Sexual assault charges against star athletes are often a kind of poison, one that acts less on the athlete in question than the woman who says she is the victim. It’s a story that has played out since the 1990s at a depressingly long list of universities. The latest controversy involves a rape allegation against Jameis Winston, Florida State University’s Heisman-contending quarterback. Tallahassee, Fla., prosecutor William Meggs has yet to say whether he’ll charge Winston. The decision could be weeks away, his office says. Meanwhile, Winston’s team is 11–0 and scheduled to play for the ACC championship on Dec. 7. The deadline for Heisman Trophy voting is two days later. So the delay looks good from the point of view of Winston and the Seminoles—and bad for the alleged victim, from whose perspective the case is already a mess.
Here’s what we know: The woman accusing Winston is an FSU student, like him. They had sex on Dec. 7, 2012—the police tested her underwear and found his DNA. Winston, through his lawyer, says she consented and he did nothing wrong. She continues to say the opposite. “To be clear, the victim did not consent,” her family said in a recent statement. “This was a rape.”
At the time of the alleged assault—now almost a year ago—the woman went to the campus police. The Tallahassee Police Department took the case because the alleged assault took place off campus. The university, though, still has a responsibility to investigate under Title IX, the federal law that mandates such inquiries.
The victim says that at first her alleged assailant was “unknown” to her and that she figured out it was Winston in early January. At that point, she and her family started worrying about the ramifications of accusing an FSU player, one with the potential to lead his team to a national championship. They asked a lawyer who was a friend of the family to talk to the police on the victim’s behalf. That lawyer, Patricia Carroll, says Detective Scott Angulo told her, “Tallahassee was a big football town and the victim needs to think long and hard before proceeding against him because she will be raked over the coals and her life will be made miserable.” If that’s true, it sounds like the police were trying to make this case go away.
Carroll says she told Angulo the police needed to take a DNA test so the woman could decide what to do next. She also says she kept pressing for the collection of samples, but Angulo demurred, saying the police wouldn’t collect DNA from Winston because then the case would go public.
There the case sat, stalled for months, while Winston stayed on the FSU team. It turned out that without the woman knowing, the police told the quarterback’s lawyer about the allegations last February. When she found out about that earlier this month, the woman said she was “devastated” that he’d had “all of this time to create his defense and prepare his witnesses.” She and her family have asked a series of questions: Why did the police wait until recently to conduct DNA testing? Why didn’t they begin last winter by interviewing Winston and his roommate, who the woman says witnessed the alleged assault?
While those questions remain unanswered, it came to light that the Tallahassee city manager had been telling other city officials that the woman had “changed her mind and did not wish to prosecute.” The manager also said that before the alleged assault, the woman had gotten drunk at a local bar, even though the police had blood work showing that she hadn’t been drinking.
Let’s stipulate that we still only have some of the facts of this case. Based on what we know so far, though, it’s all sounding sadly familiar. Instead of conducting a prompt and thorough investigation, the police appear to have discouraged and disparaged the victim. FSU said last week it was investigating as obligated under Title IX, but it’s not clear when the inquiry began or what it amounts to. Would all of this have happened if Winston wasn’t FSU’s quarterback? If he were an ordinary student, would FSU have done more to fulfill its Title IX obligations?
Katherine Redmond Brown’s answer, from experience, is that athletes accused of rape get special treatment. She made one of the first highly publicized reports of sexual assault against a college football player, Christian Peter, relating to two incidents that took place in 1991 when they were students at the University of Nebraska. Her parents brought the rape allegations to the Nebraska coaches, and another woman also accused Peter of assault. He was convicted but received only 18 months of probation and kept playing for Nebraska. Redmond Brown later brought a Title IX suit, which the University of Nebraska paid $50,000 to settle. No criminal charges were filed against Peter, who went on to play in the NFL. Redmond founded the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes in 1998 and has counseled victims and consulted to teams ever since. “This is why my organization was created—because athletes play by a different set of rules with more power behind them,” she says. “It’s a system that protects the athletes over the women, and I’ve had this confirmed over and over. A certain athlete gets in trouble, and the case goes to a certain police officer, who knows how to get ahold of the coaches,” and then the police give the athlete special treatment.
We don’t know if that’s how things have played out in Tallahassee. And there are athletes, like the Duke lacrosse players who became targets of a runaway prosecutor in 2006, who wind up on the wrong end of sex offense charges. Still, overall, the chances that officials will turn a blind eye seem too high.
Universities bring in Redmond Brown to speak to coaches and players because they know violence against women is a problem, she says. But that doesn’t mean they all do the right thing when they are supposed to investigate and a team’s season is on the line. “FSU should have done its own investigation a long time ago,” she says.
The federal Department of Education has made it clear that “a criminal investigation into allegations of sexual violence does not relieve the school of its duty under Title IX to resolve complaints promptly and equitably.” But victim advocates say that when schools don’t comply, the consequences are negligible. Whatever the reason, and whatever the ins and outs of each individual case, taken together they make for a disturbing pattern. More examples: In 1999, Alison Jennings said she’d been raped by four players on the Oklahoma State football team. “Criminal charges were never filed, she said, because in the hours following the incident, she had signed a waiver of prosecution after being told by the police that her story had not been corroborated and she did not have a case,” Harvey Araton wrote for the New York Times in 2001. A 2003 article in a Fordham law journal listed rape allegations against football players, often accompanied by Title IX suits, at the University of Colorado–Boulder, the University of Notre Dame, Indiana University, the University of Mississippi, Iowa State University, Arizona State University, and the University of Georgia. More recently, football players have been accused of sexual assault at UCLA, the U.S. Naval Academy, and the University of Connecticut.
Whether schools should punish athletes who have been accused but not convicted—or in Winston’s case, even charged—is a hard call. But if athletes like Winston are getting a pass from the police and prosecutors, and from the university disciplinary system, then their continuing presence on the field starts to look like an enabling factor. Sure, they deserve to be treated as innocent until proven guilty. But they don’t deserve to be above the law that applies to other students. And yet time and again, it’s the women who say they’ve been assaulted who seem to face the harshest consequences. While Winston suits up for his last regular-season game on Saturday, the student who accused him has withdrawn from her classes as FSU fans trash her on social media. “The Seminole Nation has decided. Jameis Winston didn’t do it,” a Miami Herald story opened Tuesday. It’s not their call. Winston’s football prowess should have nothing to do with whether he faces charges.