The Messy Case Against the Heisman Winner

This past weekend, the Florida State football team held its spring football game. Most of the media attention focused on quarterback Jameis Winston, who had also spent much of his spring playing for the FSU baseball team.

Winston, of course, is by this point also well-known for events off the football field or the baseball diamond. In the midst of what became a national championship season, local media broke the news that the previous year, when he was a redshirt freshman, a woman had accused Winston of sexual assault. The alleged event occurred off campus, in a building not owned by Florida State. The Tallahassee Police Department conducted what could charitably be described as a less-than-enthusiastic investigation, and the case went cold.

Amidst the sudden media attention, the case was turned over to investigators from the local prosecutor’s office; State’s Attorney Willie Meggs announced that he did not believe that he could obtain a conviction of Winston. More important, he concluded that there was no probable cause to believe a crime occurred.

The linkage between the criminal standard of probable cause and the civil standard of preponderance-of-evidence (the requirement of the “Dear Colleague” letter) isn’t exact. But it’s hard to argue that someone whose conduct doesn’t rise to the level of probable cause could be found guilty under a preponderance-of-evidence threshold. So there would seem to be little reason to believe that through any sort of fair proceeding at FSU, Winston could have been found guilty.

Yet according to recent news reports, the ever-aggressive Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has opened an inquiry into Florida State. In at least one respect, this move is absurd: trained law enforcement officers, who conducted a competent if belated investigation, concluded that Winston’s conduct did not rise to the level in which a university tribunal could possibly have convicted him.

There are, however, two ways in which the Winston case could be troubling. First, the somewhat desultory investigation seemingly carried out by the Tallahassee Police could be used (at least by defenders of the academic status quo) to undermine calls for sexual assault cases to be investigated by competent law enforcement officers–for rape to be treated as a crime–rather than untrained or poorly trained college officials, or by college investigators subjected to ideological pressure from the “rape culture” bureaucracy.

Second, at least based on available press reports (Deadspin has been the most comprehensive), the Winston affair seems to be an exception to the general rule on campus sexual assault matters. In general–as we’ve seen at Yale, or Vassar, or St. Joe’s, or Occidental–the ideological climate on campus strongly tilts in favor of excessively aggressive prosecution of sexual assault claims, with minimal or token respect for due process for the accused student. It’s possible, though, to imagine scenarios that go in the other direction–a claim against the son of a major donor, perhaps; or one directed against a star athlete at a school where athletics are very important.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, the accuser’s attorney has claimed that Florida State held a disciplinary hearing in the case without informing the accuser, a clear violation of the school’s procedures. (An FSU spokesperson denied the assertion.) Meanwhile, Deadspin has a source claiming that Winston “basically took the fifth” in a disciplinary hearing, thereby (it appears) failing to put up any defense–yet wasn’t punished by Florida State. Just as oddly, two of his (less talented) teammates did receive some sort of punishment from Florida State.

It’s possible that FSU’s handling of the Winston allegations did not conform to the university’s guidelines. It’s also possible that the reporting–driven by sources, it seems, at least somewhat hostile to Winston–has been incomplete. Either way, it’s hard to argue that the Winston case bears much resemblance to how the typical university handles the typical sexual assault claim.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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