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Midweek Musings: The calculus of character, talent, and sports

Want to get away with something? Make it minor — and make sure you're good at something else.

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Be good, or be good at it

Lil Wayne, "No Love"1

F. Scott Fitzgerald's most famous maxim "There are no second acts in American lives" is a misquote that frustrates scholars; in truth, he prefaces the phrase we know with "I once thought," and, in context, it means just about the opposite of what we popularly believe it to mean.

It's also not really about second chances, so much as it is development and progression. But the greater theme of Fitzgerald's oeuvre — that we are chained to the past and bound to the future — is among the most astute observations about American culture ever made.

And it's that theme I think of when I wonder about "character" and sports.

Florida fans have been made to confront questions of character more than most of late: Chris Thompson's arrest on a charge of battery against a former girlfriend, Aaron Hernandez's conviction in the murder of Odin Lloyd, and J.C. Jackson's arrest on charges of felony armed robbery took place over just more than two weeks — and, because of a delay in the reporting of Thompson's arrest, became public knowledge over just 10 days. A history of misdeeds by football players dovetailing with program successes, most recently under Urban Meyer but by no means solely under his watch, is part of the narrative of the Florida Gators — so much so that a bad year on the field is sold in part as a fine year off the field.

The logic of the implicit converse — that you can't win championships with "choirboys," and need a few "thugs" for success — is far more insidious, and damn near unkillable on message boards. The arrest of Jackson, who hails from impossibly poor Immokalee (where more than a third of residents live under the federal poverty line), was greeted in some corners as a sign that Will Muschamp had, in fact, recruited players with the requisite rough edges to be badasses. Gerald Willis, who will soon try to persuade the NCAA that his dismissal at Florida was "for reasons outside the control of the student-athlete," became a cult hero for how much of a "goon" he was as a Gator, whether that was demonstrated by losing his temper with a teammate, or Jameis Winston.

It's always hard to tell whether "thugs" are being embraced sincerely or sarcastically — at least when they're wearing the colors you cheer.

It's rarely so hard when they're on another team, especially a rival one. "Your team is full of thugs, criminals, and perverts," Rick Reilly once wrote, in one of the best sports columns ever written. (The corollary? "My team is colorful.") You try getting a Gator to embrace Jameis Winston at this point.

The latest revelation from his pre-draft process is that he didn't steal the crab legs he walked out of a Publix with in April 2014: They were given to him. Winston didn't exactly reveal this freely, either, needing to be cajoled by Michigan offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch — a Florida alumnus who came to UF to become a coach under Steve Spurrier, by the way — into telling Jim Harbaugh about how exactly his seafood caper came to pass, in a conversation from ESPN's Draft Academy series aired on Tuesday.

I speak only for myself here, but that rankles me.

It suggests that Winston lied about what happened in the first place — Jimbo Fisher confirmed he had no knowledge of the possibility of a hookup during a Wednesday teleconference — and likely did so to his head coach and police. That suggestion calls into question Winston's credibility, and one can be certain that it will be noted by lawyers who filed a civil suit against Winston over the alleged rape of Erica Kinsman2, that he had been questioned by police in multiple minor incidents even prior to being investigated in conjunction with what happened with Winston and Kinsman that night in December 2012.

I've been on record as saying that I think Winston ought to be held to the standard that he set for himself ("We gotta be ... up here") after winning a national title. And I've always sort of suspected that the real reason for Winston being suspended against Clemson this year was not for shouting "Fuck her right in the pussy!" — eye-rollingly dumb though that is for anyone to do, and especially for someone who was very publicly accused of rape — but for being less than forthcoming with Florida State officials about what exactly he did, given the bizarre timeline of events.

But I also thought, for a significant stretch of last season, that Winston's history of mischief (or, well, more) and FSU's seemingly poor damage control might impact his NFL Draft stock. I was dead wrong: Winston's not only clearly going to be the No. 1 pick next week, he's the unanimous No. 1 pick.

His talent is so great, at least relative to this year's draft class, that the worst team in a league chastened in the last 12 months by a) players committing a spate of crimes so visible as to provoke genuine public outrage and b) one former player being sentenced to life in prison in his first of two murder trials has no qualms about its head coach saying "We're very comfortable with Jameis Winston."

But does all this bug me because it's an athlete lying, misbehaving, and getting away with it, or because I'm a Florida fan, and Winston's a Florida State athlete lying, misbehaving, and getting away with it? And is it the lying, or the misbehaving, or the getting away with it that I care about?

It's probably at least a little of all of the above.

If Winston raped Erica Kinsman — a significant and unprovable if, given the facts of the case — and has managed, thanks to a confluence of circumstances, to go free despite that? It's an injustice that goes far beyond sports, and I would hope anyone could see that. If Winston, arguably "enabled" by a series of slaps on the wrist, goes on to do something that significantly harms someone, I think that frustration will stem from something other than my subjective perspective, too.

But getting truly mad about Winston getting a hookup that, if we're all being honest, is perceived as both widely available to prominent college athletes and embarrasingly minor? That would be sports fan spite. (Taking umbrage with the apparent deceit is, I think, different.)

The same goes for using Winston shooting BB guns (like plenty of dumbass college kids who didn't wear garnet and gold) and/or stealing sips of soda from Burger King (which ranks among most trifling criminal act I've heard of in which cops were contacted). I think Winston's profane public meme recitation is genuinely troubling — but less because he said it, and more because I think saying it like he did indicates he hasn't really grasped the gravity of being investigated for rape. And that's almost certainly got to do with my beliefs in regards to rape culture.

