TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) - In a test of second chances, the losing Tampa Bay Buccaneers are expected to use their No. 1 pick in the National Football League draft on Thursday to sign a standout college quarterback dogged by character questions.
Jameis Winston, a 21-year-old Heisman trophy winner, is as famous for his off-field behavior as he is for his throwing arm. He was accused of rape at Florida State University but never faced criminal charges or university punishment. He also has gotten into trouble for shoplifting and shouting vulgarities on campus.
The central Florida team's apparent willingness to gamble on Winston as the next face of the Buccaneers franchise is drawing measured concern from local women’s advocates after a year in which the league has faced wide criticism for its handling of off-the-field violence by players.
While keen to rebound from a dismal season with two wins and 14 losses, tying for the worst record in the NFL, the Buccaneers have shown commitment to preventing domestic violence and sexual abuse, anti-violence campaigners say.
The team is sponsoring a table at a black tie gala next week for a local domestic violence shelter, whose experts were previously invited to meet with players.
"They're still focused on winning football games, but they are definitely making an effort," said Mindy Murphy, president and CEO of The Spring of Tampa Bay, a domestic violence center.
Tampa Bay is a sprawling region, where few institutions are more powerful than professional sports and none higher profile than football.
It is also the home of Erica Kinsman, who accuses Winston of raping her in late 2012. He maintains the encounter was consensual, but Kinsman sued him earlier this month in state civil court.
"We have moved on,” said Winston's agent, Greg Genske. "He is going to be cognizant of the fact that he is a role model."
Winston led Florida State to two undefeated regular seasons and a national title. At 231 pounds, the 6-foot, 4-inch player is known for taking risks on the field.
His NFL draft profile notes that "off-the-field character and ability to lead on NFL level are his primary obstacles."
Some teams would not even consider Winston, said AJ Maestas, president of a sports marketing research firm, Navigate.
"It only takes one fool to bet the future of a franchise on someone who has a proven history of bad decisions," he said.
But Buccaneers fan Mary Mosley, 37, said she is willing to give Winston a chance to redeem himself.
"It's hard to get out of the mud when you're standing knee deep," she said.
Others in Tampa Bay are rooting so hard for Winston, they're throwing in free crab legs, the very items he was cited for shoplifting from a grocery store a year ago, an act for which he was ordered to do 20 hours community service.
Skipper's Smokehouse, a folksy diner and concert venue, offered to hook Winston up with an unlimited supply for as long as he plays with the Buccaneers.
"Great example for the kids! What do I get if I rape somebody?" a Tampa woman retorted on Skipper's Facebook page, which saw such heated debate that management later clarified it never intended to offend.
Buccaneers officials declined to comment on their expected draft pick but previously have noted that Winston was "exonerated" on some allegations.
The Sexual Violence Task Force of Tampa Bay met with the Buccaneers in the early draft stages and left impressed that the team takes seriously the issue of male violence against women, said chairwoman Amanda Brennan.
"The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have made it clear to the community that they will not tolerate violence against women, may be just the team to guide and mentor Jameis Winston," she said in a statement.
The group staged a "Take Back the Night" rally in a downtown Tampa park last weekend, coincidentally beside a museum named for the Buccaneers' owners, the Glazer family.
One attendee, Vincenza Keenan, balked at the message that picking Winston will send.
"What are we telling our girls?" asked the 40-year-old mother. "Our sons, too?"
Additional reporting by Steve Ginsburg in Washington, editing by Jill Serjeant and Ted Botha