Jameis Winston deserves the Heisman Trophy ... unless he really, really doesn't. Last weekend, while fellow Heisman contenders Johnny Manziel, Marcus Mariota and Bryce Petty faltered in rather spectacular synchronicity, Winston helped Florida State demolish yet another opponent. His numbers are staggering: 194.5 passer efficiency rating, 69.6 completion percentage, 32 touchdowns, seven interceptions. And one allegation of sexual assault.
Winston was accused of raping a female student last December. The case remains open, and once the story became public two weeks ago, it was open season for speculation. A report claimed that his DNA was found on the underwear of the accuser, leading to murmurs that he is guilty. Winston's lawyer responded by saying Winston had consensual sex with the woman, leading some to conclude that he's not guilty.
According to the Heisman Trust, the award is supposed to honor "the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity." Winston has been outstanding all season, but how can we judge his integrity?
The rape allegation is obviously of far greater importance than a trophy. But the Winston case, and his Heisman candidacy, illustrate the fallacy of conflating athletic achievement with personal character. We'd like to be able to separate a man's football skills from his personal conduct. But if we could do that, the allegation against Winston probably would not have hung in legal limbo for almost a year.
December 2, 2013
At the time of the accusation, Winston had not yet played for Florida State. But thanks to recruiting hype and his performance in practices, Seminoles fans had started calling him "Famous Jameis." In a letter to the Tampa Bay Times, the accuser's family said that after the incident, they "grew concerned that she would be targeted on campus," and that Detective Scott Angulo of Tallahassee P.D. had added to their fears.
After their lawyer reached out to the police for guidance, the family wrote, "Detective Angulo told the attorney that Tallahassee was a big football town and the victim needs to think long and hard before proceeding against him because she will be raked over the coals and her life will be made miserable." (Angulo has not commented publicly.)
Victims often think long and hard about proceeding with these cases because the public reaction can be devastating. But it's disturbing if an officer tried to talk somebody out of pursuing justice. Winston's accuser's family also claimed that Angulo refused to collect Winston's DNA (it was collected later) or interview his roommate, who allegedly witnessed the incident.
The accuser's family says Winston's attorney was notified of the allegation in February. The recently retired Tallahassee police chief, Dennis Jones, told CNN he didn't know there was an investigation of Winston until the story broke, and "I'd like to know why it didn't make it to me."
Police are paid to investigate crimes. Victims wonder: If the cops aren't on their side, who is? The accuser has reportedly withdrawn from school.
None of this means that Winston is guilty. But from the beginning, his celebrity appears to have infected the legal process. And now a group of voters will have to make a moral judgment on him without all the facts.
Some people will be appalled if Winston wins the Heisman; it would seem like tacit dismissal of an extremely serious accusation. Others will be appalled if he doesn't win it; that would seem as if he is being penalized for a crime he may not have committed.
Winston is not just Florida State's quarterback anymore. In the public's view, he is the high school students in Steubenville, Ohio, who committed sexual assault, laughed about it and became national news. Or he is the Duke lacrosse players who did not commit sexual assault but were presumed guilty and never quite removed the stain.
A story like this splits, like an amoeba, and lives two lives. There is the case: the facts, evidence and accounts of those involved. Then there's the reaction: opinions, talk-show banter and anger on behalf of both the accuser and the accused.
Part of the appeal of sports is the certainty. Games end with a clear winner and loser; stats tell you exactly who did what. The justice system is not so neat.
"The pursuit of excellence with integrity" is an alluring standard. But it's a mythical one. Ask former Heisman winner Reggie Bush, who forfeited his 2005 Heisman for a less grievous transgression. No matter what the Heisman Trust believes, or voters try to decipher, the only thing we can vouch for right now is Winston's football excellence.
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