Advertisement
  1. The Education Gradebook

In the post-Jameis Winston era, what is FSU telling its athletes about rape?

Quarterback Jameis Winston joins his teammates in the 2014 ACC championship. The charge against him was a cloud over football.
Quarterback Jameis Winston joins his teammates in the 2014 ACC championship. The charge against him was a cloud over football.
Published Apr. 4, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — Last school year, as it's well known, the quarterback of Florida State University's football team was investigated after a classmate accused him of rape. A defensive end was accused of filming the act; a cornerback, of looking on.

So when the university announced in February the launch of a new, mandatory leadership course for freshmen athletes, promising to help them "make the most of their college years and grow into well-rounded adults," it was not surprising that one of the first courses would discuss sexual assault.

"We're shaping leaders and building lifelong ambassadors for Florida State University," said Ashton Henderson, student development coordinator and senior academic adviser for Student-Athlete Academic Services, who leads the course and helped design it.

But it's unclear what exactly Florida State is telling its student athletes about rape.

The university refused to let a reporter attend the hourlong class, or any of the 11 classes held on Tuesday evenings in a building off the football field.

A public records request filed with FSU turned up no hand-outs, PowerPoints or other materials concerning sexual assault used to teach the lesson.

The school did, however, disclose that the guest instructor for the assault class was David Perry, the chief of police for FSU.

Perry's role in handling the Jameis Winston case has been questioned, and some are asking why law enforcement was leading the discussion on rape, rather than a survivor or victim's advocate.

Perry said it was "inappropriate" to ask about his credentials to teach the course, which also dealt with drug and alcohol use.

"The FSU police authority is responsible for investigating complaints about sexual assault, so it's only natural we'd be asked to talk about those crimes and others involving our students," Perry said.

Jessica Luther, an FSU alumna and author of Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape, said she had serious concerns that the police chief was the person chosen to address sexual assault with athletes.

"I worry that what they're going to learn is to call a lawyer when something bad happens, instead of changing the culture in which this stuff happens."

• • •

After two brilliant seasons, FSU's 2015 campaign kicked off on strange footing.

The previous two years had seen "FSU football" become synonymous with the rape case involving Winston, the star quarterback who became the youngest player in history to win the Heisman Trophy.

When the local prosecutor, William Meggs, announced in December 2013 that he would not charge Winston in the case, Meggs pointed to a flawed police investigation led by the Tallahassee Police Department that provided insufficient evidence.

An April New York Times investigation concluded that neither Tallahassee police nor the university conducted a real investigation.

A cloud hovered over Florida State as Winston led the team to two undefeated regular seasons, the 2013 national championship and an appearance in the national semifinal game the following year.

Last summer, as Winston practiced with his new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, two FSU football players were tried for misdemeanor battery, both accused of punching women in and near nightclubs. Star running back Dalvin Cook was found not guilty; quarterback De'Andre Johnson was dismissed from the team after video evidence surfaced.

It was in preseason that FSU athletic officials first mentioned that a new course was coming to the university. It would aim to teach incoming student athletes about appropriate off-field behavior, as well as life skills like managing their finances and avoiding alcohol and drugs.

The university officially launched the Seminole Leadership Program in February, describing it as a mandatory, not-for-credit weekly class exclusive to freshmen athletes.

Citing student privacy laws, university officials would not identify which students were in the class but said they were men and women from a mix of sports.

"This program will help ensure that our student-athletes are maximizing their full potential by empowering them to be productive and self-sufficient," FSU president John Thrasher said in the news release.

Henderson was hired away from Clemson University, where he held an associate director position with its football team, to be the head instructor of the new course. He had played ball for Michigan State University before a serious injury sidelined him his senior year. In 2014, he co-authored Beyond the Gridiron: How to Successfully Transition Into Collegiate Football.

In an interview, Henderson denied that the new course was created because of the offseason events. He described the selection of Perry as a guest professor as "a no-brainer."

"I just think, in terms of what we do, it's more about utilizing your resources," Henderson said. "Chief Perry is a very valued member of our team. He's someone who's very well-respected in this industry."

Perry has been the police chief at Florida State since 2006 when, like Henderson, he was hired away from Clemson. He also is the assistant vice president for public safety at FSU.

In February, the Tampa Bay Times published the full transcript of the deposition of Melissa Ashton, the director of FSU's victim advocate program at the time. She was deposed in June 2015 for a Title IX lawsuit against the university board of trustees brought by Erica Kinsman, the woman who accused Winston of rape.

She said under oath that Perry called the dean of students' office angrily after learning that Winston was being investigated by the school in a code of conduct complaint.

He was upset, she said, that Kinsman was told another student had accused Winston of assault, information that led Kinsman to move forward with her complaint.

After Perry contacted the dean, the school stopped pursuing the case against Winston, and on Nov. 12, 2013, the dean emailed Perry to let him know.

The next day, Nov. 13, Perry joked in an email about designing a new university police badge: "Cool — I really want to work on a National Championship Police Badge!!"

Perry also participated in meetings where the school formed a public relations strategy after news of the investigation against Winston broke, according to emails obtained through a public records request.

