TALLAHASSEE — Fans of the football team here at Florida State University last week called the woman who says the star quarterback raped her a liar and a whore.
They used these words and worse in anonymous posts in ugly Internet caves. The vitriol festered as the state attorney continued to weigh whether to charge Jameis Winston, the Heisman Trophy front-runner and the leader of a team that has a perfect record and a chance to play for its first national championship since 1999, with felony sexual assault.
The alleged attack happened in December. It didn't become public until this month when a reporter from the Tampa Bay Times received a tip and requested records from the Tallahassee police. Winston's attorney says the sex was consensual. The accuser's attorney insists it was rape. If Winston is charged, according to FSU policy, he would be suspended at once.
For some of the most zealous followers, that possibility is so odious that they went online, on Twitter and on message boards, and said the accuser was wanton and money-hungry. That they would make her life hell. That they hope she pays. Gets in a car accident. Gets AIDS.
How could people say such things?
On Saturday, the sun burned through fog. Game day in Florida's Deep South strip. Scheduled to start for the Seminoles was Winston, 6-foot-4, 227 pounds, 19 years old, No. 5 on the roster, "Famous Jameis" around town.
• • •
Adam Weinstein sat down at a bagel shop just north of the state capitol. A few days earlier, for the sports website Deadspin, the Ph.D. candidate in creative nonfiction had written that the "football culture" around the city and the school had "grown malignant." The article was published with a photograph of two women in the stadium holding a sign saying IN JAMEIS CHRIST WE PRAY.
Weinstein mentioned a prescient piece in ESPN The Magazine that was published before the reporting of the allegations. It was written by an FSU English professor. "All the guys in the local media seem to have developed man crushes on Jameis, gushing but apologizing as they go."
Weinstein also mentioned something the editor of the local paper had written. On his blog, Bob Gabordi of the Tallahassee Democrat said:
"It was a story all of us wished would just go away."
"My reaction was the same as all of you: It can't be real. He's an easy target. Why is this happening now, in the midst of a dream season … ?"
He said he hoped "that he is cleared quickly and decisively."
He closed by saying he would "save a few thoughts and prayers for the well-being of this young woman." He encouraged others to do the same.
A man at a nearby table heard Weinstein talking and approached. He believed Winston would be exonerated, he said, because this was some kind of get-back scheme due to Winston spurning the woman in favor of his girlfriend. He had seen something about it on the Internet. The man got his coffee and bagel and left.
"Jesus on Sundays," Weinstein said of Tallahassee, "and Jameis on Saturdays."
• • •
On College Avenue, standing in front of fraternities three hours before kickoff, male students, black and white, were unified in their support, innocent until proven guilty, they said, albeit unwilling to attach their names to their thoughts.
A block over on Jefferson Street, milling by sororities, female students wore skirts, knee-high or ankle-length, Saran Wrap snug and slit down the sides, their belly buttons like peeking beacons. Those who talked at all said they're suspicious of the accuser's motives. Why didn't she make it public right away? Her sorority sisters shut their mouths and crossed their arms when they spotted a man with a pen and a pad.
Closer to the stadium, a group of men and women lounged in a parking lot tailgating. They had taped to their white tent two black-letter signs. WE SUPPORT. FAMOUS JAMEIS.
"We think he's innocent," said Kirk Williams, from Jacksonville, who said he's had Seminoles season tickets for 28 years.
"I heard she got mad because his real girlfriend was flying in that night," said Dina Ingram, his friend, echoing the man from the bagel shop.
"I think Florida's behind it," Williams said, referring to the rival Gators from the University of Florida. "It's either that or Alabama" — FSU's probable opponent in the national championship game.
"He's in the spotlight, and she's not getting any of it," said Williams' 21-year-old son, Jared, whose middle name is Nole, and who proved it by displaying his driver's license.
At the bottom of Jefferson, the imposing, brick, 82,300-seat Gothic Revival cathedral of a stadium coming into view, gold and garnet flags flapped from the sides of SUVs with bumper stickers touting the championships of Florida State and the saving grace of Jesus Christ. A heavy black man walked by in a garnet No. 5 jersey. A thin white man walked by in a garnet No. 5 jersey. A little boy walked by in a garnet No. 5 jersey. A little girl walked by in a garnet No. 5 jersey. A message flashed yellow on the big digital board outside the souvenir store: NEW #5 JERSEY!
"I'm a mother, I'm a woman," said Sally Hawthorne, a high school English teacher from Thomasville, Ga., who's cheered for FSU for more than 30 years, "and I definitely support Jameis.
"I just can't see this kid risking what he could have potential for," she said. "Nothing in Jameis' character, past or present, suggests he's that kind of guy.
"Two and two ain't coming up to four," Hawthorne concluded.
• • •
Once the game began, inside the stadium, fans showered Winston with stirring applause. Up the hill, in her house, English professor Diane Roberts watched on her TV.
In September, she published a piece in Oxford American, the Southern culture magazine, in which she grappled with her conflicted feelings about football.
"The game is indefensible," she wrote.
"And yet there is such joy in seeing your tribe, your people, your team win. You are validated ... You have a home. Yes, it's retrograde, ... this world in which we are right and they are wrong. And yet a good hit is so ... gorgeous."
Her family has lived here for more than 200 years. Her parents went to games on Saturdays dressed the same way they dressed for church on Sundays. She's been going since she was 9.
"I should know better," she said. "But here I sit."
On the TV, on their way to a domineering win and a school-record 80 points against their defenseless opponents from the University of Idaho, the Seminoles just kept scoring, and scoring and scoring.
"This is unseemly," Roberts said.
• • •
Outside, it was dark, windy and getting colder.
Along College Avenue, the sidewalks were strewn with plastic cups and crushed cans and emptied cases of cut-rate beer.
In crowded bars, floors were sticky and wet, and on banks of TVs was more football, more games. The announcers and analysts could be heard saying that the Associated Press was reporting that the state attorney probably wouldn't make a decision about Winston this week, so he would be able to play against Florida on Saturday. They spoke about how well he had played in spite of the "distraction."
Down by the stadium, where the bright lights still blazed in the night, trash bags sat in piles on the fields where all the tailgaters had been, black trash bags, white trash bags, all tied up, as workers worked to clean the mess.
Michael Kruse can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.