Most folks have made up their minds about quarterback Jameis Winston, having read and heard enough about misbehavior and alleged misdeeds by the Heisman Trophy winner from Florida State University. They have been inundated by reports of the silly stuff—stolen crab legs and soda, obscenities screamed in public, BB-gun battles—and the gravely serious matter of a sexual assault accusation.
Those who remain undecided have only a short interval to ponder their thoughts before another witness for the prosecution speaks up.
The Internet was ablaze Tuesday with more brusing testimony. Paul Finebaum, a popular sports-radio host, tweeted a quote attributed to Bobby Bowden, the legendary coach who led Winston’s alma mater for three decades before retiring in 2010.
“I think it’s a consensus among FSU fans and boosters that he was an embarrassment to the university,” Bowden said, according to Finebaum.
That assertion was retweeted nearly 3,600 times and favorited nearly 2,200 times. But it was a tad misleading. First, Finebaum led the 85-year-old, prefacing a question with, “Many people felt like [Winston] was an embarrassment … what are your thoughts?”
Then Finebaum left off a qualifier that would have deadened the sensational impact. Bowden said that Winston was an embarrassment “in a lot of ways” (my emphasis). Finebaum cleaned it up by retweeting the full quote two hours later, but it was retweeted just 188 times and favorited 170 times.
The damage was done, though it hardly matters at this point.
Winston, whom the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted two weeks ago with the No. 1 overall pick, is virtually a corpse when it comes to his public image. Diehard Florida State fans and newfound Tampa Bay fans are about the only folks in his corner.
He’s fortunate to have that many supporters if he’s guilty of rape. The other antics can be written off as immaturity not uncommon among 20-year-olds. But if or when a man forces himself on a woman, he deserves to be beaten up (figuratively and literally).
The New York Times landed a bunch of shots, many of them in a 5,200-word article in October that excoriated Florida State and the Tallahassee Police Department for shoddy work and jock sniffing during the investigation in 2013. In The Hunting Ground, a recent documentary on sexual assaults on college campuses, Erica Kinsman broke her silence and came forward as Winston’s accuser, painting him ugly.
Her claims were never heard in court, but she filed a civil suit against Winston two weeks before the NFL draft. He filed a countersuit this week, denying that he’d raped her and accusing her of being motivated by greed.
“Mr. Winston brings this action against Ms. Kinsman out of necessity, not malice or ill will,” the court filing said, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “Nonetheless, Ms. Kinsman’s false statements have irreparably harmed his professional and personal life.”
She wrecked Winston’s potential as a celebrity endorser, but he’s doing pretty well otherwise. The Bucs were highly impressed with his performance during the team’s rookie camp last week. He’s proving to be a tenacious student and a hard worker, a good teammate and a natural-born leader with an infectious personality.
He didn’t attend the NFL draft—where top incoming players traditionally walk across the stage and shake the commissioner’s head—choosing instead to celebrate with family and friends in Alabama. He said that he’s putting everything behind him, especially Kinsman’s allegations.
“I’ve been cleared six times on that situation,” Winston said during a conference call. “I took that situation so seriously, but at the end of the day I got to keep moving forward.”
The past will never be far behind, though. For every person who believes that he’s innocent—or at least acknowledges not knowing for certain—there are many more who assume that he’s guilty. At least one observer has taken time to refute some of the reporting and presumptions found in print and on film, but he’s a single voice drowned out by a chorus.
Tampa Bay professes no worries; it wouldn’t have drafted him otherwise. But the Bucs surely vetted Winston as much as humanly possible.
“When we were doing the exhaustive process that we went through, not only were we comfortable with him and his character, we were confident with his character," General Manager Jason Licht told reporters after the draft. “We think that his character that he brings to the locker room and the building is a strength. That’s one of the things that makes him a great player.”
Whether he becomes a great player or future bust, you hope you’re not rooting for a rapist, and you hope an innocent man isn’t being dragged through the mud. Something has to give in that equation. If you’re honest, you admit not being sure which is which.
The steady drumbeat of critics in the media and on Twitter is loud and persistent, and they could be right.
But they don’t know for certain, any more than we do.
They just act as if they have the answer.