In Defense of Survivors: Rape Culture, Sport, and the Exceptionality of Jameis Winston
On November 13, 2013, entertainment news (read tabloid) company TMZ uncovered a police report naming Florida State University freshman quarterback and Heisman frontrunner, Jameis Winston, in a felony sexual assault investigation by the Tallahassee Police Department, which was originally opened in December 7, 2012. In no time at all, more credible news sources began confirming Winston was in fact named in the report, but also stated, according to his attorney, he had not been questioned in connection with the events at any time. The case, having remained open despite belief by Winston’s attorney to have been closed, was recently referred to the State Attorney’s office. More recent reports from the Tampa Tribune and a statement from the female student’s family suggest a potential obstruction and cover-up by police, who, according to the alleged survivor, warned her about the consequences of pursuing the “Winston matter.” Further, as of yesterday, several facts have emerged, namely 1) Winston’s DNA swab matched DNA from evidence included in the rape kit, and 2) attorney Tim Jansen has acknowledged the signal caller and the complainant did have a sexual encounter, which he maintains was consensual. Additionally, two “eye-witnesses” provided signed affidavits, which Jansen submitted to state authorities.
I am Florida State alum, long-time fan of our football program, and particularly impressed by Jameis Winston beyond the context of football. I also recently moved back to Tallahassee (FL), so conversations regarding our all but imminent BCS championship appearance, second Black quarterback Heisman hopeful, and, now, this case have been almost endless. What is most interesting to me is how these conversations often unfold: in defense of Jameis. In fairness, a number of inconsistencies have emerged as particulars of the case, among them discrepancies in the assailant's size, Winston’s alleged level of participation (although identified as the perpetrator by the accuser in January), and now disproven belief the accuser had alcohol in her system at time of encounter. These concerns notwithstanding, much attention has been drawn to all the reasons why 1) a sexual assault could not have happened, or 2) if it did, Winston should not have been the primary suspect.
Now, this is not an essay about Jameis Winston, per se. I will not engage in speculating about the nature of Winston’s involvement or his understanding of happenings other than those defended to be consensual. Of what has been made public, much remains unclear beyond confirmation of sexual contact between the parties involved. Should Winston be formally charged and brought to trial, can be discussed at a later date. However, I do wish to address broader topics and systems of oppression converging to create an familiar narrative about rape culture, sport, and exceptionalism.
Rape culture refers to the ideas, beliefs, behaviors, social contexts and traditions facilitating, excusing and, sometimes, completely dismissing sexual assault (and sexual battery), particularly against women. Among the consequences of a culture fundamentally unconcerned with the sexual and reproductive agency of women are the gross under-reporting of sexual assault and sexual battery, a large proportion of these crimes being committed by pre-existing acquaintances, blaming and shaming of the accuser, and a complete lack of (male) clarity about what constitutes rape. Victim-blaming leads us to questions such as, what was she wearing; was she drinking; was she being flirtatious? Such questions imply what may have transpired in sexual assault cases is the fault of the victim. Slut-shaming is the familiar practice in which the double-standard between the sexual lives of men and women exists, allowing men to live sex-positive lives free of ridicule (and sometimes elevated to greater heights of manliness) by broader society while women of the same are often shamed inhumanely. Furthermore, these consequences are reinforced at broader social and cultural levels by systems of oppression (i.e., patriarchy, sexism, misogyny) privileging men at the expense of women.
The lack of clarity is a particular problem I continue to see in my work with college men. As we have conversations about sexual assault (against women), it remains apparent many college men operate from very narrow definition of rape – generally involving both intent to do harm and committing an act of violence. In addition, consent is an ambiguous concept often believed to be anything but a definitive “no” during sexual encounters. This lack of clarity, perhaps as much as anything, blurs the lines (pun intended, Robin Thicke) about rape, for the survivor, perpetrator, and those engaged in conversations. Given the realization the case in question confirms, at least, sexual contact between those involved happened, the rest becomes largely speculative. However, at least some consideration should be given to the scenario in which what began as consensual (or may have been in previous encounters) could have taken a turn in either an explicit or implicit way. Explicitly, this may involve instances in which outward expressions of discomfort or withdrawing consent (e.g., non-verbal cues, verbal expression of a lack of surety, saying “no” or “stop”) are made but discarded. Implicitly, the same discomfort or lack of desire to continue can exists, but no noticeable response may be expressed due to existing power dynamics in favor of a male perpetrator, who, himself, may not believe or be unaware he is doing anything wrong.
With regard to sport, the year in review makes a compelling case for a connection between football and sexual assault. In Steubenville, Ohio, an incapacitated high school girl was raped by two football players, which were ultimately convicted based on uncovered social media posts made by another teammate and Steubenville High baseball player. As recent as two days ago, a Grand Jury is still considering charges against teachers and coaches failing to report the incident when they became aware. In South Bend, Indiana, Lizzy Seeberg, a St. Mary’s College, student committed suicide after Notre Dame police failed to investigate her claims of being sexually-assaulted by an Irish Football player. These are but a few cases, in tandem with rape culture at-large, contributing to my thinking some impropriety by the Tallahassee Police Department (without Winston’s knowledge) may have been possible. Conversely, it’s worth noting other cases have recently shown the ways in which shaming and victim-blaming germane to rape culture can negatively affect the men it so often protects (i.e., trials leading to acquittals and others to wrongful convictions). With regard to the latter, it could be also possible these components of rape-culture are contributing to both the suggested coercion by police and the reluctance by the alleged-victim in moving forward with an investigation.
Lastly, the exceptionalism of the prized athlete, particularly in the case of a Jesus incarnate at quarterback, further advances the narrative and belief of not just a presumed innocence, but imminent one. Accompanying noteworthy athletic ability, the intangibles of “character” guys considered to be good leaders, men of faith, and strong moral direction shape how we view certain types of athletes. Imagine similar athletes, across sport, whom, if investigated for sexual assault, we would want to give the benefit of the doubt. Names like Tim Tebow, Derek Jeter, and (as I date myself) the Admiral, David Robinson, come to mind of those whom, almost without question, would be given the benefit of the doubt for crimes alleged against them. Each one stands out in their respective sports. Such athletes garner the public’s empathy and respect based on characteristics beyond their ability to run, shoot, hit, and throw. These types of exceptions, lead us to say things like, “How could such a good kid with so much talent possibly do something like this?” “He could have any girl he wanted, he doesn’t need to rape anyone.” “He’s a leader, on and off the field; he didn’t do it.” This level of exceptionalism in the public imagination obscures the pain and suffering of those whom may have been affected by whatever alleged crimes may have been committed. This is continuously evident in the case defending Winston, one unfair to the alleged-victim who has been shamed and blamed in the press as much as in water cooler-conversation.
My point here is, in this case, many of the conversations have failed not only the complainant, but the many survivors of and the departed resulting from sexual violence at-large. We have given almost all the benefit of the doubt to the person we refuse to believe is capable of sexual assault. But, what about the alleged-victim? Does she not deserve her story to be equally validated until such time as details of the case can be properly investigated? Considering most of us believe in an impartial justice system, which assumes innocence until guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt, it is sobering to think our own humanity – not bound by legality – can be extremely biased. This bias results from all of the aforementioned contributors to how we have engaged the emerging reports involving a young man of exceptional promise in the game, America’s game, we all love so dear. While no public determination of truth, at this time, can be made about exactly what happened, it is my hope we can reconsider our biases, beliefs, and the ways in which we talk about sexual assault. Having had them brought to light, here, let us be more skeptical than convinced, critical than complimentary, and bent toward justice as a concept under which we all can be given equal protection and validation of our stories.