I don't want to not like Jameis Winston.
I know, as a Gators fan, this makes me something of an outlier — he's the popular and incredibly good quarterback of the Florida rival I hate most, and is leading that rival to perhaps its best-ever season — but I've liked him for some time now. I wrote a glowing preseason piece on how Winston was going to become our favorite college football player, and then enjoyed watching him, despite a fair bit of envy, as he went out and topped all of his hype on the field. By virtually every account, he's also a smart, funny, decent, and immensely likeable guy in the moments of his life that aren't televised. He is the kind of athlete and person who makes rooting for him easy and rooting against him nearly impossible.
An allegation of rape changes all that.
Winston stands accused by a woman of a rape in December 2012, and that allegation is, regardless of its veracity, a serious one. (Rape and sexual assault are usually categorized slightly differently, but the alleged victim's family's statement consistently uses the word rape, so I'll use rape throughout here.) It makes it hard for me to look at Winston as I did prior to the news of this allegation breaking, though I have been careful to read everything with an open mind and Winston's presumed innocence — which he is guaranteed in a court of law, if not, unfortunately, in the court of public opinion — at the forefront of it.
What I've come up with is very little I can be sure of. We don't know what happened on the night in question; we know that the alleged victim alleges rape happened on the night in question, and have a general outline of what the alleged victim did after the alleged rape, and we also know about DNA evidence suggesting strongly that sex happened, but I don't think we can draw definitive conclusions from all of that beyond that sex happened and that the alleged victim reported a rape to police shortly afterward. There are plenty of other theories and hints of evidence floating around on message boards and Twitter, but I know better than to put a lot of stock in unconfirmed details in cases like this one, and I would hope others do, too.
That's not a lot to go on, and puts us in something close to a he-said, she-said situation. (This assumes that Winston has maintained that he did nothing wrong or nonconsensual, but that isn't really much of an assumption.) The prospect of pitting an accuser's word and DNA evidence suggesting sex of some kind alone against the accused's word may or may not be enough for Florida State Attorney Willie Meggs to bring a charge against Winston, and the decision to bring charges in this case may be made by Meggs's office based on what it feels it can prove far more than its suspicions of Winston's innocence or guilt — prosecutors deal in evidence, not in theory.
I think it's also important to note a few other elements of the case, too.
First, similar scenarios to the one we think we have, in which a lack of physical evidence makes an alleged rape difficult to prosecute, play out with startling and depressing frequency in America. The Rape, Abuse, Incest, and Neglect Network (RAINN) estimates that only 40 in 100 rapes are reported to police, and that only eight of 100 are prosecuted — in other words, an estimated 80 percent of the rapes reported to police are never prosecuted. The reasons for that lack of prosecution can vary wildly (read this survey of Florida prosecutors' standards for prosecutable cases from the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence for some reasons why), but a lack of physical evidence is certainly among them. It's very hard to prosecute a rape successfully, especially in fits and starts, and that's true even without the mitigating circumstances in this situation.
Second, it seems likely that the Tallahassee Police Department erred at multiple junctures in the handling of this case. The victim's family's statement blisters TPD for, among other alleged mistakes, failing to notify the State Attorney's office of the situation, notifying Winston's lawyer of it, and failing to obtain a DNA sample from Winston. Toss in the allegation that a TPD officer told the victim's lawyer that the victim's life would be made miserable — one that I don't find to be particularly outrageous, given that it would probably be an abdication of duty to some degree for a police department not to inform rape victims likely to be thrust into the public eye that the public prosecution of a rape can be grueling for victims — and it feels like decisions made by TPD were wrong more often than right. If any of those above allegations can be proven, it's a shame; if all of them can be, it's a significant one.
Finally, that second point means it is likely, maybe even certain, that someone was failed by the legal and/or judicial system in this case. If Winston did, in fact, rape the alleged victim in this case, his victim has spent a long time waiting for a bumbling legal system to get around to investigating that fully, and maybe long enough for any chances of getting a criminal conviction to evaporate. But if Winston did nothing wrong, and is truly innocent, it probably could have been proven long before now, at the height of his fame, which would certainly have been better for him ... and may have also been better for an accuser, whose life would have been less-scrutinized at any time before this fall, when Winston was still mostly an unknown quantity.
Considering all of the above when considering Winston's case is difficult, to be certain, and my interest in doing so is part of why I've been reticent to write anything more than tweets about it for the last week. I wrote about it, and around it, while handicapping the Heisman race earlier this week, and even that had to be done with great care.
But after seeing the jokes and schadenfreude begin on Twitter and message boards last night, I was convinced that I needed to remind fans of teams that aren't Florida State that none of this is funny, and none of the football ramifications of this matter more than the legal and personal ones.
Jokes inventing new backronyms for FSU are not funny. The use of rape in a pun on Winston's name or nickname is not funny, and your use of rape as a description for what happens in a football game involving Winston is both not funny and a profound insult to rape victims. Jokes about Winston going to prison and teaming with Aaron Hernandez on a football team are not funny. A stadium-wide modification of Florida State's "war chant" to "NOOOO MEANS NOOOO" might seem funny to many, and might seem like it's actually a wry skewering of rape culture, but I think it would ultimately feel like a joke at Winston's (and, thus, his alleged victim's) expense, and I'd guess it would ultimately feel not funny.
I have seen all of these things in the last 24 hours, and cringed at all of them.
It is impossible to make rape funny, and unwise to try. I suggest you stop trying, and I promise that if you try to do so here at Alligator Army, you will be banned swiftly and unceremoniously. (Posting the victim's name will get you the same ban, and this is your one warning that I will have a quick trigger in the comments section here and for comments about Winston and FSU for the forseeable future.)
Similarly, glee at the prospect of Winston not playing football — Florida State regulations stipulate an automatic suspension from play for a player charged with a felony, except in "extraordinary circumstances" — is as unseemly as it gets, given that it's essentially glee derived from someone being raped. (To my horror, I saw one tweet suggesting that, last night, a Gainesville club "announced" Winston had "raped" someone, with the person laughing about it. That's despicable.) There is no joy to take from this now, and I suspect there will be little to take from it in the final accounting, thanks to TPD's alleged miscarriages of justice.
If Winston ends up being suspended, and Florida ends up with a better chance of defeating Florida State, or Florida State falls out of the national title picture, or Winston loses his Heisman race, then so be it, but not one of those potentialities is a reason to rejoice, because not one of them is the point. I'm not going to be glad any of what happens happened because of the football ramifications, except in the sense that it would mean that the legal ramifications of an alleged rape trump all others, and that FSU's priorities are firmly in place.
I follow many Florida State fans on Twitter — too many, probably — and they have, overwhelmingly, done an excellent job of keeping the alleged crime at the center of their discussion. We, as Gators — or 'Canes, or Tigers, or Aggies, or Blue Devils, or what have you — and as humans, need to be as good as those FSU fans have been at putting the emphasis on the alleged crime and investigation of it and being mindful that those things, not the football team Winston plays on, take precedent. And I know we can be.
I don't know for certain what to think about whether Winston is innocent or guilty. I don't know how this case will play out. But I do think I know my, and our, best response to the story: Wait and see, and be respectful of everyone involved — especially the person who is allegedly the victim of a serious and violent crime.
I know we can do that much. I hope you join me in doing so.