This is the moment for Florida State when it answers the big question: What do you stand for? It's an opportunity, really. You do the right thing for the right reasons, and no matter the cost, you can look in the mirror later. When you stand for something, it's forever.
On Saturday, Florida State, the defending national champ, will play undefeated Notre Dame. The winner becomes a strong favorite to get into the College Football Playoff. The loser does not. But Florida State needs to make a real statement first and do one thing:
Suspend Jameis Winston. Now.
It's the only thing to do for Florida State; it must take a moral stand for football and society. And if Florida State lets Winston play? Then that makes a statement, too—a dangerous one. In fact, Florida State already did the wrong thing in allowing Winston to play this past Saturday against Syracuse.
In the past few days, Florida State informed Winston that he will face a school disciplinary hearing regarding sexual abuse. On top of that, The New York Times' Mike McIntire and Walt Bogdanich detailed ways in which university officials, the athletic department and even Tallahassee police seemed to conspire to keep Winston out of trouble last year when a woman accused him of rape.
It was the same incident Winston's disciplinary hearing will investigate. FoxSports.com's Kevin Vaughan had a story, too, detailing ways the school and police at times seemed to undermine the state attorney's potential pursuit of charges against Winston.
So no, there is no proof that Winston did anything wrong. The state attorney did not file charges. Why suspend Winston then?
To stand up for what's right. So far, the school appears to have schemed in a way that prioritizes football over the cries of a woman who says she was violated.
If the athletic department has interfered with justice in a cover-up to protect football and subsequently the football team suffers, that's just too bad.
The finger is now pointed directly at Florida State. And the university seems to be reacting by trying to cover up its cover-up, making it appear to have been investigating the allegation against Winston all along, as it was supposed to under Title IX legislation. Don't be surprised if people are fired over this.
Winston needs to sit out until everything is settled, partly in fairness to his accuser, but also as a message that if women say they have been assaulted, then someone will listen. Florida State's behavior is almost cliche.
Former Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo told USA Today last week that "'hundreds and hundreds' of domestic violence incidents were covered up during his 31 years in the NFL." He later said that was an embellishment but did not refute the point. He pointed the finger at himself and seemed to be trying to clear his conscience.
The elevator video in the Ray Rice case makes it impossible to hide this stuff anymore. Violence against women is an epidemic in football. So the NFL, the whole sport, is staring down the issue.
Winston, as the Heisman Trophy winner, is such a public figure. To turn a blind eye to another cover-up and allow him to be cheered and idolized Saturday against Notre Dame is just plain wrong. If that turns out to mean erring, for once, on the side of the woman, then so be it.
It's a risk worth taking to stand for something.
Look at the sharp contrast in the example Notre Dame is setting. Notre Dame suspended five players before the season started on suspicion of academic cheating. Nothing had been proved. The school was only investigating. Yet the players have not been allowed to practice or play in a game all year.
This isn't about perfection. Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson didn't play last year after he was kicked out of school for a cheating scandal. He was allowed back after a year. So, it's clear that this isn't an isolated incident.
Notre Dame has a serious problem. But look what it's doing while looking into it. It is hurting the football team. Think of the message. It's the same message Texas coach Charlie Strong has been sending, kicking players off the team, including one who was accused—not convicted—of sexual assault.
Notre Dame prioritized academics over football. Texas prioritized humanity over football.
Florida State has its chance now to change its stance.
At this point, Winston might be on the run. Heisman Trophy voters are steering clear of him. Sports Illustrated wrote that he might be best served legally by dropping out of school now. That, the story said, would prevent him from going to the school disciplinary hearing where he might give testimony that could be used as evidence against him and lead to charges being filed later.
We've already seen that Winston has been in trouble for stealing soda pop and crab legs. And The New York Times story said he was among at least a dozen Florida State players involved in BB gun incidents that caused thousands of dollars in damage, forcing police to respond. And now we have ESPN.com's Darren Rovell and Mark Schlabach reporting that Florida State's compliance department is investigating 340 Winston autographs for sale online.
This isn't about those things.
The Times reported:
- In January 2013, a few days after Winston was identified by his accuser, Florida State athletic department officials met with Winston's lawyer and then decided, on behalf of the university, not to start a disciplinary inquiry "as required by federal law."
- On his Instagram page, "Mr. Winston posted a video clip in February in which he and a teammate, mimicking a viral music video, jokingly sang a line from the song 'On the Floor' by the rapper IceJJFish, which celebrates men not taking 'no' for an answer from women: 'She said she wants to take it slow, I'm not that type of guy I'll letcha know, when I see that red light all I know is go.'"
- Florida State, as part of its investigation into the rape allegation, did not attempt to talk with Winston until after it won the national championship and didn't interview his accuser for seven months after that.
Earlier this season, Winston was suspended for a game when he jumped on a table on campus and started mimicking a disturbing viral video on the Internet, yelling, "F--k her right in the p---y!"
What does Florida State stand for anyway? Beating Notre Dame?
How about something bigger?
Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report. He also writes for The New York Times and was formerly a scribe for FoxSports.com and the Chicago Sun-Times. Follow him on Twitter @gregcouch.