This week, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston spoke to third, fourth, and fifth graders at Melrose Elementary School in St. Petersburg, Florida for about 40 minutes. The goal was to give them hope, inspire them, and help them raise their expectations for themselves.
In theory, that’s admirable.
But in practice, this was a man who won the Heisman Trophy while his DNA was in a rape kit being lifted up as an inspirational role model as he reinforced damaging stereotypes to highly impressionable young children.
According to Tampa Bay Times columnist Tom Jones, Winston’s speech started off well. But things got off course when he noticed a young boy in the class nodding off, and decided to single out the boys in the classroom to get them more engaged.
“All my young boys, stand up. The ladies, sit down,” Winston said. “But all my boys, stand up. We strong, right? We strong! We strong, right? All my boys, tell me one time: I can do anything I put my mind to. Now a lot of boys aren’t supposed to be soft-spoken. You know what I’m saying? One day y’all are going to have a very deep voice like this (in deep voice). One day, you’ll have a very, very deep voice.
“But the ladies, they’re supposed to be silent, polite, gentle. My men, my men (are) supposed to be strong. I want y’all to tell me what the third rule of life is: I can do anything I put my mind to. Scream it!”
Yeah, that deserves to be re-read. (And watched over at the Times website, if you’re having trouble believing this really happened.)
Winston told young boys that they are supposed to “have a very, very deep voice” and “be strong.” And then he told young girls that they are supposed to “be silent, polite, gentle.”
According to Jones, none of the teachers or parents nearby intervened after Winston said these comments, but they did take notice — as did the girls in the audience.
“One of the girls turned around and looked at me and said, ‘I’m strong too,’” Bonnie Volland, speech language pathologist at Melrose, said.
This sentiment would be alarming from anyone, as it’s increasingly damaging for all genders to be force fed the narrative that men are defined by their strength and women are defined by their silence. But they’re especially dangerous coming from Winston.
On December 7, 2012, Erica Kinsman filed a complaint with the Tallahassee Police Department accusing Winston of “sexual battery, assault, false imprisonment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress arising out of forcible rape.” She was allegedly encouraged to stay quiet, and State Attorney Willie Meggs didn’t open the investigation in to the allegations until 11 months later. Weeks later, Meggs laughed his way through a press conference where he announced that Kinsman’s account of the night wasn’t credible and that no charges would be filed.
More recently, Meggs told reporters that while he didn’t have enough evidence to file charges, he does “think things that happened there that night were not good.”
In The Hunting Ground documentary, which focused on college women’s experiences reporting sexual assault, Kinsman recalled her memories of the alleged assault. As reported by the Washington Post:
“He was on top of me and I couldn’t really breathe,” Kinsman says, noting Winston’s roommate disrupted Winston’s first attempt when he entered his bedroom because the door didn’t lock. She said the roommate, who she does not identify, pleaded with Winston to stop and noted Klinsman was saying “no.” That’s when Kinsman said Winston picked her up and took her to the bathroom, where the door did lock.
“He pushed his hand over my face and pushed my face to the floor,” she said, recalling the floor was tile. She said he dressed her and told her it was time to leave after he was done.
A New York Times investigation in 2014 revealed that the Tallahassee Police Department completely botched its investigation of the incident. Kinsman was forced to drop out of school, while Winston went on to be the No. 1 NFL draft pick in 2015.
In this context, perhaps it’s not that hard to see where Winston’s understanding of gender roles comes from. After all, you might say that Winston got rewarded for his strength above all else, while Kinsman was punished for refusing to be silenced.
When Winston was later asked about his advice to the children at Melrose, he apologized — sort of — for his choice of words.
“I was making an effort to interact with a young male in the audience who didn’t seem to be paying attention, and I didn’t want to single him out so I asked all the boys to stand up,” Winston said. “During my talk, I used a poor word choice that may have overshadowed that positive message for some.”
But that’s simply not good enough.
This was not simply a “poor word choice,” as even some ESPN commentators would have you believe. Winston was trying to inspire children to “be anything they want to be” — but in his world view, that means strong men and gentle women; men who are leaders and breadwinners and women who sit politely in the background; men who have deep voices and great physical strength and women who are quiet.
This hurts men just as much as it hurts women. Instead of encouraging girls and boys to be their best selves, it actually encourages them to conform at all costs to preconceived notions of what they should be.
And Winston is hardly the only person putting forth this idea.
We have a president who has been caught on tape saying that he grabs women “by the pussy,” and that “you can do whatever you want” to women when you’re famous. He has shamed and dismissed the dozens of women who accused him of sexual assault and sexual harassment, and amassed a team full of alleged domestic abusers in the White House. As these “strong” men take power, rights are being stripped from many LGBTQ individuals who don’t fit into the narrow worldview touted by Winston. These stereotypes are everywhere, and we need to spend more time lifting up voices who are breaking them down, not amplifying those who augment them.
We lift athletes up as role models merely because they’re athletes, and we teach them that they have something important to teach others. But sometimes, they’re the ones who need to sit down and listen.