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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

January 29, 2014: Football Focalizes: Rape and Recognition

[In this Super Bowl week, a series on some of the American issues and questions with which the sport can help us engage. Join the huddle in comments, please!]

On questions that are never entirely answerable—and why they’re still worth asking.
In early November, the story broke that nearly a year earlier—in December 2012—a young woman had come to the Tallahassee police alleging that she had been raped by Jameis Winston, at the time red-shirting on the Florida State football team; this season, as the team’s red-shirt freshman quarterback, Winston was the leading contender for college football’s most prestigious award, the Heisman Trophy. There were and remain all sorts of questions about why neither the Tallahassee police nor FSU seemed to have investigated the allegations until nearly a year later; in any case, when they did, they decided that there was not sufficient evidence to charge Winston, a decision that was revealed at an early December, controversially upbeat press conference. Less than two weeks later, Winston won the Heisman Trophy by a significant margin (although he was also left off of a number of ballots).
Allegations of rape will always (in the absence of some sort of incontrovertible evidence or eye-witness testimony or the like) be very difficult to substantiate and prove, especially when the accused is alleging (as Winston did) that he had consensual sex with the accuser; the Winston case is partly an illustration of that difficult fact of our legal and justice system. But of course, the questions surrounding the authorities’ year of inaction in the Winston case, as well as the parallel questions about the timing of the press conference (at which the state’s attorney obliquely referenced the upcoming Heisman vote, while simultaneously claiming he was unaffected by that factor), raise another uncertain issue: whether Winston’s status on campus and in his city, as perhaps the most sought-after recruit (and then the most acclaimed football player) in the country, impacted either the investigation or its results. It’s entirely possible that those elements had no impact; but we’d be na├»ve not to consider the possibility that they played a role.
Legal questions are not the same as football or perception ones, of course. But if we treat those two kinds of uncertain issues as overtly parallel, it would have at least one distinct benefit: just as the uncertainities surrounding rape charges do not mean that police and authorities shouldn’t investigate such charges to the full extent of their abilities, so too do the enduring uncertainties about the role of status and recognition in a case like Winston’s not in any way mean that we shouldn’t ask and consider those questions as we analyze and respond to such a case. I don’t have any idea what happened with Winston and his accuser, but I know this: from Kobe Bryant to Ben Roethlisberger, to cite only two other high-profile cases, rape and sexual assault are a part of the culture of sports in America, and the least we can do is to treat the issue with the seriousness and analytical rigor it demands.
Next issue tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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