Jameis Winston, Sexual Assault And The Search For Something More Important Than Football At Florida State


At Florida State, football is the first thing you are supposed to see. Doak Campbell Stadium, the hulking, 80,000-seat mecca to Seminoles football, is not just a stadium: it is the metaphoric if not geographic center of the Florida State campus, the home to the school’s visitor’s center and its admissions office too.

To an outsider, it makes this university seem to be built in celebration of its football team, especially when, as was the case last Wednesday, the band can be heard practicing for Saturday’s game from anywhere on campus, and the parking lots around the stadium are already partially blocked off by the trucks — white semis emblazoned with the College GameDay: Built By Home Depot logos — carrying the fare that will turn the area around the stadium into, for this weekend anyway, the center of the college football world.

The focus in Tallahassee was already on Saturday, the campus and the city around it already anticipating the much-hyped tilt with 22nd-ranked Clemson, the conference rival Florida State had easily dispatched a year ago on the way to the school’s third national title. But there was an air of conflict and disappointment around the campus too, thanks to Florida State’s lightning rod of a quarterback, Jameis Winston, and his knack for making headlines for reasons that have nothing to do with football.

Winston had decided, four days before the most important game on Florida State’s early schedule, to climb atop a table in the middle of campus and yell, to no one in particular, “Fuck her right in the pussy.”


It led to Winston’s suspension, initially only for one half, then in a late-night announcement on Friday, for the entire Clemson game.

Were it anyone else, it might have mattered that the line was based off an internet meme. But this is Jameis, the quarterback who had faced sexual assault allegations from a female student nearly two years ago; whose involvement in that case brought what one local called “withering national media attention” to the school; whose case is the reason Florida State is facing an investigation from the federal government; who is now facing a disciplinary inquiry from the university himself.

Winston is a chief source of conflict for Florida State, both literally and symbolically. There is a sense in Tallahassee that the university and the town around it are trying to move forward from the case that rocked the campus during last year’s title run. But then there is unresolved nature of Winston’s case and Winston too, jumping on that table and bringing it all back up, reminding everyone of what Florida State and Tallahassee did and didn’t do. As much as Winston’s latest punishment seemed a sign that the university was, perhaps, growing tired of his act — and as much as the suspension seemed designed as a learning moment for the young quarterback — it also seems a reminder that the Winston case is a learning experience, for Florida State, for Florida State football, and for the rest of the nation too.


We are living in a climate and in a culture where sexual assault against students is effectively decriminalized.

Florida State football was in the middle of a long awaited resurgence, and Winston in the middle of a dazzling emergence, when news of the allegations first dropped last November. A female Florida State student, a year before, had reported first to Florida State’s police and then to Tallahassee’s, that she had been raped. Later, she identified Winston as her alleged attacker.


What happened after that is disputed, but in a wide-ranging look into the aftermath of the case, the New York Times asserted that “there was virtually no investigation at all, either by the police or the university” to find out whether the case merited charges or not. The woman’s attorney later alleged a list of shortcomings in the Tallahassee Police Department’s investigation of the case; the Times reported that FSU athletic department officials knew about the case as soon as January 2013 and that FSU failed to conduct the type of investigation required by Title IX law. The State Attorney’s Office re-opened the investigation, but in December, announced that, due to insufficient evidence, there would be no charges.

Less than two weeks later, Winston won the Heisman. A month later, Florida State won the national title. FSU maintains that it followed procedure throughout the case, but in the year since, it has also made efforts to bolster its sexual assault policies.

Jameis Winston is not the first athlete accused of rape; Florida State is not the first university to be accused of acting slowly or not at all in response to such allegations; the Tallahassee Police Department is not the only law enforcement body to face accusations of impropriety when it came to investigating such a case. There are more than 60 schools facing investigations from the federal government over claims that they did not fulfill their legally mandated duties to investigate claims of sexual assault. They include schools with big-time athletic departments and those without them.

But Florida State has become a proxy for the growing national conversation about sexual assault on college campuses because, as widespread as the problem is, advocates say that everything about the Jameis Winston case is indicative of the challenges female victims can face anywhere. And now, the Winston case and the reaction to it has caused an underlying conflict in Tallahassee, as the city and university try to move forward while also dealing with the ramifications of the past.

