The football season is over and all attention now turns to Jameis Winston’s combine performance, signing day, the upcoming NFL Draft, and the assorted off season storylines, which will come to dominate our news cycle.
We’ve written a ton about the Jameis Winston case here at Outkick, primarily because it became the premier off-field story in college football for over a year. Whether it was the Tallahassee police department’s bungled investigation, FSU’s ham handed response, FSUTwitter’s insane defenses or what I called the conspiracy to keep Winston eligible, we covered all the angles.
But the question that lingers is this one — did colleges learn anything from how to handle a sexual assault allegation involving a student and a prominent athlete?
I’ve written quite a bit about this in the mailbag over the past several months, but I thought I should break it out into a column as well. I think that college administrators learned a ton from FSU’s response and that the Seminole response won’t ever be copied again by any college program in the country.
In fact, if you compare the responses of Vanderbilt, Florida, and Tennessee to incidents that have gone public since the initial complaint was filed by the alleged victim in the Winston case, you can see a pretty seismic change in comparison to the FSU case.
In the Winston case FSU failed to aggressively pursue an alleged rape of one student by another, the Tallahassee police department did virtually nothing to investigate the case for almost a year, and eventually the state attorney determined that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute.
The lack of an investigation effectively doomed either side from being able to prove its side of the story. Winston never missed a single day of practice for any of these allegations, the case became a tremendous mess in the news media, social media went wild, and the alleged victim had to withdraw from school.
With Florida’s Treon Harris, the four Vanderbilt players, and Tennessee’s most prominent defensive player, A.J. Johnson, the university response to an alleged sexual assault by one student upon another was totally different.
The moment the allegations went public, the players were suspended from the football team pending the outcome of the investigation. They were, however, allowed to remain students. (Vanderbilt went even further, dismissing the players as students as well. That’s probably because of the video evidence in that case).
As far as we know all three alleged victims at Vanderbilt, Tennessee, and Florida remained enrolled on campus. I don’t think that’s a coincidence either. Students took their cues from how the administration responded.
Treon Harris was cleared and went on to play for Florida that season.
Two of the four Vanderbilt defendants have now been convicted, the other two await trial.
No decision has been made in Johnson’s case.
All three have had different outcomes, but the responses of Vanderbilt, Florida, and Tennessee were all the correct road map for how other colleges should handle accusations against athletes in the future.
What’s more, each of these college responses sent an important message to fans — it didn’t embolden them to blame the victim or douse her in social media opprobrium.
The message sent by the colleges was key — this is a serious investigation that we’re taking seriously. Florida, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt fans didn’t go to war with the victim or the media or the fans of other teams. Fans waited for the case to be resolved and moved on to other concerns. Tennessee and Florida’s fans are no less passionate than Florida State’s, yet the difference in online responses was jarring.
I believe that’s because the colleges sent the right message immediately, before college football diehards could go to war against the victim on behalf of a player.
College football is great — my favorite sport in the country — but its fans are the most prone of all sports fans to believe whatever the school or team tells them. It’s insane.
Fans will believe anything from a winning coaching staff or administration so long as it makes them more likely to continue win games. All fan bases are guilty of letting passion dictate logic, but college football fans take it to another level.
Anything or anyone that doesn’t help their team win is an obstacle to be fought, whether it’s an allegation of recruiting impropriety or an alleged crime, the default response of every college fan base is a child-like, “Nunh uh.”
That’s why suspending accused players from athletics until the investigation is complete, is the only possible move going forward.
Granted, this brings up its own danger, what about cases where a false allegation is made up — the Duke Lacrosse cases of the world?
First, cases such as these are extreme outliers — the number of people who make up any crime, much less rape, which requires a series of difficult and humiliating investigative procedures — is minuscule. It’s much more likely that victims don’t report actual sexual assault than that they make up false cases of sexual assault.
What’s more, citing the Duke Lacrosse case as evidence of the dangers involved in suspending players pending the outcome of an investigation is like citing the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs as evidence of why we should be afraid to wake up in the morning. It’s an extreme occurrence that doesn’t repeat itself often.
In the Duke Lacrosse case they disbarred the prosecutor for his behavior.
The prosecutor completely failed in his investigation and the players in that case received tens of millions of dollars in settlements. It’s the obligation of good detectives and district attorneys to catch and prosecute anyone who falsely accuses others of crimes. Sure, false accusations can happen, but I think it’s a small price to pay for treating all allegations of sexual assault seriously.
Let’s hope in the future that the Winston case is an extreme outlier, the examples of Vanderbilt, Florida and Tennessee should become the standard going forward.