Amid wall-to-wall coverage of the fact that the Florida state attorney’s office decided Thursday not to file sexual assault charges against Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, ESPN found time to deliver a powerful panel discussion that dove into the other side of the case: the difficulties women face in coming forward after rapes and sexual assaults and the ways in which such cases are handled by investigators and other law enforcement officials.
The panel, anchored by ESPN’s David Lloyd, featured ESPN columnist and TV personality Jemele Hill and ESPN radio hosts Colin Cowherd and Paul Finebaum. Lloyd began the segment by reciting statistics about the rarity of false rape claims — between 2 and 10 percent of rape claims are false, he said, citing the National Sexual Violence Resource Center — and after a brief talk about Winston’s Heisman Trophy candidacy, the panel shifted entirely toward the topic of sexual assault. Hill, who wrote last week about the Winston case and a family friend who tried to sexually assault her when she was a child, talked openly about her case and the difficult, intrusive process that faces women when they report rapes and sexual assaults to authorities.
“That is sort of my concern here, that because you have a high-profile athlete, because of the way this case was handled and appears to be mishandled, that people will get a very inaccurate portrayal about what happens during this reporting process,” Hill said, adding that she faced “very intrusive questions” when she reported her case. Women, she said, “are almost re-victimized all over again” in these investigations, and this process “did a real disservice to the woman who was accusing Jameis Winston and certainly a disservice to Jameis Winston as well. I hope this will shed some light that this is still, despite all the awareness that has been made about sexual assault, is still a very difficult process for anyone coming forward with these types of very serious allegations.”
Lloyd then mentioned the Steubenville rape case, which was badly mishandled by authorities. Cowherd slammed the Florida state attorney for not appearing to understand the gravity of the case as he laughed through his afternoon press conference. Finebaum criticized the prosecutor for “grandstanding” and slammed Winston attorney Tim Jansen, whose own press conference was filled with plenty of veiled attacks on the accuser, for making “a mockery of the whole system, particularly with women.” Finebaum also blasted the Tallahassee Police Department’s mishandling of the case. All in all, it was a solid panel that dove into a side of the subject much of the media, including ESPN, has ignored in the weeks since news of the Winston investigation broke. Watch it here:
ESPN has faced deserved criticism for moving its hard-hitting news show Outside The Lines to ESPN2, where it commands a much smaller audience than it used to on ESPN, and the fact that it waited until SportsCenter had shifted to ESPN News to broadcast the Hill-Cowherd-Finebaum panel discussion is a little disappointing because it would have garnered a significantly larger audience on one of the two main networks. The mere presence of the panel, though, was a smart move from ESPN, which had covered every other aspect of the case down to the minute details, and Hill, a sharp sports commentator who also regularly weighs in on the bigger impact sports can have, was a perfect choice given her past writing and experience with the subject. Cowherd and Finebaum were strong too (and I had previously criticized Finebaum and ESPN for switching to Heisman talk even before the charges were officially announced).
While ESPN’s coverage mostly followed a basic formula: it featured two reporters on the ground in Tallahassee, analysis from legal expert Roger Cossack, and reactions from Winston’s camp, Florida State, and the accuser’s attorney. It spent significant time on the football implications too, which while seemingly trivial in light of a sexual assault case is to be expected given that ESPN has an interest in Jameis Winston the football player. ESPN will broadcast both the Heisman Trophy ceremony and the BCS National Championship game, both of which should include Winston. ABC, ESPN’s sister company under the Disney umbrella, will broadcast the ACC title game Saturday. And frankly, football coverage, not talk about sexual assault, is what people want when they turn on ESPN.
But as a news organization, ESPN also has a responsibility to provide not just what people want to hear but what is important to hear too. And I thought, given the dynamics of a breaking news day and the fact that it clearly wanted to focus its coverage on the specific details of the case, the ESPN News panel was a solid way of doing that. It could have been longer, it could have avoided the same trappings of Heisman talk, and it could have been in a more prominent broadcast position. But it was a strong segment, and I hope it leads to more coverage of an issue that remains a serious concern in college football and other sports on ESPN’s other news shows (like the aforementioned Outside The Lines) in the not-so-distant future.