“This was not just a case about one flawed investigation of a celebrity player,” said Meg Baldwin, the executive director of Refuge House, a nonprofit rape and domestic violence crisis center in Tallahassee. “It was a case about one victim who experienced intense anguish and disappointment with the way the criminal justice system treated her complaint, and was a wake up call for us to explore how the cases of hundreds of others of victims have also been addressed.”

With national attention focused on the case, Florida State maintained that it followed its procedures of addressing possible sexual assaults involving students throughout the Winston case.


“FSU does not tolerate sexual assault,” the university said in a statement responding to the New York Times report into the school’s actions in the Winston case. “Even one sexual assault is a problem. Like other colleges and universities that are grappling with this issue, we actively provide programs and educate students on safe behavior, the meaning of consent and how to properly report cases of sexual misconduct.”

The university, FSU said in the statement, “fulfilled all its obligations under Title IX.”

Universities are required by federal law — Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits gender-based discrimination in education — to “promptly investigate” instances of “possible harassment,” which includes sexual assault, “to determine what occurred and then take appropriate steps to resolve the situation.” Florida State initially began a Code of Conduct inquiry into the Winston case in January, after the Seminoles won the 2013 BCS National Championship Game. The probe found that two of Winston’s teammates violated school conduct codes in the incident, but the lawyer for Winston’s accuser told USA Today in April that FSU halted its investigation into the quarterback in part because he refused to answer questions (the Dept. of Education’s Office of Civil Rights opened an investigation into Florida State’s handling of the case the same month).

Florida State later reopened its Code of Conduct investigation into Winston and interviewed his accuser for the first time in August, according to her attorneys. The player’s lawyer now says that Winston will cooperate with the university’s investigation. Florida State does not comment on cases involving individual students, but on its web site, it says that “disciplinary action” resulting from such an investigation “will vary based on the severity of the conduct, but it can include expulsion from University programs, termination from University employment, or exclusion from campus via a no trespass order.” Winston’s attorney said that the quarterback “looks forward to clearing his name” in the investigation.

Two months before the inquiry was reopened, in July, interim president Garnett Stokes told the Tallahassee Democrat that the school was in the process of developing new policies and preventive measures to address sexual assaults on campus.

FSU rolled the policies out in September as part of the campus-wide kNOw More campaign that was developed with the input of students, faculty, and administrators. Florida State already had a Victims Advocate Center, a 24-hour reporting hotline, and published resources for students, and according to the university, the new campaign expands on its education and prevention efforts and consolidates the resources into a single web site to make all of the school’s policies, procedures, and resources available to students easier to access. FSU is also hiring a single Title IX director to take over duties that were shared by university employees who had other responsibilities on campus. According to a spokesperson, its Student Affairs office has plans in the near future to conduct a campus climate survey among students to gauge the scope of the problem and how they view safety issues on campus, and as part of the campaign, all freshman students must now complete an online training program “that discusses sexual violence prevention, bystander prevention and healthy relationships.” The university is also providing targeted training to athletes, the Greek community, and other student groups.

Florida State maintains that the new efforts are not in response to the scrutiny brought on by the Winston case, but are instead a part of the larger national conversation about sexual assault. In January, the White House established a task force to address campus sexual assault; this summer, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) introduced legislation aimed at reshaping university policies dealing with the issue. The White House introduced a new public campaign last week, and such initiatives “provide a good opportunity to do some self-examination” of school policies, FSU spokesperson Browning Brooks said in an email.

In reviewing its procedures, “we found that we had strong policies and practices across campus,” Brooks said, “but saw opportunities to communicate them in more easily accessible ways.” The kNOw More campaign, she said, is designed to do just that.

There is nothing quite like football on a college campus, especially on a day as big as last Saturday’s. Florida State fans arrived en masse for ESPN’s College GameDay, the popular pre-game show that visits a different campus each week, for its 9 a.m. start, 11 full hours before kickoff. Langford Green, the GameDay site just outside of Doak Campbell Stadium, was full in the interim, and from tailgaters in the stadium lots to the fraternity houses across campus, there was no mistaking what was about to take place. Even with Winston suspended for the full game, his presence was felt — replica #5 jerseys, the only option offered in the university’s team shop, were everywhere — and his absence hardly dampened the spirit.

After the State Attorney’s Office elected not to file charges against Winston, his accuser’s former attorney suggested that Winston’s status as a football player affected the way the case was handled by both the university and Tallahassee Police. While that can’t be proven, what is indisputable is that Winston’s local fame contributed to the way the case was viewed on campus.

