This Saturday, Jameis Winston is going to win the Heisman Trophy, perhaps the most famous trophy in all of sports. He will be wearing a tie. Someone from The Heisman Trust will call his name, and people will applaud, and he will stand up and accept the award. He will make a speech. He will talk about distractions, and the haters, and the people who believed in him all along, who always stood behind him, and by his side.
Jameis Winston is going to play football for a long time. He likely has one more year left in college, and then he'll play professionally, very likely as the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. We will be watching him play football for the next decade, at minimum. He might play for our favorite team; many of us, at some point, will draft him in our fantasy leagues. As sports fans, he's going to be a daily part of our lives, because that's how it is with superstars. Jameis Winston is not going away. We are going to be talking about him all the time, for a long time.
Jameis Winston also might be a rapist. His accuser, her family and many experts in the field of jurisprudence believe he is, or that we should have at least had a trial to figure it out. That doesn't matter, of course: All that matters, legally, is that a group of giggling Florida lawmen are not going to press charges, for various reasons, some understandable, some not. Jameis Winston is not, in the eyes of the law, a rapist. In the eyes of many others, he is, and always will be.
But the only jury Winston will ever face, really, is us.
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After Florida State's 45-7 win over Duke in the ACC championship game, ESPN reporter Heather Cox asked Winston five questions:
- Jameis, congratulations. All season long, you guys have been telling me you're not allowed to utter the words "national championship." It was a taboo word. What's it like to finally be able to realize you can look ahead, and you're going to the national championship game?
- Jameis, what's the last month been like for you as news of the investigation was sharing headlines with your on-the-field performance?
- What did you learn during the month of the investigation?
- On Thursday, after news was broken that the investigation was closed, coach [Jumbo] Fisher told us that he told you he has ultimate trust in you, that you just need to be you, and he'll take care of the rest. How much did that trust of your head coach help you?
- Jameis, how come you decided not to talk during the process, and on Thursday? [Winston walks away] Jameis, congratulations.
These questions -- one of which didn't concern the one story everyone had been talking about all month, two of which were about how the off-the-field "distraction" had affected the team's on-the-field performance, and two of which contain the word "congratulations" -- represent very likely the first, last and only public interrogations Jameis Winston will ever face about the accusations against him. (Insanely, Winston's lawyer was so offended by Cox's careful, friendly questions that he's demanding a public apology.) Winston will likely sit for some soft-focus interview in a few months, talking about how he's learned and grown and matured, hinting at past unnamed indiscretions he regrets and how he's a better person now, and his representatives will make it clear that's all the comments he'll ever be making on the incident -- all questions will now have to be on-the-field-related. And the sports reporters will all go along with it, because they're just there to cover football too. And everyone will just plan on this fading away.
It probably will. The NBA gives Kobe Bryant fawning "Welcome Back!" videos nine years after his sexual assault charges were dropped. Ben Roethlisberger has been accused of rape twice, in 2008 and 2010, but no one has brought up either charge in years. Both of those men -- superstars above the level of Winston, at least for now -- actually settled civil suits with their accusers, which isn't an admission of guilt but is an acknowledgement of the accusations that Winston will likely never be forced to make. We cheer them anyway. We've all moved on.
Those cases, like Winston's, were dropped not because the prosecutors didn't believe the accuser -- even that chuckling Florida prosecutor, as Julie DiCaro put it at Deadspin, "referred to the accuser as 'the victim,' and it was clear that he felt that he couldn't get a conviction, not that a crime had not taken place" -- but because they weren't 100 percent sure they could win. While this might serve as a reassurance that our justice system proceeds with prudence and caution (even too much caution sometimes) it doesn't get us any closer to the actual question of whether or not Winston committed this crime. DiCaro, along with Emily Bazelon at Slate, points out the considerable evidence stacked against Winston, from the bruises to the phone calls immediately after the incident to the fact that the accuser had no idea that Winston even played football. That might not be enough to convict him. But it's not nothing either.
The rest of us who through our zealous fandom unwittingly contribute to the world that can allow Winston's accuser to be told, "Tallahassee was a big football town and the victim needs to think long and hard before proceeding against [Winston] because she will be raked over the coals and her life will be made miserable" are not on a jury. Do these men have to go to jail when a prosecutor decides he/she can't win a case? No. But our standard for judgment is lower. If we see that Bryant and Roethlisberger have given money to an accuser to make the situation go away, don't we get to react to that? Can't we modulate our fandom accordingly? Can't we hate their freaking guts?
We can, but we don't, which is what allows Heather Cox to be seen as some monster for asking Winston the questions -- nice, easy questions -- that the whole world was asking. It's what allows him to get away with it. Not it, exactly, not the crime he has been accused of. It allows him to get away with acting as if all of this is some imposition on him, as if it's just getting in the way of what's important, how it's a "distraction." To act like the bad guys are those who want to know what happened, to hold him accountable, if he is. To want answers.
Answers are for the courts, Winston and Bryant and Roethlisberger and countless others argue. Their job is simply to excel at sports. Everything else doesn't matter. This is what they count on. They count on time wearing us all down, of us forgetting about Kobe and Colorado, of Roethlisberger and the two separate women, about this accuser's family's pained, desperate statement simply asking for truth. How long can you hang on to outrage? They will run out the clock on you.
Soon, Jameis Winston is going to do something amazing on the football field, and we'll move on to something else, because there is always something else. Winston can answer the questions he wants to, and then walk away from the ones he doesn't, because after he walks away, he will do things with a football that no one else can do. And we will give him a trophy for it.
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