Steubenville Redux: Victim Blaming in a Florida Football Town

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“She’s just ruining Jameis’ good character.”

That’s what I overhear a young mother, decked out in a garnet top and dream-catcher earrings, telling her teenage daughter at a Mexican restaurant here in Tallahassee.

Her daughter, also clad in Florida State colors, nods in eager agreement.

I cringe, glad that my toddler is too young to comprehend what she is saying. Glad that, at that moment, I don’t have to explain what victim blaming is. Glad that I don’t have to explain why a whole town has turned itself inside out to discredit a rape victim and defend a college football player who is her alleged attacker.

If you follow college football, you already know who this young mother was defending: Jameis Winston, Florida State University’s star quarterback and a suspect in an ongoing sexual battery case. And if you follow college football, you already knew all about Jameis Winston, whose on-the-field play and big personality have been the toast of sports media. If you’re to believe that media, Winston has singlehandedly brought Florida State—once a perennial national title contender—back from the dead. This year the Seminoles are expected to play Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game. The signs of local businesses here read: “Go Noles! Bring on Bama!”

In Tallahassee, Winston is more than a football player: He’s a hero or a saint. In town he’s known as “Famous Jameis.”

I am not here to comment on Winston’s guilt or innocence. He has neither been questioned by the police nor charged with any crime. The facts of the case remain that an anonymous female victim reported a sexual assault on December 7, 2012. The Tallahassee Police Department (TPD) took her statement, blood and DNA samples. In early January, the victim—an FSU student—identified Winston as her attacker. In February of this year, Winston’s lawyer Timothy Jansen claimed that the TPD informed him that the case was closed. On November 13, the gossip website TMZ broke the news that Winston is a suspect in the case.

Right before TMZ broke the story, the TPD turned the case over to State’s Attorney Willie Meggs, who described the case as a “cluster.” He told CBS Sports:

Our office would have been informed about this as soon as it occurred. We first learned about it at 10:02 a.m on Wednesday. … I don’t know if that’s alarming, but it’s a fact in the case. We can’t question motives. What the police department has done is clammed up.

Meggs expects to make a decision regarding prosecution in the next few weeks. But while his office is investigating the case, it seems that all of Tallahassee has made up its mind: Winston is innocent.

The town has gone mad, spouting conspiracy theories that “prove” Winston’s innocence. In the process, locals question the credibility of the victim, repeating that she was (gasp!) drunk and that she identified her assailant as 5-11 (Winston is 6-4). And they point to the suspicious timing of the renewed investigation. Nowhere is this more evident than in the reckless coverage of The Tallahassee Democrat—the newspaper where, in full disclosure, my husband once worked.

Take the column that the Democrat’s sports writer Ira Schoffel published the day after the Winston case was first reported. It offers nearly all of the excuses any FSU fan needs to easily dismiss a victim’s accusations:

Winston’s (and Florida State’s) world was rocked by news that the state attorney’s office was investigating a thought-to-be-dormant sexual-battery allegation. Eleven months after the fact. With the only tangible information coming from a heavily redacted police report.

By Wednesday night, fans had far more questions than answers.

Why would this come to light now? Why is the state attorney investigating this when the police already seemed to have moved on? Why is any of this being reported in the news when Winston hasn’t been charged with anything?

The simple answer to all of those questions is this: Jameis Winston is the biggest thing in college football.

And this is the price of being famous, Jameis.

So here it is, according to Schoffel. There is only one reason why a rape victim would target Winston: because he’s famous. The victim must be motivated not by justice but by the desire to derail FSU’s hopes of a national championship.

Schoffel, of course, can’t fathom that the FSU community, to which the victim belonged until last week, might have other questions. He also can’t manage an ounce of empathy for a rape victim, yet, has plenty for the football player who stands accused: “Unfortunately for Jameis Winston, right now this thing feels so much bigger than him.”

The following week Schoffel profiled a former FSU player who was acquitted on a rape charge and prosecuted by Willie Meggs nearly a decade earlier. Schoffel didn’t mention the two FSU rape convictions on Meggs’ watch. Neither does he mention Greg Dent, the suspended FSU receiver who is currently awaiting trial on sexual battery charges.