People familiar with the Winston case, and those who have researched the culture of sexual assault in athletics programs, said they found Perry an odd choice to be the voice on sexual assault for Florida State's freshmen athletes.

"What they're doing is not so much a character-building exercise as trying to scare them," said Diane Roberts, an FSU English professor whose 2015 book, Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America, devotes chapters to the Winston case.

Roberts said she was glad that FSU was reaching out to its athletes about sexual assault but had little faith in the role the police played in the Winston case.

"The cops bungled, it and the university colluded in — not hiding things, but certainly slow-walking, down-playing," she said.

Luther, the author and alumna, said she would have liked to see someone outside of the university speak to athletes, who she called FSU's "biggest financial assets."

"If we're going to actually ever make change, it has to come from the top," Luther said. Referring to Perry, she added: "He's already part of the culture that we can say is a problem."

Kirby Dick spent two years directing the The Hunting Ground, the documentary in which Kinsman spoke publicly for the first and only time.

He said he spoke to about six FSU students who had been sexually assaulted and found that the most impactful lessons are taught by survivors.

"When colleges devote real energy, get people who are really trained to talk about this, those are the campuses where the instances of sex assault will go down," Dick said.

Perry is not the only speaker who has been asked to address sexual assault with FSU athletes this school year. In August, during the preseason, professional speaker Adam Ritz was brought in to address the team during an informal speaker series.

Ritz is something of a controversial figure. His website hosts glowing testimonials from officials at universities where he's presented. But he's also a convicted sexual offender, who in 2004 pleaded guilty to sexual battery for assaulting his children's babysitter.

Ritz, a former disc jockey, uses his story in his presentation. Some audiences have found it to be an effective teaching tool; others, disturbing.

"His only credential for speaking to athletes was the fact that he had sexually assaulted his babysitter," said Carol Stabile, head of the women's and gender studies department at the University of Oregon, where students and faculty protested after learning Ritz was paid $4,000 to speak to its athletes.

"The people who come to talk to student athletes," said Stabile, "are people who are up to their necks in the problem."

After this story first appeared online Friday, an FSU spokesman said that a prevention specialist and the school's Title IX director, Jennifer Broomfield, addressed athletes on assault in October. Although he described the session as mandatory, he acknowledged that many did not attend. The university held a second session in the spring with sexual violence prevention coordinator Korey Pruitt.

Grace Frances, director of certification and special projects for the Tallahassee-based Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, said she's heartened by broader prevention efforts the university is undertaking for all students.

"We've been working with Florida State and they have been working to make it a better environment for sexual assault survivors," Frances said.

While unsure about whether Perry should address athletes on the topic, Frances said law enforcement in general could be an effective voice against assault.

"The thing that is the most important is what the message is and what they're saying."

• • •

What did David Perry tell Florida State athletes about sexual assault?

Through a spokesman, Henderson denied a reporter's request to attend the Seminole Leadership Program sessions.

The Tampa Bay Times filed a public records request for all course materials on March 2, the day after Perry's class. About four weeks later, Florida State provided handouts and power-points on social media use and financial literacy. There were no materials responsive to the request pertaining to the class on sexual assault, drugs and alcohol.

In an interview a week after teaching, Perry said he spoke off-the-cuff for about 45 minutes and did not use any notes or give students any handouts or worksheets.

"It was great," Perry said of the class. "I had a great time, and I think the students had as good of a time as I did."

Perry said his message to students was that "they have a responsibility."

"Don't get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time because someone is making the choice to grope someone inappropriately, or someone is not able to give consent because they have had too much to drink," Perry said. "Don't put yourself in a situation that could impact yourself and your future."

Perry said they touched on "a male's responsibility to understand where the relationship is, and that the woman has the right to say 'no.' If the woman says, 'No, I don't want things to go any further,' they have to respect that. And that alcohol is not an excuse. And an inability for a woman's consent. . . . They didn't all know that."

Perry described his class as interactive. He at one point moved desks around to form a car and told athletes not to accept rides from people they did not know well, in case those people kept drugs in the car and got pulled over.

"The same scenario played out with a boyfriend and girlfriend gone bad," Perry said. He said he advised the athletes to be careful not to leave bruises on a woman, lest they be charged with assault.

"Say a 6-foot-5 athlete is now being hit by his girlfriend, or ex-girlfriend, who's crazy and who's harassing him, and she won't stop. What would you do?" Perry said he posed to the room.

"I'd probably grab her and hold her," one of the athletes responded.

"I told him, 'You're a big guy. If you hold her and you have to use force, you're likely to what?' He said, 'You're right, I'd likely leave marks and bruises.'"

Perry became angry this week when asked about his credentials to teach the class. He was furious at the mention of Winston.

Roberts, the professor, said she wished FSU would be as open and transparent as possible about the messages they send their athletes about sexual assault. She said, "We can't go through Jameis Winston again.

"That was very traumatic for everybody, and this is leaving out the woman who said Jameis Winston raped her. We can't know what happened, because the cops bungled it. . . . And because of the cops, there's a young person who will never get justice, and I don't know if it's him or her."

Times staff writer Matt Baker contributed to this report. Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com. Follow @lisagartner.