A football game pales in significance to a person’s well-being, even if it’s a program’s biggest football game in more than a decade. Still, Florida State is one game away from reaching a goal its players have worked tirelessly toward for years. Somehow, the Seminoles must reconcile the gravity of one with the other under a media microscope.
Because of who Jameis Winston is—star quarterback of the No. 1 Florida State Seminoles and Heisman Trophy candidate—football is intrinsically tied to the far more serious matter of rape allegations levied against him. Certainly that bond is to blame for some of the reaction to Thursday’s announcement that the Florida state attorney will not seek charges against Winston.
The public at large will likely never know the actual story of what occurred on Dec. 7, 2012, beyond what was released in the official report. That won’t prevent some with media pulpits from espousing opinion as though it were fact. Here are some facts:
Fact: Because he is not charged with a crime, Winston will play in Saturday’s ACC Championship Game against No. 20 Duke. With a win, the top-ranked Seminoles will almost assuredly go to Pasadena to play for the national championship for the first time since January 2001, and for the program’s first title since the 1999 season.
Fact: Winston is having a dynamite season. He’s the ACC’s first underclassman to win Player of the Year and a front-runner for the top individual award in the sport, the Heisman.
Fact: Rape is all too prevalent on college campuses. According to a 2000 report by the National Institute of Justice, via the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, "a college with 10,000 students could experience as many as 350 rapes per year."
The Justice Department estimates, "fewer than 5% of completed and attempted rapes of college women are reported to law enforcement officials."
Tackling this very real problem starts with conversation. Because of the exposure Florida State received, the program will be at the center for some narratives, even though Winston was not charged with a crime.
The media attention given the Tallahassee Police Department’s handling of the allegations against Winston elicited further scrutiny. Adam Weinstein, a Florida State faculty member, wrote a column on Deadspin discussing off-the-field problems with the football program.
But we're increasingly flummoxed by the football culture surrounding Tallahassee, one that's grown malignant with the wins and the scrutiny....It's a culture that tells these adolescents that their highest calling is to sacrifice their bodies in the grassy shrine, that all else is distraction.
The tenuous marriage of academia and big-time college athletics is a topic always lingering around the NCAA. An account like Weinstein’s makes Florida State a focal point. These are weighty things when juxtaposed against winning football games, to be sure. And yet, Seminoles head coach Jimbo Fisher earns a hefty salary for readying his team to do the latter.
Compartmentalizing football amid life’s tribulations is an implied job description for every head coach, though the circumstances and scope differ. Florida State’s situation is drawing a high volume of media attention, but that doesn’t mean it’s any more of a distraction to the locker room than less publicized but still significant life events.
Consider the Seminoles’ opponent Saturday. Duke head coach David Cutcliffe led the Blue Devils to their first bowl game in nearly two decades despite tragedy that befell the program just before the season. Wide receiver Blair Holliday was in critical condition after a jet-ski accident that also involved teammate and star wideout Jamison Crowder in July 2012.
Talking with the Duke Chronicle shortly thereafter, Cutcliffe alluded to the impact Holliday's accident had on his teammates.
Blair is more important than just rallying and giving emotion to the game. It’s a serious consequence and a serious circumstance. So he’s in their mind all the time. There’s no question. So I couldn’t use the term 'rally' because he is always there.
Obviously, Duke’s situation was much different than Florida State’s. The two are only comparable in that they’re examples of a reality facing all programs: There’s a world outside the field’s chalk lines—a world where consequences are far more serious than BCS standings or Heisman ballots.
Speaking with the Associated Press last month, Winston summarized how the world on the field differs: “The football field is a sanctuary to me…When all of us are on the field, everything is just zoned out.”