“You will always live in a fishbowl. People will always be watching you and waiting for you to slip up, so you’ve got to live above reproach at all times.” These wise words of my mother, often repeated as I was growing up, have become true in ways she never could have imagined in the 1980s.
The rise of social media and the ubiquity of the camera phone have radically changed the notion of privacy, and celebrities can no longer count on the insulation from the public they once had. Things that once were behind the curtain are now visible to all, and actions that once wouldn’t have even been noticed become front-page news within minutes.
Behavior that was commonplace in the past because nobody would ever have known about it is now out in the open. There is no such thing as privacy, especially for celebrities. And that is what FSU quarterback Jameis Winston is after winning a Heisman Trophy and a national championship as a freshman—a celebrity.
My mom’s warning thus applies better to Winston than it ever has to me—somebody is always watching, waiting for him to make a mistake, all the more since the sexual assault allegations from 2012.
And the truth is that those allegations continue to provide the fuel for all the outrage about each of Winston’s other transgressions. For those who haven’t looked closely at the case—and the fact that even Willie Meggs, who has in no way protected FSU athletes in the past, found insufficient evidence even to charge him—Winston is yet another star athlete who got away with rape while FSU and Tallahassee law enforcement looked the other way.
Winston, on the other hand, has taken the understandable perspective that an innocent man should not have to alter his behavior simply because someone accused him of something. To do otherwise would be to imply that he has done something he is ashamed of. I get that.
But the reality is that any transgression, great or small, is going to be impacted by the cloud of those allegations, all the more if the transgression has anything to do with a woman or women in general.
And that is why Florida State had no choice but to take disciplinary action for Winston’s actions on Tuesday. In isolation, Winston’s loud rehearsal of a stupid Internet meme (which was the result of a fake news video posted to YouTube) on the FSU campus would have gotten a few eye rolls and comments about a lack of maturity but certainly not the level of outrage reflected by national pundits who called for multiple game suspensions and lobbed criticism at FSU and even the local media responsible for covering the Seminoles.
But this stunt was not in isolation. In the wake not only of the rape allegations against Winston but also of the numerous scandals from the NFL (Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, etc.), it would be difficult to pick a worse time for Winston to shout that phrase in a crowd.
The Context Matters
Regardless of whether Winston is guilty of sexual assault, misogyny and violence towards women has long been a problem in athletic culture. “Locker room talk” has long been a euphemism for men reducing women to sex objects and other generally disrespectful talk.
The idea that women are prizes for top athletes is so embedded in our culture that it’s a movie trope people rarely even think about, and elite male athletes are generally expected to embrace a culture of casual sex with adoring female fans—Michael Sam notwithstanding.
Winston already drew some attention for his comments about how quarterbacks “get all the women” this summer at the Manning Passing Academy—again the kind of comment that would draw little attention in isolation.
But again, none of this is in isolation. Even though there was no evidence to suggest Winston is guilty of rape, the details of that encounter as recorded in the file were less than flattering. And the New York Times has reported that a second woman sought counseling after a (consensual) sexual encounter with Winston.
And all of that is in the larger context of athletics—particularly football—having a reputation as a bastion of misogyny where misbehavior is excused as “boys will be boys,” from the Steubenville High School case to Ray Rice’s recent actions.
Because of this larger context, Florida State had a responsibility to send a message here, not only to Winston but to his teammates, other student-athletes, and the larger culture, about how serious the present culture of hostility toward women should be taken.
Yes, I understand that this was just a silly Internet meme and that Winston is far from the only participant. I also understand that this is exactly the kind of stupid thing nearly all of us did when we were in college.
But this is where Winston has to accept that he has reached a point of greater responsibility on such things. As a Heisman winner and the face of Florida State, he holds extra influence and bears extra responsibilities. He knows this—I know he knows this because I (vaguely) remember the media and lifestyle training meetings I went through as a part of the football program at a time when the magnifying glass was much smaller. I still have the little handbook they provided on how to deal with the media. These guys all get constant training on what is and is not acceptable.
Simply because something is commonplace does not mean it is acceptable, either. It was once commonplace to make racist statements as well. Systemic problems are all the more problematic, and I don’t think there’s any doubt that there continues to be a systemic cultural problem with regard to respect for women in many parts of our culture.
(It’s worth recognizing that disrespect for women and regarding women as little more than sex objects continues to be fostered through numerous forms of mainstream entertainment with little objection. This is one of the great contradictions of our culture, and I don’t see any end to that hypocrisy in sight. But that doesn’t mean anyone should simply let the disrespect and hostility win.)