“We just can’t discount how the celebrity of football players here in Tallahassee and the intense feelings that many folks in our communities invest in FSU football affects the way the whole situation was viewed,” Baldwin, the Refuge House director, said. “The slaughtering of this victim on social media, the threats made against her sorority and her sorority sisters, the fact that she couldn’t stay here — she was driven out of town by the reaction to her exercising her rights as a citizen to complain of a crime — all of those effects were magnified clearly because of the visibility of Mr. Winston.”

Football is the most powerful social and (often) economic force at a university like this one. And with coaches, athletic staff, and a massive athletic budget all depending on success, a simple cost-benefit analysis can make it hard for schools to prioritize women over sports.

“The economics for women at these schools are all wrong,” said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, the director of advocacy at the Women’s Sports Foundation (Hogshead-Makar is a consultant to the lawyers representing the woman in the Winston case but spoke to ThinkProgress generally about sexual assault policies).

The social power can be even more damaging. Students across campus agreed that after the allegations against Winston surfaced, there was a rush to defend the quarterback. The response students described is typical in rape cases, especially those involving high-profile athletes: Students on campus, they said, talked mostly of her being underage and drunk in a bar; or about how she was a “cleat chaser”; or about what she was wearing. Diane Roberts, a Florida State English professor and columnist who has written about the Winston case, said that was the case throughout the community.

“One of the things I found most awful in the community response was, ‘Well, of course she’d make this up,’” Roberts said. “We were prepared to judge on one side and damn the other. We were prepared to say, as a community, ‘she must be making this up.’”

“I think we still have this cultural sense of, it must be her fault,” Roberts added.

There are fears on Florida State’s campus that the Winston case and the way it was handled will make other women reticent to come forward when they are sexually assaulted.

“I’m worried that that’s what’s going to come out of it is that all of the victim-shaming that she went through is going to discourage” other students from reporting their assaults, said Ally Flynn, a senior at FSU. “Even with all of the new policies we established, just the example that set, for everything she’s still going through, that’s going to be another issue.”

“We hear that from victims that do come forward, that they’re afraid that they’ll be treated just like the victim who made the report against Jameis Winston,” Baldwin said. “To put it succinctly, it’s clearly another barrier that victims in this community are facing.”

Adequately addressing sexual assault when it involves college athletes, then, may require the type of cultural shift in views about college sports that won’t be easy to accomplish — though if recent events in the NFL and other leagues are any indication, that shift might not be impossible either, especially as outside pressure from activists, victim advocates, the media, fans, and even the government continues.

“I think we need, clearly, to change a culture that treats raped women as collateral damage to a football program or a school,” Baldwin said. “And I’m not speaking here specifically of Jameis Winston, but how, looking ahead, we create a genuine accountability practice that we can be proud of.”

After Winston’s latest incident, the signs of conflicting attitudes about the quarterback are conspicuous. They exist among fans, students, and throughout Tallahassee. While there are plenty in the town who rally around Winston for football reasons and otherwise — one local described the quarterback as “the second coming himself” — students said that there was a consciousness too of the national coverage and perception of their university, the investigation into Winston, and sexual assault on campus. And it has affected the view of the football team and Florida State’s football culture.

“We don’t even know what to make of the whole Title IX thing,” Matt Botkin, an FSU junior, said. “Obviously we feel that if Jameis is guilty we need to do something about it, but we don’t know what to do. We’re so far from being able to deal with that that we just kind of bite our tongues and watch the games. And it’s not something that we enjoy, and it’s definitely hard and disappointing.”

CREDIT: Travis Waldron/ThinkProgress
CREDIT: Travis Waldron/ThinkProgress

At GameDay, where snarky signs aimed at an opponent are the norm, there were Florida State fans taking aim instead at their own quarterback. On the Saturday before the Clemson game, one fan carried a sign that read, E-S-P-N anagram and all, “(Love) the team but…Embarassed Seminoles Plagued by Number 5!” Another sign read simply, “Women > Winning.”

On the way out of Doak Campbell Stadium, one student turned to a friend and said that she wished Sean Maguire, the backup quarterback who threw for more than 300 yards, would have played even better because she’d rather win with him under center than with Winston.

But amid the disappointment, there is generally a feeling among students that their school is moving in the right direction on sexual assault.

