Today, a 20-year-old man will be punished for shouting an obscene and offensive comment at his university’s student union. More specifically, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston will watch Saturday’s football showdown between FSU and Clemson from the sidelines as punishment for yelling out “fuck her right in the pussy” on a table in the middle of campus on Tuesday.
The newsworthy aspect of this story is not the actions FSU took in chastising Winston, which are allegedly ongoing, but rather the rareness of any sort of punishment in student athlete cases such as this, regardless of the violence and seriousness of the crime. In fact, the counterintuitive rule of thumb appears to be that the more criminal an alleged action, the more thoroughly it will be swept under the rug, lest star players like Winston miss more a game’s worth of crucial game play.
According to The New York Times, “It would be difficult to overstate the importance of football to Florida State and its hometown. In Tallahassee, rooting for the Seminoles is a matter of identity and economy.” Seminoles pride isn’t just a concept—it’s a cash cow, generating millions for the FSU athletic department as well as the local businesses that profit off of diehards’ dollars. From a business perspective, it makes all the sense in the world to keep student athletes on the field.
However, conflict inevitably arises when university’s bottom lines clash with their other obligations, such as protecting each and every student and fostering a campus environment of safety and well-being. Or, to put it more accurately: conflict is inevitably swept under the rug, at any and all costs.
Winston’s case illustrates this point beautifully, threatening to expose the brutal cost benefit analyses behind the decision-making processes at so-called institutions of higher learning. When Florida State President Gernett S. Stokes joined Athletic Director Stan Wilcox in publically disciplining Jameis Winston, the transparency of this high-profile slap on the wrist was immediately apparent.
Winston’s expletive-ridden declaration was tweeted by multiple FSU student witnesses—tweets that were immediately compiled and disseminated on the Internet. Taking Winston out for a game (originally only the first half) was a PR move, and a highly motivated one at that—by sacrificing a mere 60 minutes of game of play, FSU was able to “do the right thing” while simultaneously appearing to take a stand against misogyny and gendered violence; a consistently heated issue in the football world that’s recently hit a boiling point.
Looking for a counter example of how universities put the safety of their student body on the line in order to avoid punishing student athletes, in turn protecting the commercial viability of their mammoth athletic departments? Look no further than Jameis Winston…in 2012.
Less than two years ago, Winston was accused of sexually assaulting a fellow student. According to an investigative report by The New York Times, following the survivor’s report of assault, “there was virtually no investigation at all, either by the police or the university.” Witnesses were not questioned, valid leads were not followed, and the local detective handling the case waited a full two months to write his first report before subsequently suspending his inquiry for no apparent reason, without informing the accuser.
This incompetency was matched by FSU itself, which, in direct violation of federal law and Title IX directives, failed to promptly investigate the assault accusation. Three weeks after the alleged rape became public knowledge, the local prosecutor officially declined to charge the star quarterback with sexual assault.
Winston went on to win the Heisman Trophy and lead Florida State to the national championship—a decidedly different outcome than what might have occurred if the criminal allegations against him were taken seriously. The message that comes across loud and clear is that FSU cares more about PR than it cares about its students, and that its first priority is protecting student athletes and keeping them on the field—never mind the trail of broken laws and battered bodies that are left in the wake of a successful season.
According to the National Organization of Women the NFL has a “violence against women problem.” It’s all too easy to trace this criminal misogyny from its roots in high school football stadiums to high-powered universities to the National Football League. The 2012 Steubenville rape case revealed the depths to which local authorities would sink in an attempt to protect two high school football players against sexual assault allegations.
While Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays were eventually convicted for the rape of a minor, their case is still trotted out as chilling evidence of the importance of athletics in small towns, as peers, police officers, and various authority figures attempted to blame the victim of the assault and protect the football-related futures of the accused. It took national outcry and online vigilantes to finally get justice in Steubenville—even still, Ma’lik Richmond is already out of juvenile detention and back on Steubenville’s Big Red football team.
In addition to FSU, a myriad of universities have mishandled their own sexual assault controversies; here’s a comprehensive list covering 40 years of institutional incompetency and victim abuse. It’s all too easy to connect the dots between Ma’lik Richmond, Jameis Winston and say, Ray Rice, the Ravens linebacker who’s now Internet-infamous after a video leaked of him punching his fiancée unconscious in a casino elevator.
Responding to the NFL’s most recent attempt to save face, the formation of a four-woman committee on domestic violence and sexual assault within the league, the Bleacher Report’s Greg Couch argued that, “Winston is apparently a perfect example of the type of player they need to address…What he shows is a thought process, a seed of a cultural thing among so many football players that needs to be rooted out. It's about what attitudes toward women are being taught through a lifetime in the sport. That's going to be tough to change. It has something to do with the ego of football players, their need to be tough guys, and their views about the value of anyone whom they don't see as a tough guy.”
I’m inherently skeptical of this urge to boil down a series of crimes into an underlying football culture of violent machismo, as if the relationship between this particular sport and violence against women is exclusively one of causation as opposed to correlation. Invocations of some sort of overarching football culture become ways to mask unsavory insinuations about the race and class of football players, all jumbled up in a larger, fairly insubstantial argument about the uncontainable violence of the sport itself. Rapists, like all criminals, are people with unsavory agendas looking for the best possible circumstances under which to orchestrate their crimes.
While the deification of high school and college football players certainly leads to some strange student power dynamics and hugely inflated egos, this isn’t a direct recipe for sexual assault. We don’t know that athletes commit more crimes than anyone else—in fact, NFL crime rates are lower than the national average across the board.
What we do know, because we see it time and time again, is that athletes routinely go deliberately unpunished, and remain protected by the very institutions that ought to be pursuing their cases and holding the appropriate parties responsible. In addition to turning a blind eye towards violent crimes, a recent joint Sports Illustrated and CBS News report alleges that in the 2010 college preseason “only two schools in the top 25 did regular background checks on their recruits,” making it clear that this problem is just as much about major universities’ willingness to accept criminals on the basis of their athletic prowess as it is about some innate criminality that’s allegedly fostered by the violent and impulsive nature of football itself.
This is not to say that incidences such as Winston’s sexual assault are not about rape culture or the normalization of violence against women; these are huge factors in the sexual assault problem that is facing colleges throughout the country.
Whenever a university allows a rapist to go free, whether he is an athlete or just another undergraduate, that institution is continuing a legacy of malpractice with inherently gendered consequences—the idea that a woman’s voice is not reliable, that her body is expendable, and that her safety and experience as a student and a human being is not valued by the very institution that she is paying to attend.
This re-victimization is real—but “football culture” is not the perpetrator or the abuser. By mystifying and confusing the connection between “football culture” and sexual assault, we are failing to point a finger at the greedy motives and stunning incompetence of these institutions—because while the sport of football doesn’t magically create rapists, these universities and leagues somehow manage to magically make allegations of rape disappear.