Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Jameis Winston and the Impossible Resolution

Human beings are different. They - we - are different in so many ways, amidst our similarities.

Different in terms of ideology.

Different in terms of regional heritage, national identity, and cultural comfort zones.

Different in gender. Different in terms of sexual experience. Different in terms of educational background, role models, parental figures, siblings, and socioeconomic status.

The phrase is worn enough to make the significance fade from sight, but verily, every life is a story. Similar forces visit many lives, but the precise order and combination of forces is unique to every person. These combinations of forces and events - and our responses to them - make us who we are. Each successive parade of events and responses continues to reshape the person we become.

It is therefore no surprise at all, and may I hastily add, no defect or flaw, that the Jameis Winston story has created, is creating, and will continue to create sharply divided and highly emotional reactions from many people. I experienced this a week and a half ago, two days before the ACC Championship Game between Florida State and Duke. Upon voicing the opinion that, on balance, it would be a good idea for FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher to not play Winston against Duke, I ran into quite a bit of resistance from Florida State fans on Twitter, aka, "FSU Twitter." Such a clash was, realistically, unavoidable. Now, a few days removed from Winston's much-deserved Heisman Trophy victory, it is both safe and appropriate to visit this issue in greater detail. It's also appropriate to continue to examine the Winston story removed from College Football News pages, in a personal space where pageviews and web traffic aren't the sought goals or motivations (and FSU readers can see as much).

Not a dollar is being made or sought in this post. It's an attempt to continue a necessary conversation, the kind of conversation we different human beings ought to have every now and then in our brief lives. If we can't discuss the weighty stuff, what's the point of discussing whether a catch really is a catch, or whether a timeout was used wisely in the final two minutes of regulation? At CFN, I've talked about the need for players' on-field accomplishments to be given the respect they deserve. Here, I'll talk about the need for off-field considerations to receive the primacy they deserve.


The first thing I need to say is that as a participant in a Twitter conversation, tweets rapidly exchanged in response to polarizing or highly debatable statements often come across as being presentations of facts, when in reality, they are exchanges of opinions. Most pieces of authoritative speech carry the feel of a fact, when they're merely forceful attempts to advance a line of thought, one person's sense of a deeper and more unknowable or inexact truth. I realize that in my initial tweets from Dec. 5, I gave the impression at times that Jameis Winston had in fact engaged in imprudent behavior. I had meant to stress that I believed it was likely that Winston engaged in imprudent behavior, but I can see how that line got crossed. Since I was the sender of communication and am therefore responsible for conveying specific meanings, I must step back from that errant and excessive point of emphasis, FSU Twitter, and acknowledge that I pushed a point too hard, to the extent that a line was blurred. I apologize for crossing that line.

As for the other important distinctions I sought to make, I can say with clarity and confidence that I didn't overstep any important boundaries. I never said or even hinted that I felt Winston was guilty of a crime, or that he deserved to be seen/treated/handled as a criminal. I made an unambiguous distinction between criminal behavior and imprudent behavior, stressing the point that legal behavior is not equivalent to the complete absence of any wrongdoing.

This is where my discussion with you, FSU Twitter, left off, so this is where it should continue.


As said at the beginning of this essay, people are different. This is a necessary and not unpleasant part of life. Differences give color to life, imbuing our existence with a necessary measure of balance and proportion. The best governing philosophies incorporate elements of multiple approaches, not just one. The best leaders appeal to people from all walks of life, not just one segment of the population. The best preachers are able to reach congregants or seekers from various backgrounds, not just one. Any intimate relationship is an attempt on the part of two people from two different starting points to come together and share their lives with each other. This stuff is difficult, but it all flows from an acknowledgment that differences are not (inherently) bad things. They make resolution and reconciliation the beautiful things that they are.

Yet, differences - on a topic as explosive as alleged sexual assault or rape - are hard to bring together, and that's the obvious yet difficult truth of this case.

Many (though not all) Florida State fans will obviously see this story in one way. SEC fans and other people outside the FSU community will view (and have viewed) this story in a different way. It's no surprise that tweets critical of Winston or supportive of the accuser's attorney get retweeted by SEC or non-ACC fan bases, while tweets supportive of Winston get retweeted and shared by Florida State fans.

