Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston was cool, collected and funny delivering the “Top Ten” on David Letterman last night, but to me, the hijinks seemed out of sync with reality, fairness and justice somehow.
The 19 year-old-Florida State University star quarterback became the youngest Heisman Trophy winner ever when he was named college football’s most outstanding player Saturday night in New York. He is also the youngest accused rapist to be awarded the Heisman.
That award symbolizes football’s ongoing ethics problem. The pro game’s brutal, uber-macho and “the ends justify the means” culture that has players maiming each other as the crowd cheers and multiple felons on the field in most games has reached into the lower reaches of football, with both colleges and high schools breeding arrogant, entitled jerks who get special treatment through their pampered academic careers and too often emerge from from the football machine as polished sociopaths. The Penn State horror story was a symptom of this. Is Winston’s award another?
It hasn’t been featured in many of the exultant stories about the Heisman winner, but a year ago, on December 7, he was accused of rape by an FSU co-ed. Last week the prosecutors—just in time for the Heisman!—declared that they had not found enough evidence to convict him, which means that they did not have enough evidence to ethically prosecute him. The accuser’s attorney, Patricia Carroll, immediately condemned the decision and the investigation that led to it, detailing multiple irregularities in the the handling of evidence and testimony. Writes Slate’s legal reporter Emily Bazelon:
“Carroll is right that the police botched the investigation from the start. And I’m impressed with the tenacity of her client, who is a student at FSU. The allegations she made have already cost her—she has had to withdraw from classes amid a torrent of criticism, while Winston keeps winning on the field and is a top candidate for the Heisman Trophy. The problem is that the mistakes the police made at the outset, plus what looks like some fumbling by the state attorney’s office, will be hard for the attorney general to fix now.”
Carroll has demanded an independent inquiry from the state, but based on the negative response from Florida’s Governor Rick Scott—the same governor who appointed a biased special prosecutor to make certain George Zimmerman was charged with murder in another case where there was insufficient evidence for a conviction–that seems unlikely. A civil suit is probably coming
The Heisman is supposed to present to the nation, and the nation’s aspiring football players, a shining example of athletic prowess and, presumably, sportsmanship, though the award is simply designated as honoring a year’s “outstanding” college player. Can one be both an accused rapist and “outstanding’? Maybe even a convicted rapist would be fine with the voters; I wouldn’t bet against it, knowing football.
In the U.S., an individual is regarded as innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, following a fair trial. Does fairness to Jameis Winston require that voters (previous winners, sportswriters, and a survey of fans conducted by ESPN that constitutes one vote) ignore the shadow of an unresolved rape accusation hovering over him?
Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz, then, is this:
Should the rape accusation against Jameis Winston have been taken into consideration by the Heisman Trophy voters?
You’re going to hate this answer from me, but I think it should. The record of schools and communities covering up for local athletic heroes is long and horrible, and as Bazelon and Carroll have pointed out, this alleged victim’s claims were undermined by a flawed (or intentionally half-hearted?) investigation. Accusations of serious crimes are not nothing, nor should they be regarded as such. They are evidence of a possible problem, and journalists routinely inform the public about them when the accused but unprosecuted are candidates for office or potential appointees for important positions. A candidate for a powerful and important job in the corporate world would find a rape accusation a serious career handicap. A candidate for governor, Senator or President would find it a fatal obstacle. Such an incident, if revealed, would have a negative impact on a college graduate’s chances of getting admitted to law school or an elite military academy. Why shouldn’t Heisman voters prefer, out of the vast range of candidates available to them, one who has managed not to be credibly accused of rape?
I admit, having just read the nauseating comments on Gawker reacting to George Zimmerman’s auctioning off a (pretty pathetic) piece of his “art” on Ebay, I am also struck by the blatant double standard applied to the Martin-Zimmerman case and Winston’s alleged rape. There was no national uproar over the fact that Winston was allowed to go on with his life while the incident was being investigated for a full year before authorities decided whether to prosecute, yet a far shorter delay for further investigation in Zimmerman’s case was universally cited by activists as a evidence of a racially biased cover-up. (Winston is black, while Zimmerman is only partly black, so there’s that.) The President of the United States also didn’t choose to compare the alleged victim in the rape case to his own offspring either, presumably because it was the accused perpetrator, not the victim, that looks like him.
I know: if Winston’s accuser is, as Winston claims, crying rape over consensual sex gone wrong, then to rob him of the prestigious award his on-the-field exploits have earned because of a false accusation would be unfair, even tragic. I also recognize that celebrities and especially athletes are targets of false accusations. That’s why this is a quiz; I’m not certain what is the most ethical result. At this point, however, I reluctantly side with the position that accused rapists, absent outright exoneration, shouldn’t be presented to the public and the culture as heroes.