I should clarify here that I am not suggesting that Winston is a misogynist, abuses women, or that what he shouted is inherently abusive towards women or was intended as anything but crude humor. But as an example, as a leader in a context where misogyny and abuse have been and continue to be problems, Winston must be responsible to avoid just such foolishness.
One common complaint I’ve heard from those who believe the suspension is too stiff a punishment for the crime is that it is unfair to hold Winston to a different standard than the average 20-year-old kid.
But the fact is that Winston isn’t the average 20 year old kid. He’s a Heisman Trophy winner and the face of a university. If he were average, he wouldn’t be in that position. The average 20-year-old is not in line to be a multi-millionaire within a year or two. And the truth is, Winston doesn’t want to be average, he wants to be great, which is a big reason he has been such a terrific player.
He’s held to a higher standard because he has held himself to a higher standard. And ultimately that’s what Florida State has tried to do in this case—send the message that he simply can’t be “one of the boys” anymore, that he has to live above reproach at all times if he wants to continue to be great.
Winston the Performer
In my time covering FSU, I’ve gotten to spend some time around Winston, and I don’t believe he’s a bad guy. He actually reminds me of stories Clay Shiver used to tell about Deion Sanders, who was an exceptionally hard worker, a great teammate, and a regular member of the team. But when the media came around, Deion would take on an entirely different persona, putting on a show as the brash, arrogant “Prime Time.”
Sanders would sit in the locker room and say, “Hey, wait till you guys see what I got for ‘em this time,” and the rest of the team would watch and laugh while Sanders hammed it up as Prime Time. And once the cameras went and the media left, he was right back to being normal Deion. It was all a game, an inside joke—and one that the whole team could enjoy.
Winston is very much like Sanders in that respect—he’s a showman who likes to be the center of attention. But he’s able to do it without losing the respect of his teammates because so much of it is a performance, even a performance for their entertainment at times.
And at bottom, I think Winston really wants to be liked. Much like the class clown in primary school, Winston is constantly cutting up because he embraces the approval he gets from his peers for his stunts.
That, as I understand, was very much at root in this latest stunt. Winston didn’t just choose to shout obscenities in a vacuum—he was with a group of guys and turned into a follower rather than a leader. Seeking the approval of the guys he was hanging out with at the moment turned led to a poor decision.
It’s hard to be a leader in part because leaders often have to sacrifice popularity or approval for greatness. That’s been the most difficult thing for Winston to learn. So far he hasn’t gotten it, but he has the aptitude and capacity to get there.
And that is yet another reason why Florida State had no choice but to make the decision they did. As Jimbo Fisher and Nick Saban say so often, “Discipline is about changing behavior.” So far, Winston has not fully responded to the extra responsibilities that come with his position, which means the next disciplinary step needed to be taken—all the more because he is a leader on the football team and is therefore held to a higher standard than the average player. It’s important to the continued discipline of the team that Winston face consequences for yet another bad decision—even if it was relatively benign stupidity.
That’s not to say Winston has not been adequately punished before, as some in the national media have suggested while characterizing the FSU administration and coaching staff as “enablers.” What past actions would have gotten him suspended for football?
He was never charged with sexual assault, and you can’t suspend a player for an accusation—not justly, anyway. The Burger King and BB gun escapades were immature and stupid, but neither was serious enough for a suspension—plus he was redshirting that year. He was suspended from baseball for the shoplifting incident in the spring, and it makes little sense to put him in double jeopardy for that and force him to sit out for both sports.
This was, hard as it may be for the national media or outsiders to believe, the first thing that was even remotely suspension-worthy for football, and it was that because of where it fit in the larger trend.
There is some truth, however, to the idea that FSU was in a no-win situation here. I think any suggestion that this specific at was worth a full game (or more) suspension would have been overboard. And if FSU should lose the game, the fans blame the administration for benching their star player in such an important game, effectively making him a martyr.
But by suspending him for a half, he’s potentially put in the position of being the hero by leading a second half comeback. Or, alternately, if FSU leads at the half and goes on to win, nothing was really lost.
In the end, however, I do think FSU made the right call here and got the punishment essentially right. It may be a half-measure for a miniature bout of stupidity, but having to stand on the sideline for a half—especially in a game like this—would hopefully be enough to get Winston’s attention. It also serves to demonstrate just how important it is to change a culture in which women are seen as nothing more than sex objects or prizes to be won.