It's also no surprise that many men will see this story one way, and women another, although that division demands further segmentation. Many men convinced of Winston's guilt will react just as sharply to this as the men who think Winston was wronged and falsely accused in this situation. On an even more granular level, men who were collegiate athletes are likely to be particularly sympathetic to Winston. Athletes who were in fact wrongly accused of sexual misconduct of some sort (or to some degree) will be even more inclined to see this issue through Winston's eyes, and not the eyes of the accuser. These are all magnifications of the role our own life experiences play in shaping our views - on larger issues and on the stories that thrust said issues into the public spotlight.

Whether you're a member of FSU Twitter who thinks Winston did nothing wrong (which is possible) or a woman who thinks that there are still questions about this process that the accuser deserves to have answered (also a valid position), let's establish one thing right now: It is not wrong, in the sense of being a failure of morality/ethics/the exercise of one's conscience, to have a given viewpoint. 

Florida State fans who forcefully disagreed with me on Dec. 5 were not and are not wrong to have argued their case as they did... not when they're mindful of the fact that a former FSU player, lineman Travis Johnson (as reported in a story by Dan Wetzel and Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports on Nov. 21), was charged with sexual battery by Willie Meggs (yes, the same man who decided not to charge Winston a few weeks ago), only for the case against him to be nonexistent.

If Johnson and other athletes (think of the Duke lacrosse players) were wronged, it is perfectly natural for FSU fans to come to Winston's defense, just as it is natural for women and advocates of sexual assault/rape victims to promote the need for the accuser's voice to be heard.

The persistent and inconvenient question at the heart of this discussion - the one I attempted to develop on Dec. 5 - is this: What do you do when a high-profile athlete is cleared of legal wrongdoing, professes to have done nothing wrong, but nevertheless resides in a situation in which full and perfect knowledge of the events of a given night (or time period) does not exist?

Can that player's word to his coaches and administrators -- "I did nothing wrong" -- be taken as gospel truth? Accordingly, should the accuser's version of events be dismissed or diminished to the point that it should not be seen as sufficiently credible to warrant further exploration?

These are tough questions. Moreover, I certainly realize that FSU administrators and coach Fisher - if fully convinced that Winston really did nothing wrong - would regard his exoneration in the legal realm as proof that he was and is fully free and clear, thereby meaning that suspension against Duke wasn't ultimately necessary. It is a legitimate, reasonable, valid view for an FSU fan or anyone sympathetic to Winston's situation (former athletes, especially those cleared of sexual battery/assault charges that were wrongly brought against them) to say that he shouldn't have been suspended for the Duke game, even after being cleared of criminal charges on Dec. 5.

Yet, providing leadership and - moreover - a full resolution to a contentious situation is found not just in satisfying one constituency or one set of concerns on one side of a larger landscape. What about the message sent to society by an (ostensibly) educational institution when Nationally Known Football Star escapes any sort of genuine sanction over here, and Anonymous Female Accuser watches that situation in the shadows over there?

Let's take Florida State (and the BCS championship chase, and the Heisman Trophy) out of the equation for a moment. If specific names were removed/redacted from this scenario, and we were left with a generic scenario ("What if Star QB on No. 1 Team X became immersed in Controversy Y surrounding allegations of rape, just before the final game of the regular season, which had BCS title implications?"), what would a larger community of reasonable human beings think about the way in which the situation should be handled?

Yes, the timing surrounding the emergence of the case was and is suspicious in ways that did not help Florida State at all. Yes, there were all sorts of questions about the way the Tallahassee Police Department processed this case. Yes, there have been problems with the way in which the press has reported on this case. Yet, those particulars are part of a larger and recognizable situation:

He said/she said. Details were murky and confused. The accuser had some alcohol in her system, but not enough to be legally drunk. How many times does this kind of situation play out in a dark corner of a bar, a room, a street, in America?

Of course the various constituencies in a case such as this would rush to defend and argue their particular point of view and the interests attached to them. That's not in dispute, and that's also not being criticized here.

What's difficult in a human life surrounded by differences is that the adult decisions have to consider all viewpoints, not just one.

Is Jameis Winston innocent not just in a legal sense (criminal behavior), but in a full moral sense (imprudent, advantage-seeking behavior)? Possibly so. Could it be that Winston was falsely accused? Possibly so.

