Ungodly credit where it's unfortunately due, Florida State University knows how to nail a public relations campaign. When it was discovered, some 11 months after the fact, that an alleged rape victim had named the school's starting quarterback slash living ATM Jameis Winston as her attacker, the university did what any half-decent communications consultant or attorney would tell them to do: pretend everything is fine and shut the hell up.
Sure, drop a statement that says you're taking the matter seriously and will cooperate fully with an already botched investigation, but after that? Smile wide for the cameras and say nothing into a microphone. I spent a few years working in communications for a feel-good non-profit, but this particular line of PR BS is common to anyone who trades in spinning fables out of reality. Which is to say that this was all rather predictable, but not as predictable as the vast majority of sports media happily going along with it.
In the 22 days between TMZ first reporting Winston as the suspect and the morbidly vaudevillian press conference which effectively closed the case, FSU imposed a "football questions only" decree on the media that was met with no resistance because countering PR machinations is no longer an important part of the media's job -- assuming that it ever was. The convenient reasoning in favor of this arrangement is that the media has to make compromises in service of keeping the access that is a supposedly necessary component of reporting. It's the sort of faux-reasonable foundational philosophy that media members have long trotted out with all the sincerity of an apostate reading a homily. Here's the thing: access is a useless status symbol when its price is not asking the questions one should ask.
That much was clear in the FSU media sessions that followed the mushroom cloud of controversy born of TMZ's reporting. Media members cycled through permutations of awkward, fumbling questions about "preparation" and "distractions" -- a process akin to watching someone turn the lights off in a room and halfheartedly grope in the dark for no apparent reason. Meanwhile, there sat Winston answering questions about Syracuse's defense or whatever as he dutifully pretended to not be scared out of his goddamn mind by the prospect of being charged with rape. One could almost hear the sound of endless bottles being popped as unseen attorneys and PR pros celebrated their hands-free puppeteering of the institution ostensibly meant to counteract them. By their presence, the media made themselves complicit and will now pretend as if though refusing FSU's terms was, somehow, not an option.
However, the media's complicity does not end with their presence. The common framing of the victim was as an abstract distraction -- ESPN on-air talent in particular is guilty of this tactic -- and, in doing so, the victim was denied any measure of humanity or, perish the thought, empathy. Discussing a rape victim in such blithe, detached terms while handing her accused attacker a Get Out Of Media Hell Free Card sends an obvious message that an unconscionable number of rape victims are terribly familiar with: No one cares about you.
The statistics on sexual assault make that much clear. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), America's largest anti-sexual violence organization, compiled government data to show that only three out of every 100 rapists will ever spend a single day in prison and only 40 percent of sexual assaults are ever reported to police. The stigma placed on rape victims is often so crippling that it serves as a societal shield for rapists, who then walk free while their victims are left to navigate the near-endless maze of mental illnesses that sexual assault is known to trigger.
Then again, even referring to Winston's accuser as a victim of sexual assault is far more controversial than the media choosing to play along with FSU's damage control squad. This is mostly due to sexual assault being one of the only crimes in which the victim is reflexively doubted and expected to carry some, if not all, the burden of the blame. While the courts won't recognize Winston's accuser as a victim until someone is convicted for the crime, we do not live inside an endless courthouse. Absent any evidence, the public implication that she's lying is no less morally undignified than immediately assuming Winston's guilt absent the same. I understand that everyone just loves Jameis Winston, but maybe there should be enough empathy in the world to reserve some for a woman who was possibly raped. However, apparently there isn't and it's not even close. There is a term for the terrifying totality of what every sexual assault victim is faced with: It's called rape culture. On Thursday afternoon, ESPN aired an hours-long tribute to it.
The televised spectacle of shamelessness began with State Attorney Willie Meggs' press conference announcement that Winston would not be charged with sexual assault. Determined not to let something like rape bring the bummer vibes, Meggs dropped hella jokes while discussing an investigation that was doomed by incompetent police work which left the case inactive for nearly an year. Incredibly, or perhaps not, the assembled horde of media laughed at Meggs' Borscht Belt Patrick Bateman impersonation. A handful of reporters did express discomfort with the RAPE ALLEGATIONS ARE FUNNY, AMIRITE routine via social media, but the soulless cackles of jackasses were what the world saw and heard.
Nothing got any better when the cameras cut back to ESPN's set. A basic recap of the press conference was followed by an inevitable pivot to what really matters: Winston's Heisman chances and FSU's path to a National Championship. Yes, a rape victim who became punchline fodder for a State Attorney, then became a dehumanized abstraction that had finally been removed from FSU's glorious path to making a few more bucks off unpaid labor. Notably, a thoughtful discussion including Jemele Hill and Colin Cowherd came on the heels of all that hot mess. But there was still all that hot mess.
It wasn't supposed to be that way. Thursday night was supposed to be fun for ESPN. A cloying bit of brand synergy had Will Ferrell set to appear in-character as Ron Burgundy for the evening edition of SportsCenter. A good time would be had by all! And then came news of Meggs' press conference, which led to the marketing tie-in's cancellation. Still, many found plenty to laugh about.