Here’s what we know about Jameis Winston: While at Florida State, the 6-foot-4, 231-pound quarterback passed for 65 touchdowns and nearly 8,000 yards in two years. Winston had a 26-1 record in those two seasons, including one undefeated run to the national championship. In that championship year, he won the Heisman Trophy. On Thursday he was selected by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the first pick in the 2015 NFL draft.
Here’s what else we know about Jameis Winston: On Dec. 7, 2012, before he played a single down for FSU, a student named Erica Kinsman reported to the police that a stranger, who it turned out was Winston, had raped her; Winston later claimed the encounter was consensual. Kinsman’s allegations became a huge national story—in the sports world and beyond—in no small part because of reporting in the New York Times that detailed how the Tallahassee police neglected their most basic investigative duties in the initial handling of the case. Kinsman’s description of the night in question, as reported in police records, described in the documentary The Hunting Ground, and detailed in a civil lawsuit she recently filed against Winston, is horrific. No charges were ever brought against Winston, and we don’t seem much closer to knowing the truth about what happened that night than we were when this story broke.
We do know that the allegation against Winston does not matter to the Buccaneers. I expect we will soon find out that it doesn’t matter to NFL fans, either. As disturbing as the case against Winston and the bungled police response was, unless some new information is released, the story of Erica Kinsman (who chose to go public with her name) will likely be a footnote in the story of Jameis Winston.
American professional sports are littered with unproven and soon-forgotten sexual assault allegations, some more well-founded than others. Steelers quarterback and two-time Super Bowl winner Ben Roethlisberger nearly became a pariah in football-crazy Pittsburgh after he was accused twice of sexual assault, but he was re-embraced by the city wholeheartedly when he led the team back to the Super Bowl. He is now a member in good standing of the NFL community, having recently signed a nearly $100 million contract. What happened with Roethlisberger in a Milledgeville, Georgia bar five years ago is of far less consequence to fans than his passer rating next season. (The police eventually dropped the Milledgeville case after the accuser declined to pursue charges; the first rape accusation resulted in a civil settlement.) The same goes for NBA star Kobe Bryant, whose image has been completely restored and whose sexual assault case—settled in a civil lawsuit after the accuser decided not to testify and a judge dismissed the charges—has been for the most part set aside. And as Deadspin wrote a few years ago, nobody remembers the college rape allegation against Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez.
The pattern of compartmentalization transitioning to disregard has already begun for Winston. Even before the draft, Nike had signed him to an endorsement deal. For months, Tampa Bay Bucs message boards have been filled with fans’ hopes of drafting Winston. One Bucs fan recently argued that in a few years the allegations will matter to public opinion as little as the dropped charges against Bryant.
“I think fans have a much higher tolerance threshold for off-the-field misbehavior, because football fans are more exclusively focused on the game and their team winning,” says Jeff Benedict, an author who has written extensively on the subject of sexual assault in sports and appears in The Hunting Ground. “The reality at the end of the day is that talent still trumps principle in these cases.”
Even in previous cases in which principle appeared briefly to win out, talent triumphed in the end. Benedict cites former defensive tackle Christian Peter: The Nebraska player was accused of a sexual assault while at school, charged in a separate groping case, and accused of grabbing a woman by the throat. All in all, he was accused of assaulting four women. When the New England Patriots drafted him in the fifth round in 1996, there was an uproar against the team—Peter was far from the star prospect that Winston is—and he was let go. But Peter was soon picked up by the New York Giants, who required that he undergo counseling and alcohol treatment before being allowed to play with the team. He ended up playing for six years on three different teams with no further notable run-ins with the law during those seasons. The NFL even brought Peter in during last year’s Ray Rice scandal to discuss how the league should handle the problem of violence against women.
Then there’s Aaron Hernandez. The former NFL tight end had multiple violent run-ins while at the University of Florida. The New England Patriots drafted him anyway, and he became an offensive star on the team. Earlier this month, Hernandez was convicted of a 2013 murder and has further murder charges in a 2012 double homicide still pending.
“Aaron Hernandez is not a perfect comparison by any means,” Benedict says, “but here’s a guy who in college had repeated problems when he was at Florida. And those problems were minimized and largely disregarded in the draft analysis for him.”
Things may be shifting a bit in the wake of the Ray Rice outrage. Benedict cites players coming out in NFL public service announcements against domestic violence last year. And when convicted domestic abuser and star Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy—who has been suspended for 10 games next season—met his new teammates in the first week of workouts earlier this month, one of them actually called him a “wife beater.” By the standards of an NFL practice field, that’s progress.
But whatever headway has been made doesn’t change the fact that Winston is now a major part of the NFL landscape and the rape allegation against him will likely soon not be.
“We forgive and forget, and winning does that to us,” Benedict says. “And that will happen with Winston. If he comes into the league and starts winning, no one’s going to be talking about what happened at Florida State. No one.”