Some of my problems "with Winston" aren't even with him, specifically. I think it's a shame that Kinsman's allegation can never be fully investigated — no matter the outcome — because of how Tallahassee police conducted their investigation, and how FSU figures and Winston's lawyer may have obstructed justice, allowing potentially crucial evidence to be destroyed. I think it's a shame, too, that Winston has become a figure so polarizing, because of how vehemently he has been attacked and defended, that someone could think a sign making fun of how they think he once spoke was a good idea.

Moreover, and more importantly: I think it's a bad thing that power — whether in the form of fame and importance, or financial value — inures people from consequences of actions. And I think it's telling that we're willing to accept more, and more serious misdeeds from more powerful people.

One of the few things I think is unquestionably wrong and was in Winston's name was this passage from the statement he read at his FSU student conduct hearing (one likely prepared by his lawyer, David Cornwall):

"Rape is a vicious crime. The only thing as vicious as rape is falsely accusing someone of rape."

This is a grotesque means of defense against an allegation of rape. And though it's far from the only dyspeptic thing Cornwall has done in defending Winston, that statement — and the relative lack of reaction to it — points to how many people may truly believe that, grotesque though it is, it's true in regards to Jameis Winston.

Flatly, it is not. Winston has suffered only minimal material changes to his life to date because of this supposed "vicious" false accusation. Kinsman, by contrast, has dropped out of school, lived her life in the shadows while her case(s) against Winston have been prosecuted, and had her name dragged through the mud in public; her profit, to date, has been negligible, though a civil suit may well net her a financial gain.

But Winston (and his legal team) are the people with the power here. The consequences aren't so severe.

That's true for Hernandez, and Jackson, and Thompson, too. Hernandez was the best of those three at football, and committed by far the most serious crime — but, until the moment his verdict was read, no one was really sure if he was actually going to get convicted. And yet he allegedly played a full season of NFL football after being involved in a separate double murder, one for which he will still have to stand trial.

Hernandez failed at least some drug tests at Florida, and had a punchout at a bar go unreported because he was a juvenile, and little came of it. He was suspended quietly for the former, which we only really know via conjecture, and what happened with the latter isn't public knowledge. And as for the case in which Hernandez was identified and contacted in regards to a shooting? It's murky, and still an open case, though witnesses rescinded an initial identification of Hernandez.

Jackson is charged with an armed robbery that police documents strongly imply he planned, and is a "bigger" name than Thompson, though clearly nowhere near the level of Hernandez. He remained in custody for almost three days, and Florida legal eagle Huntley Johnson told The Gainesville Sun's Robbie Andreu that he would not represent Jackson this morning.

It wasn't until that confirmation, though — Florida's Matlock punting on defending his latest potential high-profile football-playing client — that some Florida fans went from pointing out that due process was still on the side of the most gifted athlete in a secondary with multiple future NFL players to waving him goodbye.

To repeat: There were Florida fans willing to hear out the story of a guy accused of planning an armed robbery. Maybe he'd just gotten mixed up with the wrong crowd, you know? But, then, there will always be some fans who rate talent over all.

And Thompson? He's a solid contributor on the 2015 Florida roster at best. Maybe he plays significant snaps at wide receiver; maybe he becomes Florida's kick returner. But his alleged crime was so minor  — a scratch during a fight to retrieve his phone — that I was among the many folks wondering whether it would be a mere speed bump for him, even before it was eventually dropped.

We make excuses for the misdeeds of athletes we like based on how little we care about the misdeed committed, and how much we care about what the athlete can do. There's no excuse for murder, probably, but if the athlete is good enough, people will certainly bend over backward to paint rosy pictures of alleged armed robbery or rape. If it's sufficiently minor, hell, we might even say we'd do the same thing, or paint the act as noble. And the further you are from important, the further your mischief is going to have to be from serious.

Of course, the holy grail for sports fans, the thing that they want above all else, is the brilliant player for whom character is never a concern.

What can that kind of player get away with? Lying to hide his own injury in a way that puts his own health, his coach's credibility, and his team at risk, for example. And that guy's going to get so many chances, your head might spin.

So why am I rankled? It's a little bit of all of the above, but pressed to pick one reason, I think it's the getting away with it. I think it's how misdeeds unchecked reveal the ugly truth that being good at it is, in some ways, more valuable than being good in this country. I think it's the ongoing frustration that sports can be a Trojan horse for fabricating characters, instead of building character.

And, really, I think that's less a critique of sports than the society that has made them as important as they are.

But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm just a bitter fan. My team hasn't been very good at football lately.

It's always easy to moralize and rationalize about character when you can't rhapsodize and rationalize about wins.


  1. Lest you think this unconventional morality source only from rappers: Country singer Neal McCoy's "If You Can't Be Good (Be Good at It)" covered the same turf, and the strong implication is that it's about infidelity; the album it's from is also called Be Good at It. And a condensed version ("Be good, or good at it") is what Belo Cipriani, a blind novelist who lost his sight in an assault, has made his six-word memoir. I don't think I could pull from three more disparate sources here.

  2. I am using Kinsman's name here, and will use it — sparingly — going forward if this case is discussed, because she has chosen to use her name in public, in conjunction with the documentary The Hunting Ground.