Wolfpack fans have chance to comment on Winston’s behavior

When the offensive unit for Florida State takes the field on Saturday afternoon at Carter-Finley Stadium, and Jameis Winston trots out to take the snap, fans should let the quarterback know how they feel. TV viewers can try this at home, too. Use of vulgarity is unnecessary – leave that to Winston. But take the chance to express an opinion on the 20-year-old’s consideration and behavior toward others.

A reasonable case can be made that what happens on the field is separate from what happens off it. You can admire the superlative skills of the defending Heisman Trophy winner, his leadership of a team that’s never lost with him at the helm, without passing judgment on Winston’s alleged involvement in a December 2012 sexual assault, gratuitously shooting a pellet gun at squirrels near campus a month earlier, or shoplifting crab legs from a Tallahassee supermarket this past spring.

You might chalk up his irresponsible actions to youth and naivete, although Americans Winston’s age and younger are considered sufficiently mature to fight and die for their country in the military. You could argue athletes get unfairly close scrutiny – except most handle a public role without drawing adverse attention.

You can minimize last week’s verbal affront by Winston as an exercise of free speech, a view normally pliant Florida State officials didn’t share. But let’s not insult each other’s intelligence. Even FSU’s leadership recognized a line was crossed when Winston yelled something on campus aimed at women, words that standard media outlets groped to report, with The Associated Press resorting to “a lascivious comment about female anatomy that may have derived from an Internet meme.”

Given the personal context, and the gender-related issues roiling sports in the wake of Ray Rice’s assault on his then-fiance, Winston’s shouted insult was more than tone-deaf foolishness. So was the symbolism of his mounting a table to deliver his message, subliminally communicating a belief he stands above his peers. After his profane proclamation, Florida State meted out invisible in-house punishment and a suspension for last Saturday’s home win against Clemson. “You can’t make certain statements that are derogatory or inflammatory in any way toward any person, race, gender,” said Jimbo Fisher, the FSU coach.

Lack of sensitivity

Winston’s off-field comportment, and the reaction to it, freshens a longstanding dialogue on how we regard our sports heroes and what we expect from them. “It seems to me sports, by their very nature, reward certain kinds of virtues like commitment, coolness under pressure, dedication, all those things. So I think these are powerful reasons people look up to athletes,” said Bob Simon, former president of the Philosophic Society for the Study of Sport and a philosophy professor at Hamilton College in New York. “I think they do get special benefits, and with special privilege comes special responsibility.”

Winston, an articulate third-year college student wrapped in the team cocoon, does not seem to have entirely embraced that larger lesson. His performance outside the FSU student union was more than a lapse into profanity – it revealed a stunning lack of sensitivity to the seriousness of an encounter that brought an accusation of rape. Moreover, Winston’s crassness and lack of understanding surely undermine his ambitions to play in a newly sensitized NFL. Gifted as he is – Winston is mobile, strong, poised and an accomplished passer at 6-4, 235-pounds – his history of missteps suggests he’s a dangerous gamble for a franchise that invests in him.

Winston remains innocent until proven guilty and, fortunately, verdicts rendered in the court of public opinion have no force of law. But not every crime comes complete with incriminating video of the incident, either, as in Rice’s punch in an Atlantic City elevator. And even that episode didn’t result in criminal prosecution. As for sexual assault, a crime that’s belatedly drawing increased scrutiny throughout society, it’s one of the more difficult charges to prosecute, or even to get victims to pursue.

“I think there are far more that happen than reach prosecution,” says Monica Osburn, director of N.C. State’s campus Counseling Center. “I think it’s a variety of reasons. When that happens to you, the last thing you want is to have that splashed all over the news. It’s a re-traumatization for the survivors of that crime. Then they just have to continually repeat what happened to them. That’s a lot. It’s bad enough to go through it once – but for people continually to ask for your story, it’s almost like folks go into flashbacks, the trauma almost happens all over again to them. A lot of times it’s kind of he-said, she-said; it’s your word against the perpetrator’s.”

No investigation

In Winston’s case the victim, a fellow student, did come forward, to no avail. Now the incident is being re-examined by Florida State, and the U.S. Department of Education is scrutinizing the way the university, among others, investigates sexual assaults.

A New York Times investigation earlier this year concluded “there was virtually no investigation at all” by Tallahassee or campus police related to allegations against Winston, leading to a convenient lack of evidence to support an arrest. That’s apparently not unusual within the cozy confines of Florida’s football-fixated capital city. According to the newspaper, between 2011 and 2013 55 Florida State students who sought nursing treatment from a local shelter for sexual assaults subsequently reported the attacks to police. Yet, during that span, only two people were arrested for sexual assaults on FSU students.

So a lack of charges in Winston’s 2012 encounter, which he said was consensual, may be less exculpatory than it appears.

Still, the coming visit from a defending Heisman Trophy winner is a rare occasion for Triangle football fans. Assuming Winston stays out of trouble, he will be just the second Heisman holder ever to play at an area stadium; the other was Alabama’s Mark Ingram, who rushed for 151 yards in a 62-13 victory at Duke in 2010. Like Ingram, Winston also leads an undefeated squad coming off a national championship. This will be his sole appearance in North Carolina this season.

“I think the fans could not applaud,” said Simon, the philosophy professor. “They don’t have to be vulgar or anything, but they could show they’re not impressed with him.” Too bad there’s no cheering (or booing) allowed in the press box. But folks at home, or in the Carter-Finley stands, have no such restrictions. Like basketball fans keyed on a visitor meriting particular disfavor, they’re free to make a statement of their own that might be heard far and wide for reasons that go beyond football.