By Jessica Luther
I was born with garnet and gold blood.
Both of my parents graduated from Florida State. Growing up, I spent Saturday afternoons in the autumn watching FSU football, either sitting next to my dad in front of a TV or in the stands of Doak Campbell Stadium. When it came time for me to go to college, I only applied to one school. And during the four years I was at Florida State, I went to every home game, sweating in the blistering heat of an early season 11 a.m. start or freezing cold during mid-November rivalry games against Florida. One summer, as an orientation leader, it was my distinct honor to teach the incoming class the words to the fight song.
On January 4, 2000, in the middle of my sophomore year, I was sitting high in the stands of the Superdome in New Orleans, watching Chris Weinke and Peter Warrick lead FSU to a national championship (they defeated Michael Vick's Virginia Tech Hokies 46-29). I stayed for the trophy presentation, crawling along the seats until I was positioned in front of the stage where Warrick accepted the Most Valuable Player award. I collected newspapers the next day that had headlines about our championship win and when I got back to Florida, I painstakingly cut out pictures and articles, combined them with photographs I had taken, and made myself a scrapbook so I would always remember how great that experience was. I'm sure somewhere in my attic is a T-shirt from that year with the words "wire-to-wire" on it (FSU was the only team to start the year No. 1 and keep the ranking all the way through).
I remember, before and during the championship game, justifying to myself and any Virginia Tech fan who would listen that Warrick deserved to be on the field despite having been arrested late in September 1999 for grand theft. In collusion with a store clerk at a Tallahassee Dillard's, he and FSU wide receiver Laveranues Coles stole hundreds of dollars' worth of merchandise. After they both pleaded down to misdemeanor petty theft, blame was shifted to Coles' shoulders and he was kicked off the team. Warrick, easily the most famous person on the championship-caliber team and an integral part of the offense, was only suspended two games. I had no problem with any of this, mainly because I paid almost no attention to it. I kept my eyes on the prize of a football championship and my trust in FSU's coach, Bobby Bowden. But I was also 100 percent sure it was fair that Warrick was playing.
Over the past decade, I've suffered through the years of mediocre FSU football, always believing my team could do it, then watching sadly as they collapsed once again. Don't bring up the name Chris Rix around me. I am still sad over the way Xavier Lee's potential never matched up with his play. And I remember the name Drew Weatherford because I am apparently a masochist who likes to continually cause myself pain by re-living the later 2000s.
But then this season happened. We once again have a defense. And an O-line. And, most famously, we have Jameis Winston at quarterback.
Winston was the No. 1 quarterback recruit in 2012. He redshirted during the 2012-13 season and came out of the gates blazing this year. In the sixth week of the season, No. 5 FSU marched into No. 3 Clemson's stadium and put up more points than any other opponent ever had in Death Valley. Winston had 444 passing yards, three touchdowns and a lot of serious Heisman chatter.
I was a fan.
* * *
News broke in November that Winston had allegedly committed a sexual assault in December 2012 -- but a full investigation was never done and the state's attorney was never contacted. It was a terrible confluence involving the star QB of my beloved football team and the work I do as a journalist covering the intersection of football and rape culture.
In early September, after first learning about the horrific Vanderbilt gang rape that four players were reportedly involved with this summer, and the Navy trial of three football players for a gang rape in 2012, I became interested in how the sports media failed to cover either one of those stories in much detail. In doing research around those two rape cases, I started to find mentions, links and footnotes to previous football players accused, and some found guilty, of rape, dating back to the 1970s. I began to keep a list (which has since grown rather long). And to keep tabs on what was happening in Vanderbilt and Annapolis, I created a Google alert for "football rape." And so for nearly two months prior to the Winston allegations surfacing, I had been receiving a grim daily email listing any article or blog post where those words were close together.
I paid careful attention to the Winston case (it showed up a lot in my daily "football rape" email). I wrote a piece before Thanksgiving about the larger issue of football and rape culture. I watched Florida state attorney Willy Meggs' press conference (video) live on ESPN when he announced Winston would not be charged because there was not enough solid evidence to build a case. I then watched Winston's attorney's press conference. I downloaded Meggs' 248-page report and read it. Twice. Then I printed it out and read it again.
It was more damning than I expected. It was hard to read. Why didn't Meggs tell us the woman waited a month to identify Winston because she didn't see him again until the first day of the spring 2013 semester, when they were in the same class? Why didn't we hear more about what details she actually did know the night she reported the rape? Things like Winston's roommate's name, that he was a football player, that she accurately described the building where they lived. Why no specific talk about the blood on her pants and the bruising on her body, which the police officer noted was appearing in the hospital as she was reporting the crime? Why wasn't it made clear that the two witnesses for Winston were fellow football players and no one actually interviewed them until November? Why didn't Meggs elaborate on how much the Tallahassee Police Department failed to do, from not obtaining video from the bar to not tracking down the credit card used by one of the men to pay the cab that night?
I have also seen the accuser's lawyer's recent press conference. I have read the 51-page report she gave to the media. I learned the other set of DNA on the accuser's body that night, which Meggs specifically said was one of the biggest problems with the case, was from her boyfriend who was not even in the state of Florida at the time of the alleged assault. She detailed even more evidence of the Tallahassee Police Department's bungling of this case.
I do not know what to think.
Of course, there are people who will yell at me for being ambivalent or for questioning the outcome, since no charges were pressed against Winston. There will be calls of "innocent before proven guilty." To them, I say this: only 10 percent of rapists are charged, only eight percent go to trial and only three percent to jail. If we are waiting for the judicial system to definitively say a rape occurred, the odds are extremely low that it will ever happen. It almost never happens.
I am not a person who can operate in some neutral space where I put aside the many women in my life who have been assaulted, plenty of them failed by the police who should be protecting them, and many whose communities did not believe them. And I know the stories of men falsely accused of rape (and especially the terrible history of black men accused by white women) and the damage those lies can do. I also know, though, that we live in a society that loves nothing more than to demonize a woman who claims she was assaulted. Only two to eight percent of rape reports are false. According to The National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women, "the American public dramatically overestimates the percentage of sexual assault reports that are false."
Though Meggs not pressing charges gave one resolution to this case, that does not mean there is a definitive resolution about what took place that night. I can understand why Meggs did not take this case to court. But I can also understand why the woman's lawyer wants the attorney general of Florida to investigate the Tallahassee Police Department's handling of this case, and I can understand why the woman maintains she was raped.
So here we are now in the hazy middle. This case is solid gray with no hope of ever becoming clearly black and white.
* * *
My team is finally, once again, playing for the national championship. The great, life-long hold that FSU football has on my heart is warring with what I know (and what I don't) about the quarterback who will lead the team onto the field next month.
There will be people who think I should, somehow, be able to turn off my brain or compartmentalize my knowledge. I simply cannot, though a part of me wishes I could watch the game detached from all of this. The FSU fan in me is desperate to feel the high of cheering on my team as it fights to be national champions. I think back to my 1999-2000 self, a student who paid little attention to the details of off-field problems and focused on the play on the field. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss.
I bleed garnet and gold, but that blood now flows into a brain that is no longer ignorant nor blissful. And all of it together makes my heart hurt.
* * *
Jessica Luther is a writer and journalist who lives in Austin, Texas. Her writing on sports have appeared at the Guardian, the Atlantic, Salon, Think Progress, RH Reality Check, and in The Texas Observer. Her site and podcast about sports and culture is Power Forward.