Is his accuser not wrong, but telling the truth instead? Possibly so.

Most (though probably not all) people who have taken the time to comment on this larger series of events would conclude that, "We don't currently know everything that happened; we might not ever know the full story; legally, though, Winston has not been charged and should not be viewed as a criminal or somehow predatory figure, especially not as some 'big, black guy' with all the racial undertones such a label has carried and can still carry to the ears of a neutral observer." Such an interpretation of events is reasonable (not indisputably correct/true/accurate, but reasonable).

What's just as reasonable? This view: "Knowing that we don't know - in other words, knowing that the full version of events is still somewhat elusive - should the legal realm and its decision on this case confer the benefit of the doubt on Jameis Winston on a more personal and internal moral level? Does the winning of a legal victory mean that, in actual fact, Winston did nothing wrong?"

Yes, FSU Twitter, it really could be that Winston did in fact do nothing wrong.

Yet... there is a chance that he did something wrong.

What tells us this? A woman and her family have sought to continue to press their case in public, appealing to various authority figures in a larger politico-legal framework.

Yes, the mere act of appealing to authority figures does not automatically mean that the content or quality of a given claim/protest/media push is somehow legitimate or proveable. Yet, there is an obvious emotional consideration to be contemplated here: Just exactly why would a person and her family do what the accuser and her family are in fact doing?

This isn't what one would call a "normal" course of action. There is not evidence of calm acceptance of the way in which this case has been handled. There is not evidence that the accuser's family has escaped some sense of trauma, some degree of pain, in this case. "Injury" is not just a physical thing. It is and can be an intangible, psychological, deeply penetrating organism. Why is the accuser acting like an injured person, a wounded soul?

Is it mental illness?

Is it jealousy or vindictiveness or some such combination thereof?

Or is it a cry of pain after an experience that genuinely and legitimately wounded a young woman?

In a situation governed by a lot of "It's possible" answers and very few "We know  this with 100 percent certainty" kinds of answers, what would a reasonable person be left to conclude? What would a sexual ethicist say? What would a moral theologian offer? Should there be a default assumption or inclination to believe one person entirely, to the exclusion of any and all blame or sanction against the other?

FSU Twitter, you  are quite free (and, I hasten to add, reasonable) to think that Jameis Winston should be regarded as 100 percent right, especially when one realizes the extent to which Travis Johnson was wronged a decade ago during his playing days as a Seminole.


Yet, FSU Twitter, it is just as reasonable - in the absence of complete evidence - to assess at least some degree of responsibility and/or blame to Winston for what happened, and to therefore have him miss one football game as a result.

This is a view with which Seminole fans might (legitimately) disagree, but if one football game (against Duke) was to be the price paid by Winston for a perhaps-fractional or moderate display of imprudent behavior, so that other women could feel confident in the future that their voices will be heard by a football program on the other side of a deep and wide situational chasm, that seems like a small price. This all gets back to the original tweet that started it all, from @BPredict.

Indeed -- wouldn't it still have been quite a noble, positive, socially and communally enriching thing for Florida State to have sat down Winston for one game -- not even as punishment, but as a powerfully affirming message to vulnerable women across the country?

Yes, FSU Twitter -- and male athletes wrongly and/or falsely accused by women -- such an act risks taking something away from Winston that never should have been taken away in the first place. This is true. I do not dispute or seek to ignore this.

Yet, what are we talking about here? One. Football. Game.

If it was known to an absolute certainty that Winston was 100 percent innocent of any kind of imprudent behavior (not just criminal behavior), yeah, not a single bit of sanction or public politics would be necessary here. Yet, we don't have that 100-percent level of certainty. Ergo, making a public statement on behalf of vulnerable women seemed - and still seems - like the kind of thing an educational institution (as opposed to a football factory) should not only undertake, but be proud to undertake.

It's a question of values and points of emphasis. It's not objectively superior or more correct than other conclusions. It is debatable. It is not a statement of fact, but merely one opinion among many. Point conceded.

Yet, it's certainly a reasonable claim, one to be discussed and given as much weight and consideration as other options.

That's what Florida State was left with on the afternoon of Dec. 5. In the absence of even more facts and hard evidence, the Jameis Winston situation was - and is - a situation that defies easy resolution to the satisfaction of all parties in a world governed by human beings and their manifold differences.

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