Sports Nut

It’s About Ethics in Sports Journalism

Florida State football fans are the new Gamergate.

Jameis Winston
Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston passes against Oklahoma State in a game on Aug. 30, 2014.

Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

As Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston exited his student code of conduct hearing on Tuesday, a woman asked him a series of questions. Some of them were on point: “Why didn’t you come in and cooperate with police and answer their questions? How do you explain the bruises if it was consensual sex, Jameis?” Another was wrong and incendiary: “At least two women have now said you raped them. How do you respond to that?” In reality, Winston has only been accused of rape by one woman, although the New York Times did report on another incident in which “a second woman had sought counseling after a sexual encounter with Mr. Winston,” though she “did not call it rape.”

In this week’s hearing, a Florida judge evaluated that single rape allegation two years after Winston’s accuser alleges that the assault took place. During those two years, the school and the Tallahassee Police Department did a consistently horrible job of investigating what exactly happened. Winston stayed silent in the hearing, only reading a prepared statement in which he called his accuser a liar. He also remained stoic when confronted with all those questions after the hearing was over. A group of FSU fans on Twitter, though, demanded their own set of answers. This was their primary concern as the proceeding drew to a close: Who was that woman shouting at Florida State’s star quarterback?

Eventually, the Seminoles vigilantes thought they found their woman, aided by a writer for SB Nation’s Florida State site Tomahawk Nation.

Before this week, Amy Finkel had never heard of Winston. Finkel, a documentary filmmaker in New York, told me that she didn’t know the Florida State quarterback had won the Heisman Trophy or that he led FSU to the national title. She also had no idea that he’d been accused of sexual assault. Finkel learned all this only after she was targeted by angry FSU fans on Twitter. She found the mob confusing, annoying, and frightening—particularly scary was a tweet, since deleted, in which someone posted photos of her culled from Google.

The vengeance-seeking fans eventually realized they had the wrong person. Apologies were made. One Seminoles diehard even promised to watch Finkel’s documentary on grieving pet owners. I somehow doubt, though, that this will create a crisis of conscience for those who invoke the #FSUTwitter hashtag and haunt the comment section of every article that dares to mention Jameis Winston’s name in a jurisprudential context. The media bashers and Winston backers will continue to shout down any suggestion from journalists that Florida State has behaved dishonorably or that the quarterback’s accuser is a person worth listening to. #FSUTwitter is the Gamergate of sports.

The parallels are striking. Just as Gamergate’s supporters insisted that their movement was about ethics in games journalism, the Jameirgate crowd says this is about ethics in sports journalism—an effort to shame biased reporters who are pushing an anti-Seminole agenda. In reality, they’re lashing out because a bunch of pesky social issues have invaded their beloved team’s drive to repeat as national champions. Just as it’s no fun when “social justice warriors” start talking about the representation of women in video games, it ruins the carefree enjoyment of a college football Saturday when your favorite team’s quarterback is accused of rape and the New York Times writes that “football clouds justice” in Tallahassee.

#FSUTwitter doesn’t just feel aggrieved by coverage of Winston’s alleged sexual assault. The hashtag is dominated this weekend by fans preoccupied with the Seminoles’ efforts to earn one of the four spots in the inaugural college football playoff. Florida State is the only undefeated team in the country—how can it be No. 4 in the rankings?!? You’re telling me TCU should be ranked ahead of the defending champs? TCU!?! What’s your “agenda”?

But the Seminoles’ online justice league—which, to be clear, represents a very narrow slice of Florida State fans—gets the most menacing when it comes to perceived wrongs that go beyond the rankings. The most generous interpretation of #FSUTwitter is that it defends Florida State and Winston from unfair attacks, like the inaccurate claim that he’s been accused of rape by two women. All too often, though, it’s just a noxious pit of victim-blaming. In October, Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel described “a small, but frenzied group of Seminoles fans who have taken to defending Winston by attacking [his accuser] at all costs, labeling her a liar or an opportunist seeking money,” adding that they “are encouraged by bold and overwhelming support from the FSU athletic department and coaches, not to mention heated accusations by Winston’s defense team claiming the case is nothing more than a motivated and purposefully false allegation.”

Wetzel’s piece does a great job of demolishing the argument that Winston’s accuser is some kind of opportunist. Though we don’t know for sure what happened on that night in December 2012, we do know that the accuser’s friend called 911 on her behalf immediately after the alleged assault to report a “sexual batter[y] by an unknown subject.” The woman didn’t know that Winston was the subject in question until a month later when she recognized him on campus. The suggestion—a popular one among the quarterback’s defenders—that she somehow targeted Winston seems basically impossible. Nonetheless, Winston’s lawyer David Cornwell has repeatedly made the claim that she’s only looking for a payout.

On social media, there are a disturbing number of people following Cornwell’s lead, posting the accuser’s name and describing her in the most loathsome way. A reporter who posts tweets as banal as “Day 2 of Winston hearing about to begin” and “Accuser just arrived with her attorneys and parents” will be called a puppet. #FSUTwitter’s response to the Times’ various damning reports about institutional indifference to alleged criminality by Winston and other players: We’re the victims of a media vendetta.

Here’s what #FSUTwitter doesn’t seem to understand: If you believe that Winston is innocent, then you should be mad as hell about the slow, incompetent response by Florida State and the Tallahassee police. It’s that sluggish response that has prevented anyone from finding definitive answers, and likely eradicated any hope of anyone involved in this case getting any kind of justice. Back in October, I wrote an item contrasting the glacial pace of the Winston case with the University of Florida’s speedy reaction to a sexual assault claim against quarterback Treon Harris. (The complaint against Harris was quickly withdrawn, and he was back on the field shortly thereafter.) This is what I heard in my inbox: “I don’t even like Jameis Winston, but what you are doing is unethical and just plain bad journalism.” I was also accused of being biased, since I didn’t write about all the bad things that Florida Gators players have done over the years.

These are not complaints about ethics in sports journalism. This is a toxic brew of gonzo football fandom mixed with men’s rights activism. These are the bleatings of a bunch of people who read a story that shows definitively that “in the Winston case, Florida State did little to determine what had happened” and respond by commenting, “Shame on you NYT printing a slanted article.” It’s clear which group here has an agenda and what that agenda is. #FSUTwitter doesn’t care what Jameis Winston did or didn’t do in December 2012. It only cares about what he does this December and January, as he tries to lead the Seminoles to their second straight national title.