Photo: Courtesy of Florida State University.
Last month, when TMZ broke the story that Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston was under investigation for sexual assault, the most startling aspect of the revelation wasn’t that a star athlete was facing yet another set of lurid charges — sadly, that felt like old hat. What struck everyone as peculiar was that the original complaint by the alleged victim was filed 11 months before news of its existence hit the web. And, only after the press discovered that Winston was the primary suspect, did the police reopen an investigation that had laid dormant since February.
Suddenly, questions about what happened on the night of December 7, 2012, when the alleged assault took place, gave way to the troubling questions about what happened in the 11 months since.
Why did Tallahassee police wait almost a year to present the complaint to the state attorney's office? Why didn’t detectives conduct a full investigation immediately after the complaint was filed, and what piece of evidence emerged that compelled them to revive the case after almost a year?
What transpired next was a series of he-said-she-said leaks to the press from both camps: one aimed at propelling a slow-moving investigation, and the other, at discrediting the accusations before they ever reached the courts. The most alarming revelation came from the accuser’s lawyer, who alleged that when she initially came forward, Tallahassee police warned her that the city is a “big football town and the victim needs to think long and hard…because she will be raked over the coals and her life will be made miserable." Police officials denied issuing any such warning and claimed that the investigation only remained inactive because the accuser decided not to pursue charges on her own volition. It was only after a new piece of evidence emerged that officials decided to reopen the case.
Anyone who follows college football knows that it’s big business, especially at high-profile schools like FSU, where the sport is king and it's a massive source of revenue that drives much of Tallahassee’s hospitality industry, especially on game days. In 2011, the football team was responsible for $34 million of the $78 million generated by FSU’s entire athletic program. That dependence on success creates a culture of invincibility around transcendent athletes like Winston, a Heisman Trophy front-runner who led the Seminoles from the brink of irrelevance to this Saturday’s ACC championship game and a number two overall ranking in the BCS poll.
If the LeBron James’ of the world are revered as heroes to their fan bases, the star college athlete experiences that kind worship tenfold. Life in many U.S. college towns revolves around its football team and the college campus is ground zero. Star athletes like Winston live in a vacuum and are often led to believe, by their many adult handlers, that their actions off the field are beyond reproach. There’s a long and unfortunate history of college athletes being shielded or let off the hook when facing similar allegations, while the accuser is often burned at the stake for speaking out and potentially jeopardizing a town’s chance at glory. A former member of the state attorney's office, Chuck Hobbs, says, "It's all anyone is talking about. There are so many unanswered questions."
In Winston’s case, his accuser claimed that she was intoxicated on the night of the alleged assault and that her memory of the events was “broken.” It was also confirmed that Winston’s DNA was found on the victim, but speaking via his lawyers, he claimed that that the sex was consensual. On the other hand, the claimant's attorney has expressed her dismay at the decision. "It's really ruined her life. There's no benefit in this to her whatsoever. She's a good girl, and this is a nightmare."
Today, as many predicted, prosecutors announced that Winston would not be charged. Officials revealed that toxicology reports show that the victim had minuscule amounts of alcohol in her system and that another man’s DNA was also discovered, along with Winston’s, which immediately discredits her initial statement. Clearly, prosecutors felt that they wouldn’t be able to land a conviction if the case ever went to court.
But, when Winston takes the field on Saturday night, most of that won’t matter. Millions of fans will rest their hopes on his outstanding athleticism and will share in the sense of vindication that will no doubt permeate the stadium walls. His reputation will be untarnished by this moment of doubt, but the same might not be said for those who hope to step forward in the future.
The reality is that we don't know what happened in Jameis Winston's case. However, we do know that his story features some very troubling details that will soon be eclipsed by the trophies and accolades that the football star is sure to amass over the course of his career. But, as a society, it's critical that we not forget. It's critical that we remember it's not okay to shame women into staying silent if they've been assaulted — even if the perpetrator of that crime was a local star athlete. And, it's not okay to instill fear in already-terrified victims, when the road ahead for anyone filing charges, no matter how airtight their case, is bound to be painful and traumatic. We have to be a society where no man or woman lives beyond reproach — and the facts of this story definitely don't make us feel like we are there yet.