By RACHEL WEST – MANAGING EDITOR
On Dec. 7, 2012, a young woman at Florida State University (FSU) reported that she was raped by a stranger off campus. Almost a year later, a secret that threatened the university and one of the prized assets of its sports program came out: the main suspect was Jameis Winston, FSU’s premiere football star and one of the biggest names in college football.
Months later, all that’s left of the case is trauma for a young woman, fame for a football star, and a lot of questions about how society treats our college athletes.
Three weeks after Winston was named a suspect, the local prosecutor announced that they did not have enough evidence to charge Winston with the assault.
Winston went on to win the Heisman Trophy and lead FSU to a national championship. And to the world, that was the end of the story.
The story, however, didn’t end there.
On April 16, 2013, the New York Times published an investigative report on the case. They found that almost no investigation happened, either from the police or from the university.
Despite the fact that a witness filmed part of the assault on their phone, neither party followed up on the obvious lead. When the young woman told investigators that it was Winston that had raped her, the police never interviewed witnesses or took a sample of Winston’s DNA.
In fact, the lead investigator on the case waited over two months to file his report and then never contacted the victim again. Meanwhile, crucial evidence, such as the video, was able to disappear.
Police fundamentally fumbled the case. They did not follow protocols. They did not follow up on obvious leads. They allowed evidence that could have closed the case to slip through their fingers.
The university’s athletic department did no better. Though records show that FSU knew about the accusations by January 2013, the university never responded and never launched an investigation.
FSU never even interviewed Winston. Instead, they allowed their star player to carry on as usual, playing a full season without ever answering a single question.
No outsider, of course, can say that Winston committed the crime. As in all cases, he is innocent until proven guilty.
But even if Winston is innocent, the case is yet another example of the breakdown and corruption of authority figures in the face of college athletes.
It’s a story that we have heard again and again: a university that has stringent conduct and academic policies seems to forget about them when enforcing the rules would harm one of their athletes.
For Division I universities, athletics is a big business and one of the biggest sources of donations and prestige that the universities have available to them. So when it comes to a possible violation, they are willing to let the rules slide in order to keep the money rolling in.
The story gets even worse, in this case, because the police department fumbled the case so badly. In the 34 days following the victim’s report of an assault, practically no investigation was done. Investigators never even really attempted to identify a suspect.
Even the prosecutor, William Meggs, was outraged by this oversight, stating in a press conference: “How long does it take to identify a freshman football player? 10, 15, 16 seconds?” It might be worth it to note that during those 34 days, Winston played in and helped FSU win a bowl game in the team’s post-season.
The case instead lay dead until the victim reported that she had seen the rapist on campus 34 days after the incident, identifying Jameis Winston. Even with the positive identification, investigators waited almost two weeks before contacting Winston. Two weeks after a very brief interview with Winston, investigators closed the case without ever even speaking with witnesses or testing Winston’s DNA.
Winston reportedly told investigators that he had, in fact, had sex with the victim, but that the sex was consensual. And reporters never followed up. They never tested the DNA. They never tried to find the video recording that they knew existed. Nor did the university or the athletics department push for it.
In fact, nothing would have happened with the case again if another student had not come forward with a similar story almost a year later. Though the second woman did say that she had never said “no” in her encounter with Winston, she was intoxicated beyond her ability to provide consent.
The push forced police to reopen the case. They finally interviewed witnesses, memories now foggy and with the crucial video evidence long-since erased. They also took a sample of Winston’s DNA, which matched the DNA found on the victim’s clothing. Still, they decided that there was not enough evidence to charge Winston, and the case disappeared.
A case like the Winston case raises some real questions. The university took practically no action during the case, despite their rules on sexual assault. The athletics department never investigated, taking Winston’s word on what happened.
The police department claims that they took the case seriously and conducted a full investigation, though that claim is laughable given the known timeline of events. The Tallahassee police department was referred to as “careless, uncaring, cavalier, and incompetent” by a judge in 2013 in a similar but unrelated case, and this seems to be entirely true.
Both women who came forward have filed complaints, stating that the police investigated them rather than Winston.
And while the entire case is indicative of serious problems at FSU and the Tallahassee police department, it is also indicative of a problem with our culture. We are a culture that too often idolizes college athletics stars to the point that we’re willing to forgive unforgiveable behavior as long as they keep winning games.
We are a culture that will keep pointing out that Winston is innocent until proven guilty. We are also a culture that is willing to condemn a woman who has reported a rape as a liar, because women who are possible victims of sexual assault are always seen as guilty until proven innocent.
We are a culture, and a country, with a serious problem. Somewhere along the way, our priorities became unforgivably confused. We have decided that having athletes entertain us is a higher priority than protecting women from assault.
It is a horrifying failure of our society that cases like this happen, and it is even more horrifying that when they happen, we condemn those who shouldn’t be condemned and give them nowhere to turn. It is a blemish on our ability to protect our citizens, and until we shift our priorities, it will continue to be so.
What happened in Tallahassee is a fundamental failure of the university, of the police, and of our society, and it’s something we need to commit ourselves to changing.