaulter become a better person. Theoretically, at least, partaking in an evaluation give the player a chance to rehabilitate. It may severely lessen the likelihood of a future recurrence of such behavior. For the league, including that element in the punishment is a positive step.

But any positivity is almost completely offset by the league reportedly negotiating the suspension down to three games for all the wrong reasons. Roger Goodell and the NFL had an opportunity to show that it truly will not stand for any of its players committing sexual assault. Instead, by issuing a moderate three-game ban in exchange for a promise to not appeal the ruling, the league showed that it cares much more about appearances than anything else.

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You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.