Jameis Winston is a great football player. He won the Heisman Trophy last year and is in the running again this year. Before he’s finished, he may be considered one of the greatest college football players ever.
Early this week, reports suggested Winston would be riding the pine this weekend. Florida State officials are concerned that he was paid for autographs by the same sports memorabilia firm that allegedly paid Georgia running back Todd Gurley, who was suspended for last week’s game against Mizzou. The Winston allegations surfaced on Monday. By Tuesday, Florida State’s athletic compliance department had already launched an investigation. By Wednesday, head coach Jimbo Fisher was backing his star, and it appears likely that Winston will play this weekend.
This investigation commenced with blinding speed – in stark contrast to the other “investigation” of Winston at Florida State. In December 2012, Winston was accused of rape. Rather than start an immediate investigation, Florida State and local law enforcement protected their star. Winston was not questioned about the incident until January 2014. When they learned of the allegations, Florida State attorneys helped Winston find a lawyer –then did nothing, despite federal law requiring an internal disciplinary inquiry when sexual assault is alleged.
With ironic timing, Florida State recently announced the university would conduct a hearing where Winston may be charged with violations of the student conduct code for the alleged sexual assault and other acts. On Tuesday, with the autograph investigation already underway, Winston’s lawyer argued that a hearing on the rape allegations at this late date would violate Winston’s rights, under federal law, to a timely hearing.
ESPN reports that a hearing will not take place anytime soon because Winston’s attorney claims he needs several weeks to review evidence in the case. In another irony, Fox News reported last week that Winston’s previous criminal defense lawyer received the police report and other evidence before the state prosecutor responsible for filing criminal charges. By obtaining the evidence early, Winston’s lawyer was able to discuss the case with two witnesses (Winston’s Florida State teammates) and procure affidavits from them before the prosecuting attorney received the file.
So, let’s clarify a time-line only attorneys could love. FSU receives a report of a sexual assault by their star football player in January 2013. Rather than start an investigation, they help their star lawyer-up. Then they do nothing. Eventually the media pays attention, which yields a police report in November 2013. Florida State receives the police report and shares it with Winston’s attorney before the prosecutor sees it. Under pressure, the university starts an overdue investigation. They advise Winston they’ll hold a hearing – and Winston’s attorneys accuse Florida State of unfair treatment because the investigation took so long.
The Jameis Winston saga is a microcosm of much that is wrong with college sports.
It’s a system that makes millions off the backs of young athletes. Supporters of the status quo argue that a scholarship and some admiration is sufficient. The stars go on to make millions in the pros. The rest receive an education – well, maybe. That’s easy for someone to say whose jersey isn’t selling for $100 in the university gift shop. It’s easier for someone to say who doesn’t have to deal with the rigor of practice and games while ostensibly maintaining a full load of classes, so that, even if they wanted to get a job, they couldn’t. And who are we kidding anyway? Big-time college sports are long removed from the Norman Rockwell era. Today’s stars are far more likely to live like Jameis Winston and Johnny Manziel than Roger Staubach or Gale Sayers.
In any other area of the economy, people in the position of college athletes would be paid. In August, a federal judge in California ruled that NCAA rules prohibiting compensation violated federal anti-trust laws. The ruling is stayed until 2016. Still, the Gurley and Winston autograph cases suggests that the NCAA missed the memo –universities can no longer treat athletes like indentured servants.
Paying college athletes will likely improve both college and pro sports, as athletes with marginal prospects may choose to stay in school longer rather than take a long-shot at the pros. In addition, when the prospect of a suspension also includes loss in pay, there is further disincentive for criminal behavior or class absences.
While the NCAA devises a system that complies with the court ruling, the crackdown on the victimless violation of getting paid to sign autographs rages while real crimes slide without investigation. The Winston example is not an isolated incident. The New York Times reports a trend in Tallahassee of police protecting football players from arrests for real crimes –including theft, property damage, and domestic violence.
This is justice turned upside down – penalizing activity that anywhere except the NCAA is considered entrepreneurial while excusing acts that cause real harm. In the Winston example, it’s too late for Florida State to “fix” the problem. Rape accusations require immediate investigation, not two year timeouts. It’s time for Florida State and the NCAA to reset their moral compasses.