A week after the Florida state attorney decided not to bring sexual assault charges against Jameis Winston, the Florida State quarterback who led the Seminoles to an undefeated season won the Heisman Trophy, college football’s most prestigious award.
Winston was the overwhelming favorite to win the Heisman, and it showed: he won it by the fifth-biggest margin in the award’s history. There is, simply, no way to argue with what Winston did on the field this season — he is the best player in college football and as deserving of the Heisman as any winner before him. And he has, in many ways, a classic story: a kid who worked to get where he is, a kid who came out of nowhere to disrupt the college football landscape, a kid who is trying to lead a once-great FSU football program back to the top of the sport for the first time since 1999.
And yet 115 Heisman voters left him completely off their ballots, a sign that the sexual assault case left its mark on his image.
There were questions for Winston even at the Heisman ceremony, where he again reiterated that the investigation that wasn’t made him a more mature person, that it strengthened Florida State’s resolve, that it ultimately proved what he already knew: that he did nothing wrong. “Every day I’m going to carry myself, and every day I’m going to get better,” Winston told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi.
But those questions won’t last for long, because as Winston proceeds to the BCS National Championship game in January and beyond, perhaps to another Heisman, perhaps to the National Football League, perhaps, one day, to status as one of the game’s all-time greats, it will be Jameis Winston’s exploits on the football field that we remember first. The sexual assault investigation will be but a footnote in his biography, a short paragraph near the bottom of his Wikipedia page, likely no different than the sexual assault cases that once stained the images of Kobe Bryant and Ben Roethlisberger but are now largely forgotten in their everyday careers.
Maybe, with Winston, that’s how it should be. There were, after all, no charges filed, and no matter what anyone thinks of him, he’s guilty of nothing in the eyes of the justice system. He can, then, proceed with his life and his career, and hopefully Florida State’s charming young quarterback with a bright smile will indeed become a better, more mature man because of this.
But even if Winston deserves this award and even if we largely forget this as part of Winston’s legacy, we shouldn’t forget his case or how we got here. We shouldn’t forget that the Winston case left us with more questions than answers, that even if Winston was ultimately innocent, the lack of a serious investigation made it impossible to know for sure. We shouldn’t forget that Winston’s case does not, as his attorney has said, suggest that there are a rash of women looking to entrap men, especially prominent men, with bogus sexual assault charges. We shouldn’t forget that there is, on Florida State’s campus, a woman who believes she was sexually assaulted is going on with a life that according to her attorney “has been turned upside down.”
We shouldn’t forget that this case was marred, particularly in the eyes of his accuser, by a “complete failure of a rape investigation” that focused more on the accuser than on the accused. We shouldn’t forget that it’s more than possible that Winston’s status as a football player changed the dynamics of the case. We shouldn’t forget that his case is yet more evidence that our law enforcement and judicial systems — those in which only an estimated 40 percent of sexual assault victims go to police, only 10 percent of sexual assault cases end up in court, only three percent of those accused end up serving prison time — is either ill-equipped or uncommitted to handling sexual assault with the gravity such a charge demands.
Forgetting any or all of that would be a disservice not just to his accuser but to all the people who may be in her situation at some point in the future, people who will feel violated but see a system that cares more about the accused than it does the person who may have been assaulted.
Winston deserves this award, and he will, in all likelihood, go onto a career in football that pushes this sexual assault investigation to the bottom of his bio. But his accuser — and people everywhere — deserve for us to remember how we got here, if only in the hopes that eventually, our institutions will handle sexual assault claims far better than they handled this.