Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Colleges

Winston investigation impacts FSU season

In the grand scheme, it is not the most important question. Not when you think about the ugliness of the allegation, not when you think about the suffering of a young woman, not when you think about the scrutiny of a young man who is innocent until proven guilty.

There are bigger questions at hand, such as the role of the police in this botched investigation, and the importance of the DNA evidence, and the impact of celebrity on a case.

There is a lot to be answered about what happened on the morning of Dec. 7, 2012.

Eventually, however, you get to the questions that a great many Florida State fans care very much about: Could the accusations of sexual assault against Jameis Winston cost the Seminoles a national championship?

And should that matter?

Do not fool yourself. To a lot of FSU fans, even the high-minded ones who wish to see justice done no matter how painful it may be, that matters the way oxygen matters.

After all, this is the Magical Season, and all along, Winston has been the leader. This has been a year beyond FSU fans' wildest expectations, and from here you don't have to connect many dots to see FSU dancing in the confetti at its end.

Here's the thing, however. If Winston is charged and the charge is a felony, the redshirt freshman quarterback is very likely done. It wouldn't matter what the courts would eventually rule. It wouldn't matter how long you screamed "Due process." FSU's rules say simply that an athlete charged with a felony cannot compete. Case closed, as they say.

On Thursday there was chatter about language in the athletic department's code of conduct that would allow an athlete charged with a felony to compete under "extraordinary circumstances," the Orlando Sentinel reported, but it is difficult to believe FSU would dodge its own policies in such a high-profile case.

Now, couple that with a state attorney who seems a trifle ticked off that his office wasn't informed of this case until a few days ago. Willie Meggs has said he wants this over with quickly, and you don't get the feeling he would postpone charges until after the national title game.

A felony charge against Winston would change everything for FSU. Suddenly, the Seminoles would look a bit more vulnerable against a rival such as Florida. They would look a little less imposing in the ACC title game, probably against Duke.

And what would happen in the polls? No, nothing in the BCS formula accounts for a missing quarterback, whether it is because of injury or suspension. (Remember the 1999 Fiesta Bowl, when FSU played for the title with Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke out with a neck injury?)

On the other hand, there is a human component to the polls, too. Who knows how the voters — who produce two-thirds of the BCS formula — would react? Might they think that without Winston, FSU wouldn't be the same team? Might they think that Ohio State, unbeaten for two years, should slip ahead of FSU?

Consider this: Already Winston, 19, seems to have lost his momentum in the Heisman Trophy race. Almost one-third of the respondents to an ESPN poll said they wouldn't vote for him because of this scandal. Could that affect his team as well? Of course it could.

Sometimes justice is a balancing act. In this case, there is getting justice for the complainant, and there is getting justice for Winston, and it is up to Meggs and his staff to maneuver between two potential errors in reaching a resolution. One is for Meggs to drag his feet. The other is for him to be overzealous. When it comes to swift justice versus a rush to judgment, Meggs needs to get this right.

If he believes Winston is likely to be proven not guilty in court, should he weigh the impact of an arrest? And if he believes the evidence warrants charges, should he move more decisively?

It became trickier this week when it was revealed that test results showed Winston's DNA matched that from the accuser's underwear. No, that doesn't prove sexual assault; Tim Jansen, Winston's attorney, said the sex was consensual. Still, it begs more questions.

This one, for instance: Why did it take 11 months for police to compare Winston's DNA to the evidence collected in December?

Oh, for crying out loud. At FSU, the football team has always felt the Tallahassee Police Department picks on it, but how many ways can a police department botch an investigation? It now seems that not only wasn't Winston questioned, but neither was his roommate, who the accuser says was a witness.

The complainant says she was warned off by the police because of the importance of football in Tallahassee. The police say they did not pursue a case because she chose not to cooperate.

Put it this way: If you are comparing the Tallahassee police to a football program, it would be Idaho's.

You wonder: Was all this just coincidental bumbling by the Barney Fifes of the police? Or was it an effort to protect a star quarterback that backfired?

There are a thousand other questions, and frankly, they seem to be driving a lot of FSU fans crazy. Today there are those who have never met Winston who are willing to vouch for his character. There are those who blame the police, who blame the accuser, who blame the media for all the pesky headlines that are interrupting their chopping.

Much of this is frustration about the timing of the allegations. Much of this is the mind-set of a fan who fears all the success could be snatched away at any moment. It's an emotional time. I get that.

On the other hand, sexual assault is a serious charge. In recent years, it is a charge that has hit the programs of Vanderbilt, UConn, Navy, Northern Iowa, Illinois, Temple, Notre Dame and several others.

And when the quarterback is accused, it's bigger news. Of course the state attorney is going to have questions.

Everyone else, too.

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