Interviews with more than a dozen Florida State students showed that they are well-aware of the Florida State’s past and renewed efforts to educate students about sexual assault. Several students described the kNOw More campaign as the “most visible” university initiative on campus, with signs posted inside and outside classroom buildings and on campus public transportation.

The new policies “were really promising,” Botkin said. “Obviously they have to do damage control, but it really felt like people were actually trying to do something.”

“I think they’re taking it seriously with all the initiatives,” another student said. “I think that they’re doing some serious work. … Now that the university’s picked this back up, they could have just been like, it’s a closed case, we’re done. But it’s been almost two years after the incident, so clearly they’re taking it seriously.”

Others echoed that idea, saying they believed their university had moved to address sexual assault on campus, especially in targeting male students with education initiatives and making them more visible on campus. Still others aren’t so sure: one student said she felt the university was only “doing slightly more,” and that it is “only slightly more promising.”


A few miles from the stadium where Jameis Winston plays his football, in a humble building tucked into a grove of trees, Meg Baldwin has a first-hand view of sexual assault in Tallahassee — and at Florida State.

Refuge House, the nonprofit crisis center Baldwin runs, is the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) provider in the Tallahassee area and for Florida State students; Refuge House is the off-campus resource to which Florida State directs students. As prominent as football is at FSU and other schools like it, blaming football, football culture, or athletics for campus sexual assault problems would not tell the full story and would do a disservice to the thousands of women assaulted by non-athletes.

Refuge House provided forensic rape exams to more than 120 women in Leon County, where Tallahassee is located, last year alone, according to Baldwin.

“More than half of them,” she said, “were students.”

Baldwin estimates that some 1,500 female students will be victims of sexual assault each year in Tallahassee, which is home also to Florida A&M; University and Tallahassee Community College.

That’s not unique to Florida State. It is true on campuses across the country, at schools with large athletic departments and schools where athletics barely register in a university’s culture. Almost nowhere are schools doing enough about it.

According to a survey of 440 four-year institutions conducted by Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) released in July, just 16 percent of colleges and universities perform annual surveys among students that help assess the scope of sexual assault on campus; as many as 20 percent fail to provide adequate training for staff; and nearly a third provide no sexual assault prevention education for students. 41 percent of the surveyed institutions had not conducted a single Title IX investigation into sexual assaults in the past five years. McCaskill’s survey found that less than five percent of all campus sexual assaults were reported to police or university officials.

More than 20 percent of schools leave sexual assault investigations involving athletes in the hands of athletic departments, according to McCaskill’s survey. Florida State is not among them, and according to the university, it is trying to address the areas McCaskill highlights where it falls short.

But in Tallahassee, the effort to make progress on sexual assault has not been — and, Baldwin said, cannot be — limited to the university. The Tallahassee Police Department, widely criticized for its handling of the case, has put its sexual assault investigative procedures under review and is working with international organizations to reshape them with an “overall theme of empowering victims,” public information officer David Northway said. The TPD does not disclose investigative techniques, but it has also explored the idea of an online anonymous reporting tool that could make it easier for victims to notify law enforcement of sexual assault crimes, Northway said. Like Florida State, the department says that the review of current policies and efforts to improve its methods are not due to the scrutiny of the Winston case, but are instead part of a department-wide assessment of investigative techniques and procedures brought about by a new chief.

Addressing the issue also requires community-wide education and changing the way prosecutors, jurors, and judges view the issue, Baldwin said, pointing for example to the need for better understanding of how victims react in the immediate aftermath of an attack, the dynamics of a typical sexual assault, and the frequency of repeat offenders.

No one involved in sexual assault cases or prevention, Baldwin said, should be immune to criticism or review, and no one should be satisfied with current efforts to address the issue throughout the country..

“I think the standard we need to set for ourselves is whether our services and programs and policies are actually useful to victims and are affecting the rate of incidences on our campuses. I don’t think we’re in any position — any of us who are in the network of serving victims — I don’t think any of us are in the position to say that’s adequate,” Baldwin said. “There’s none of us who don’t have a lot of work to do. I just invite us all to acknowledge that and get going.”

“We are living in a climate and in a culture,” Baldwin said, “where sexual assault against students is effectively decriminalized.”


The original version misstated the phrase Winston used in the latest on-campus incident. It has been fixed.