But Schoffel isn’t alone in his sly suggestions that the victim lacks credibility or that the case will be over-zealously prosecuted. His boss Bob Gabordi, editor-in-chief of the Democrat, wrote in a near-apology for covering the story at all that he “wished the story would go away.” And Gabordi, like Schoffel, returned to the question “why now?” as though a rape allegation should cease when a town’s hopes of football glory are on the line. While Gabordi did have a handful of sympathetic words for the victim, any authentic concern was lost when he concluded that he’ll “continue to cheer for Jameis Winston and the Seminoles and hope that he is cleared quickly and decisively.” Perhaps cheering for justice, whatever its outcome, is asking too much.

I suppose none of this should surprise me. A fawning profile of Winston in ESPN Magazine (written by an FSU English professor) describes the scene pretty accurately:  “All the guys in the local media seem to have developed man-crushes on Jameis, gushing … as they go.” But as they gush and root for Winston, they trample over an anonymous victim.

The Democrat is pandering to some of the worst sensibilities of rape culture: the immediate need to suspect an accuser’s intention and tear apart her story before we even have it. Here in Tallahassee, the victim-blaming is so overwhelming that the editor of a Gannett-owned newspaper can, the day after the story was reported, declared the evidence against Winston to be “thin on the surface.”

Yesterday, the Democrat released an email from Tallahassee city manager Anita Favors Thompson to city commissioners claiming that the investigation against Winston stopped when the victim no longer wished to pursue charges. Favors Thompson claims the TPD did their due diligence. According to the Democrat’s summary, it responded to a

…woman who indicated she was intoxicated a local bar and was taken advantage of while impaired. TPD initiated an investigation and began to interview witnesses and compile details on the case, but stopped getting responses from the woman and could no longer contact her.

“Taken advantage of” is such a delicate phrase. Much nicer than “rape.”

But then the victim fought back.

Her lawyer, Patricia Carroll, released a statement to the Tampa Bay Times claiming that the victim was nearly bullied out of her statement by TPD Detective Scott Angulo, who allegedly said that:

Tallahassee was a big football town and the victim needs to think long and hard before proceeding against [Winston] because she will be raked over the coals and her life will be made miserable.

Carroll also claims that Detective Angulo verbally confirmed to the victim and her attorney that blood work revealed that the victim was not intoxicated. Also, neither the victim nor the attorney stopped cooperating. The victim thought the case was still active, and “was shocked to hear that Winston’s attorney was not only aware of the case but had been told by the Tallahassee Police Department that the case had been closed in February. All the while, the family was awaiting blood results until early April.”

Carroll’s statement concludes with a series of questions, including,

If Winston’s attorney was aware of the case in February 2013, why didn’t Detective Angulo collect DNA evidence, interview Winston and conduct a proper investigation?

In the midst of this “cluster,” the victim left Florida State last week. Yet there is no Democrat article on the plight of rape victims on college campus, no story about FSU women who are rape survivors and no story about what the community is doing to stem the tide of rape.

So here we are, Tallahassee, so concerned with our football hero’s “good character” that we’ve chased a young victim out of town.

I’ve lived in Tallahassee on and off for the last 11 years, I went to Florida State, I’ve sat in the stands of Doak Campbell Stadium and I’ve sung the FSU fight song with alumni groups in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. And yet, after hearing the news last weekend, I couldn’t stomach watching FSU football. I shake my head in shame and disappointment as I watch my community exile a woman who dares to point her finger at their star quarterback.

This is not quite Steubenville, but this is how Steubenvilles happen. A small town closes in on itself, concerned only with the proxy glow championship trophies bring.

Update: This morning ESPN reported that DNA from the victim’s rape kit matched Winston’s. In a press conference, Winston’s lawyer claimed that the quarterback and victim had consensual sex, saying “I don’t think it’s a secret what the defense is when I tell you that we are not surprised his DNA was found. We anticipated it would be found. We never, ever said he wasn’t there.”

It’s going to get worse.

Photo from Flickr user stab at sleep under license from Creative Commons 2.0

 

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Stassa Edwards is a very tired new mom. Follow her on Twitter @stasssaedwards.