No matter what happens in the future with the investigation, Jameis Winston will forever have a footnote next to his name that references sexual assault. We still don't know whether torpedoing his reputation is tragically unfair or a nearly a year overdue. What we do know is that many of the spectators and media outlets could use a crash course in how to discuss this topic more responsibly.
Here are a few things to keep in mind if you decide to venture into discussing the media circus and debacle of justice that is unfolding in Tallahassee:
1. We still don't know what happened... and speculating about it isn't helping anyone. -- A bit of a disclosure here. I'm a woman, and I'm a football fan. I went to FSU, and I also happen to be a rape survivor (which, to be clear, did not happen anywhere near FSU). Guess what? NONE of that gives me any insight about the facts of this particular situation because what happened that night is unique.
Both people involved had been silent about this for months and reports are redacted. The investigation so far is being leaked in bits and pieces. We know that two college students had sex. We have no idea if it was consensual. At this point, quite frankly, it would defy odds for the truth to come out in a clear and convincing way based on what we've seen so far. Guessing about the facts based on what happened to us, or in another news story or based on "the same exact thing" that happened to our neighbor's cousin's friend is not at all factual in nature and only clouds the issue.
2. Victim blaming is not okay. -- Saying that a woman might be lying about sexual assault is dangerous territory to begin with, but talking about how "she was drinking so she had it coming" and "she put herself in the situation" is ignorant and cruel. I've seen posts with people saying she shouldn't have been out at "that time of night" or at "that type of party." Again, we still do not know what happened between she and Mr. Winston, but can we finally abandon the idea that a woman at a party after midnight causes her coach to turn into a pumpkin while she dons a "Please Rape Me" t-shirt??
3. You might not like it, but as of now Jameis Winston is a victim too. -- If it comes to light that anything forceful or even demeaning happened to the young woman involved, I will be among the first to demand that Winston be appropriately punished or prosecuted. But -- and I feel like I can't say this enough -- we still do not have any knowledge that anything like that happened. For sake of discussion, let's just say that the relationship was consensual. If that version of events turns out to be true, we have now nationally shamed a young man based on a story launched into the spotlight by an anonymous source to TMZ. A little perspective as we call for blood perhaps?
4. It is highly possible that it is more about ineptitude than about a cover-up. -- This isn't Steubenville, where a pack of boys violated a drugged woman on video like savage dogs and the mother of one of the boys attempted to block the investigation and... insert more conspiracy theories and inaccurate comparisons here. As of now, this is simply another case of police not knowing how to adequately look into a case from start to finish. Sadly, that is not at all uncommon.
Don't get me wrong. There are a NUMBER of phenomenal men and women in uniform -- like this guy -- that embody the word "hero." But this is the same Tallahassee police force that beat the mess out of a woman during a routine traffic stop just for kicks. Are we really guessing that they would have handled this case with care and dignity if only it weren't for the fact that Winston was a hadn't-played-a-down-yet-still unknown-Freshman football player? It's far more likely that they didn't follow up because they didn't care or didn't feel like it. Not because the almighty Southern Football gods pressured them to drop it "or else".
5. We have to get really comfortable with not ever knowing the truth, but that doesn't make us helpless. -- I get why everyone from the local news to ESPN are trying to temper this down by giving us the platitude that, "We just need to wait and see what happens with the investigation." On its face it sounds reasonable. Don't jump to conclusions because the legal system will let us know what happened. Our law enforcement officials will supposedly cause the truth to come forward with facts and evidence.
Here's the problem: This is Florida. You remember us right? We're the state that can't count votes and can't convict George Zimmerman. Our recent claim to fame is that we have our own Toronto mayor, the Cocaine Congressman from Fort Myers. To expect that our legal system -- the much-mocked fodder for pretty much every late night comedian -- is going to get to the bottom of anything would be laughable if it weren't so sad.
The truth is that we did this to ourselves and we continue to accept a broken system, but we could use this tragic circumstance as an opportunity to change things if we wanted to.
We could stop electing people that are crooks on a bad day and cowards on a good one. We could stop spending tax dollars militarizing our police with tanks, and instead train them on how to adequately question victims without interrogating them, and provide them with resources so they can actually solve cases. And we could get just as upset -- calling for immediate action and settling for nothing less -- when our justice system fails us as we do when refs make a bad call against our favorite sports teams.
Yes, we could absolutely change how things are being done and stop making Florida the embodiment of a failed democracy. Or we could keep sitting on the sidelines, watching this situation play out like it is some sort of horrific reality show.
Shawna Vercher is a media strategist and political pundit with front row seats to all of the mayhem in Florida. She is currently the Executive Director of Move Florida Forward, an organization dedicated to mobilizing people for positive change in politics.
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