Florida State’s star quarterback Jameis Winston was cleared on Sunday in a hearing to determine if he had violated the university’s code of conduct policy. Though Winston was never arrested, he faced four counts of sexual misconduct and endangerment stemming from allegations of rape that were made in 2012 by a fellow student.
Major Harding, the former Florida Supreme Court justice charged with adjudicating the proceedings, absolved Winston because the evidence presented was “insufficient to satisfy the burden of proof.” The Tampa Bay Times got their hands on a full copy of the letter the retired judge sent to Winston.
"Both have their own strengths and weaknesses," Harding wrote. "I cannot find with any confidence that the events as set forth by (Winston and the woman) or a particular combination thereof is more probable than not as required to find you responsible for a violation of the Code. Therein lies the determinative factor of my decision."
John Clune, the accuser’s Title IX was predictably baffled by a determination that’s not much more than a legalese version of the shrug emoticon, saying, “It’s not a decision at all but a statement that the judge couldn’t decide.”
“The three football players—Jameis Winston, Chris Casher and Ronald Darby—all refused to testify and answer questions, and somehow Jameis Winston still wins,” Clune said. “The order doesn’t even follow the student conduct code, and it ignores the bulk of the evidence. There are certainly glaring bases for appeal, but at some point we have to recognize that Florida State is never going to hold Jameis Winston responsible.”
No, they’re definitely not going to do that, not with a the semifinal playoff game on New Year’s Day against Oregon—possibly the last time that Winston will don garnet and gold—just around the corner.
Winston’s accuser has until January 13th to appeal, and there’s a chance she may go forward with a civil action, but as Michael McCann, Sports Illustrated’s Legal Analyst tweeted, “While an FSU hearing is not the same as a trial, Jameis Winston winning hearing is very positive legal sign for him should accuser sue him.” [sic]
It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that it seems Winston will walk away unscathed. Fox Sports 1 and the New York Times have detailed the numerous ways in which investigation was either massively botched or purposely sabotaged from the start by both the university itself and the Tallahassee Police Department. School administrators knew about the allegations for over a year yet continued to allow Winston to play, the police waited on DNA testing, ignored potential witnesses, generally dragged their feet whenever possible and on and on it went.
Winston’s case has garnered the large-font headlines, but sadly, this is the norm when it comes to athletes and allegations of sexual crimes; the forces of institutional power, whether it’s law enforcement, the justice system or the University’s star chamber-ish hearings, seem to be massively stacked against the alleged victims.
Take Jessica Luther’s investigation at VICE Sports into the Kafka-esque trials that occurred at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, “a process that has left her [the accuser] feeling angry, minimized, manipulated, and ultimately blamed for her assault.”
Then there’s ESPN’s harrowing account of a soccer player at the University of Missouri who claims she “told police that her coach said she might lose her scholarship unless she dropped assault allegations she had made against a star football player.” The player in question remained on the team for two years, racking up three additional charges of sexual and/or physical assault before leaving school.
Or the tragic case of Lizzy Seeberg, a 19-year-old freshman who committed suicide after she realized that her sexual assault claims against a Notre Dame football player were going to more or less go unheard. She found herself on the receiving end of venomous smear campaign describing her as "a troubled girl" that had "done this before," and got texts from friends of her alleged attacker saying, "Don't do anything you would regret. Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea."
That sounds a heck of a lot like what occurred in May 2013, when lawyers for Winston’s accuser claimed that the police informed them that Tallahassee is a “big football town” and therefore she “needs to think long and hard before proceeding against him because she will be raked over the coals and her life will be made miserable."
Winston’s accuser was also doxxed by David Cornwell, Winston’s attorney, the same individual that dismissed the entire case as a “shakedown.” And yes, you don’t have to dig deep into the fetid fever swamp that is some of the nastier corners of the internet to find photos of her peppered with chortling, bro-ish grunts about her appearance and how her dance moves might be an indication of “consent.” (No, I’m not going to link to them here. Please don’t look for them.)
If you’re tempted to say that schools really should get out of the business of adjudicating sexual assault cases altogether, I’m with you. So are many advocacy groups. Having an athlete involved is without a doubt an additional roadblock and definitely amps up the school’s conflict of interest. But the Center for Public Integrity spent over a year poring through the data and found that as a whole:
Students deemed “responsible” for alleged sexual assaults on college campuses can face little or no consequence for their acts. Yet their victims’ lives are frequently turned upside down. For them, the trauma of assault can be compounded by a lack of institutional support, and even disciplinary action. Many times, victims drop out of school, while their alleged attackers graduate. Administrators believe the sanctions commonly issued in the college judicial system provide a thoughtful and effective way to hold culpable students accountable, but victims and advocates say the punishment rarely fits the crime.
The problem is, as the Winston case has surely demonstrated, when it comes to sexual assault the cops aren’t doing much better. There’s a reason why the vast majority of rapes go unreported, and the fact that victims have little confidence in a system where 98% of rapists will never see the inside of a jail cell is a big part of it.
Winston though, will be fine, as long as he can avoid making thuddingly arrogant, blinkered statements in his defense like "the only thing as vicious as rape is falsely accusing someone of rape." Ben Roethlisberger, Kobe Bryant and Mark Sanchez have all weathered a brief storm of disapproval and bad press to settle out of court or see the charges dropped and yet they still managed to garner multi-million dollar contracts and endorsement deals. Even Mike Tyson has seen his past more or less wiped from the collective memory as he’s been transformed into a cuddly, semi-amusing character actor.
The protection will last as long as Winston can still fling the ball 50 yards downfield to a streaking wide receiver. Just ask Darren Sharper what happens if your sporting career suddenly falters.