Jameis Winston, and the Overlapping of Football Culture and Rape Culture

Florida State University star quarterback Jameis Winston was recently accused of raping a fellow student. Football culture clouds our ability to see him as anything other than a famous kid with amazing athletic skills, while rape culture demands that we mistrust the victim, question her credibility, and try to poke holes in her story.

Florida State University star quarterback Jameis Winston was recently accused of raping a fellow student. Shutterstock

Read Jessica Luther’s follow-up piece about the Jameis Winston case here.

Earlier this month, only a few days apart, the Tampa Bay Times and TMZ made public-records requests to the Tallahassee, Florida, police department. Both were looking for a police report filed nearly a year ago by a Florida State University (FSU) student who accused Jameis Winston—FSU’s star quarterback and the front-runner for college football’s top honor, the Heisman Trophy—of rape.

After TMZ broke the story, coverage quickly began focusing on the site’s credibility and a possible police cover-up, accompanied by every version of victim-blaming imaginable. Following positive DNA test results from the woman’s rape kit, which definitively linked Winston to her that night, the media boiled the case down to a typical he-said, she-said debate. Winston, through his attorney, now claims it was consensual sex. The victim’s family, in response, released a statement saying, “To be clear, the victim did not consent. This was a rape.”

FSU has more than 40,000 students in a city of less than 187,000. I attended the school from 1998 to 2002, and saw Tallahassee flooded during home football games; restaurant wait times were astronomical, and traffic was horrendous. It is not an exaggeration to say that on those weekends, football was life in that city.

This season, after a long drought of disappointing showings, FSU’s team has finally returned to the top of college football. Many credit Winston’s play and leadership as pivotal to the team’s current #2 ranking in the polls. As Stassa Edwards recently wrote on the Ms. Blog, Winston is seen as “more than a football player” in Tallahassee— “[h]e’s a hero or a saint.” Not only do the hopes and dreams of millions of fans rest on his throwing arm, quick legs, and ability to read a defense, but the economy of the city and the university do as well.

A single weekend when both FSU and its opponent are ranked in the top five, over $10 million flows into the city. (That number dips when the games are not as high-stakes.) In 2011, the football team alone generated $34 million in revenue, a significant portion of the $78 million that the entire athletic program brought in that year. When large athletic programs do well, applications increase and more students from out-of-state attend and pay higher tuition. Alabama is a great example of this. College football is big business.

It is no wonder that this particular case of a football player accused of rape has made headlines, monopolized large portions of SportsCenter’s coverage, and become yet another public referendum on the veracity of rape victims. (Spoiler alert: a lot of people assume the woman in this case is lying.)

It’s also very tempting to see this case as an isolated incident, so as not to have to question if there is a connection between the most popular and lucrative sport in this country and the rape culture that permeates so much of our lives. But as history has shown us, we know that not to be the case. Earlier this year, at the end of of the rape trial involving two Steubenville High School football players, Dave Zirin at The Nation wrote about why its important to interrogate where jock culture and rape culture overlap:

I am not asking if playing sports propels young men to rape. I am asking if the central features of men’s sports—hero worship, entitlement, and machismo—make incidents like Steubenville more likely to be replicated.

And they are replicated. Winston’s case isn’t even in isolation at FSU. In addition to Stassa Edwards, Adam Weinstein and Marci Robin have written pieces recently drawing attention to how football culture and rape culture both operate within Tallahassee and on FSU’s campus. On top of that, less than six months ago, in June 2013, FSU wide receiver Greg Dent was suspended indefinitely from the team after he was charged with second-degree sexual assault. In the coverage of the case against Winston, there is almost no mention of Dent.

In 2013 alone, there have been cases reported at Ohio State, Arizona State, Vanderbilt University, McGill University (which is, admittedly, north of the border in Canada), and the University of California, Los Angeles; the latter two happened just this month. The Vanderbilt case, which involved five football players, is ongoing and has been for months, with very little media coverage outside of Nashville, despite how horrific the crime was, how poorly the prosecution seems to be handling the case, and how high-profile the school is.

Last year, in 2012, there were allegations against players at the University of Texas, Appalachian State University, and the U.S. Naval Academy. The Naval Academy trial is still ongoing. The U.S. military is dealing with issues of sexual assault across all of its branches, which has been major news recently due to federal legislation being debated in Congress. But the Naval Academy case from 2012 is very similar to a rape that occurred at the same school in 2001, the earlier one ending not in a trial but simply a dismissal of the accused from the academy. And the Appalachian State case is similar to one from 1997 at that school.

I can keep going: Miami and Connecticut in 2011; Notre Dame and Montana (coach and athletic director may have been involved in the cover-up) in 2010; Michigan in 2009; Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2005; Brigham Young University, Arizona State (the school knew the rapist was a threat and did little to protect his victim), and Kansas State in 2004; Notre Dame in 2002 (one player pleaded guilty, transferred schools, played at Kent State, and then went into the NFL); and the University of Washington in 2001. Colorado football players were accused of raping women in 1997, 1999, and 2001.

On the high school level, Steubenville has drawn attention to other cases, including one in Torrington, Connecticut, and, more famously, one in Maryville, Missouri, where the rape victim’s house was burned down in a likely act of intimidation by members of the community.

Sexual assault and violence against women are issues at the highest level of football: the National Football League. According to Forbes, the NFL is “the most lucrative [league] in the world,” with an annual revenue of $9 billion—it’s the ultimate money-maker. A 2011 Rewire article noted multiple rape cases involving NFL players, including one of the most well-known—that of alleged serial assaulter Ben Roethlisberger.

There is a reason I can rattle off these cases: The culture around (and therefore, the economy of) football today is dependent on a society that minimizes and/or ignores rape. College programs, in order to lure top players—who they are not allowed to pay—to their schools, stroke the players’ egos and present the fantasy that beautiful women will be their reward for living on their campus. Dave Zirin points out that the fact that players are “treated like gods by the adults who are supposed to be mentoring them” is a critical factor leading some men to expect others to simply do what they want. Yet, at the same time that they are being held up as gods by some, others see these players only as potential dollar signs. For those in charge of teams, departments, and leagues, football is all about using up bodies in such a way that they profit from them. The stripping away of the humanity of a potential rape victim by a rapist is similar in many ways—though not directly parallel—to the dehumanization that takes places when university administrators, team owners, and league commissioners commodify the bodies of these players.

I can imagine a football culture that does not work this way. It would involve including a lot more women in all kinds of roles within teams, university athletic departments, and league administrations. It would include mandatory annual rape prevention training focused on teaching consent and empathy for the victim. (That we don’t teach these things already was a takeaway from the Steubenville trial.) It would ban the use of college women in recruitment, and it would treat women as regular fans of football.

In the end, whether or not Jameis Winston is guilty, we know he is deeply invested in a football culture that is incredibly problematic, especially where it intersects with rape culture. Football culture clouds our ability to see him as anything other than a famous kid with a nice-guy persona and amazing athletic skills. Rape culture demands that we mistrust the victim, question her credibility, and try to poke holes in her story. It creates this familiar narrative in which people who have invested their own hopes and dreams in Winston claim his innocence immediately and refuse to hear anything else.

No matter what happens in the Winston case, I do know this: Money will continue to flow, and games will be won. Football will march on and over whatever bodies it must. And many will cheer it on as it does.