Warning: This post deals with rape and racism. It is not a pleasant column. The opening paragraph has been changed after feedback.
Earlier today, The Undefeated posted an article on Jameis Winston’s maturation, which was mostly a puff piece. I framed it as Winston maturing into a "real face of the franchise", but the problem, as has been pointed out by Gene Demby, is that the maturation angle only works when you talk about what he's maturing from -- and to elide the details of the rape accusation, the fact that the police botched the initial investigation, the ongoing civil suit and the many remaining questions is indefensible.
Effectively, the piece treats the rape accusation against Jameis Winston as just an aside. Sports media in general has done a terrible job of doing that accusation justice, and has routinely screwed up the care with which it has to be treated. It is certainly a significant part of why many people dislike Winston, and we can’t just brush that aside as part of his maturation process, as that piece did. Much of the rhetoric surrounding the rape accusation, especially among longtime and hardcore fans of Winston, comes out of and contributes to the many harmful myths surrounding sexual assault, even when it doesn’t mean to.
At the same time, Winston has faced a lot of criticism that is fueled by racism. Bucs receiver Louis Murphy, who was quoted extensively in the piece, delivered one outstanding quote that got cut from Alex Kennedy’s piece, a quote the journalist posted in full on Twitter. It's a doozy: Murphy’s fed up with the racist double standard of many people in sports media, comparing the treatment Winston received with the treatment of Johnny Manziel. I think he, too, brushes the rape accusation aside much too quickly, but he certainly has a point. Kennedy posted the quote in a Tweet that has since been deleted.
"That’s just how the media plays it; you would think Johnny Manziel is this freaking great kid, but he’s fucking terrible," Murphy said. "Jameis didn’t do half of the shit that [Johnny[ has done. And I’m sorry, excuse my language, but I'm just passionate about it. It really frustrates me to see the media try to make a guy out to be a bad person, just because of the color of his skin. That’s not right. If you're a different color, it’s like, ‘Oh, it's not a big deal.’ But if you’re a black kid who makes a mistake or gets falsely accused, they’re going to make it seem like the kid is terrible. This dude didn’t do nothing wrong. He was a 19-year-old kid in college who made some of the same little mistakes that everybody else made. But because the color of his skin, he gets labeled a bad person and that stigma rides with him. Meanwhile, Johnny Manziel beat a woman, [did] drugs and was in and out of rehab, and you barely hear about it. It's a story for a day and then it’s gone. I’m tired of that."
When asked if being a black quarterback in today’s NFL still has unique challenges, Murphy doesn’t hesitate to respond.
"Oh, for sure," Murphy said. "Racism is still prevalent today. I don’t want to get into it too much, but yeah, he deals with stuff [in rival stadiums]. Everybody deals with stuff. Racism is still alive. It's real. I get asked all the time,' ‘How is he really?' I’m always like, ‘Come on, man. Why are you asking me these questions? He's a great kid.’ He’s made some mistakes, but he without sin can cast the first stone."
I don’t think Manziel is necessarily the best comparison here, as he's certainly been scrutinized, albeit to a large extent from the angle of redemption. I’d go with Brett Favre, who sexually harassed a co-worker, or Ben Roethlisberger, who has been allowed to continue his NFL career without much of a mention of the two rape accusations he's faced. And truthfully, within NFL media, Winston really hasn't faced much scrutiny over that rape accusation. Most of the analysts before and after the draft brushed it aside as something they couldn’t evaluate, something that wasn’t relevant to his play on the field, or they examined it only from the perspective of the impact it would have on his draft stock. That’s similar to what we saw with Roethlisberger and Favre, though those two white quarterbacks never had to face the kind of racist vitriol from the (internet) public that Winston does have to deal with.
Winston’s case is complicated by the fact that there were several, ultimately minor, incidents in addition to that rape accusation. Much of the double standard can be seen in how those incidents were treated, versus the supposedly minor incidents in Manziel’s history. Many NFL players have some silly off-field behavior in their past, but it's rarely as big a deal as it was for Jameis Winston. That racist double standard also came up when talking about Winston on the field, when anonymous scouts compared him to infamous bust Jamarcus Russell. Looking at social media reactions and some folks I have had to ban from this very site for the comments they'd leave, racism is absolutely a factor in the way people view Winston. But then, so is rape culture -- the perpetuation and regurgitation of many myths surrounding rape and sexual assault, that minimize the impact, characteristics and prevalence of sexual assault.
One way NFL media contribute to this problem is by conflating Winston's relatively minor incidents, like walking out of a store with some crab legs on what was likely an arranged hookup, or shooting at some squirrels with a pellet gun, or shouting a misogynistic but commonplace meme in public, with a rape accusation. That approach either minimizes the seriousness of a rape accusation, or elevates what is essentially some typical college kid stuff to the status of serious criminal behavior. Much of the coverage is tone-deaf to the high-profile conversations surrounding sexual assault that are happening in the rest of the media, every day.
There’s also a lack of nuance in how we talk about Winston’s character, as there is with many public figures. There’s a sense that Winston’s involvement in the community and with charity, and his dedication to football, are somehow in conflict with the minor incidents in college, or with the rape accusation. But Winston was involved in the community while at Florida State, too, and he was reportedly the hardest worker on the team at the time, as well. It is perfectly feasible for a person to be commonly perceived as a good person, to contribute heavily to his community and to charity, and still commit some horrifying acts. That is not to say that Winston is that person, but the common, binary approach of good person-bad person doesn’t do any of this justice.
All we can definitely say about Jameis Winston is that he hasn’t had any new incidents since being drafted with the first overall pick, that he’s been active in the community and with charity, and that he looks like a good player on the field. Those are good things, obviously, but we can make an effort to note those facts without downplaying the seriousness of a rape accusation, and without falling into the trap of racist double standards.