The issue of sexual assault on college campuses continues to spark nationwide debate, and one of its most relevant controversies is playing out in the world of college sports.
Florida State University (FSU) quarterback Jameis Winston was accused of rape by a female student in December 2012. After nearly two years, the university has finally called him to a disciplinary hearing. The news broke last week during the midst of the football team’s march toward the NCAA football playoffs.
As the New York Times reported in April, FSU dragged its heels in 2012 and 2013, helping delay the Tallahassee Police Department’s criminal investigation of the incident until after the football season ended. The Times article emphasizes how Winston’s case was far from unique, and how sexual assault cases have been mishandled or even completely disregarded at the university for years. This one high-profile example shows how universities’ systematic mishandling of sexual assault cases and athletic department corruption play out similarly.
When a university athletic program consciously covers up or excuses wrongdoing, it is for the purpose of saving face; preserving its image in order to keep attracting boosters and benefactors. When colleges and universities keep in place rules and regulations that don’t adequately protect their own students with regard to sexual assault issues, it is because they don’t want to make changes that will reveal that they too are complicit. An unwillingness to confront institutional wrongdoing for fear of hurting public image is an observable pattern on campuses around America.
In this case, FSU is culpable with regard to both its athletic department’s failure to report the incident, and more importantly, in actively choosing not to hold Winston accountable until two years after the fact. Florida State considered this issue with an eye toward the health and public perception of its football program and its quarterback. In the process, what was de-emphasized, as often happens in college sexual assault cases, was the immediate mental health and physical safety of the young woman who reported the incident.
This narrative should be reframed to focus not on the future of Winston’s career, but on FSU’s inaction and how it is emblematic of the way American colleges and universities refuse to reckon with the problem at hand, for fear of hurting their own stock.
A high-profile story like Winston’s showcases the process of (hopefully) reforming a school’s policy in real time. However, in the case of FSU, the school has not been nearly quick or decisive enough in its action, and the manner in which the situation in Tallahassee plays out should continue to be scrutinized heavily.