Once again, something other than football enters the Heisman Trophy debate.
On the surface, there is a clear-cut favorite when ballots for college football’s best player are due Monday. There is not one viable football-related reason not to vote for Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston – who has been about as perfect as a freshman can be since Day 1 of the 2013 season.
Of course, there is that year-old rape allegation that clouds the picture.
On Thursday, Florida’s state attorney Willie Meggs announced – during an uncomfortably upbeat press conference – that no charges would be filed against Winston stemming from an accusation made on Dec. 7, 2012, by another FSU student that he raped her after she had been drinking with friends at a local bar in Tallahassee, Fla. Meggs said that conflicting evidence and testimony from the accused would give the prosecution no “reasonable likelihood of conviction.” He said the investigation didn’t even reveal probable cause to arrest Winston, much less charge him with felony rape.
“The case is closed,” Meggs concluded.
This decision – conveniently issued two days before the top-ranked and undefeated Seminoles play Duke in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game and four days before the Heisman ballots are due – elicited some very inappropriate elation in and around the Tallahassee courthouse in which it was delivered.
Six jean-short wearing fans ran around shirtless with “J-A-M-E-I-S” painted on their chests doing the tomahawk chop. Winston’s overly exuberant defense attorney tossed out the word “exonerated” even though investigators never said any such thing. The FSU quarterback was about as “exonerated” as Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was after a rape accusation in Milledgeville, Ga., ended up going nowhere.
Winston may never regain the public adulation (outside the Florida panhandle) that was growing up until a month ago before the oddly dormant rape allegation first surfaced. That he never agreed to even speak with investigators does nothing to enhance his lawyer’s insistence that “he did nothing wrong.”
But without any felony charges in the way, Winston is free to resume his life without hindrance. Whatever opinions this incident may have planted about his character have nothing to do with what he has and can accomplish on the football field.
The Heisman Trophy is a football award given to “the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.” There are people who cling to that “integrity” reference as some kind of morals clause, but there has been nothing verifiable demonstrated by Winston’s actions to preclude him winning the award.
And there is no doubt that Winston will win it – short of a complete meltdown failure against a Duke team that would be overmatched in every way by the Seminoles. When ballots are cast on Monday, Winston will be a landslide winner.
Winston has passed for 3,490 yards and 35 touchdowns on the fewest number of passing attempts (317) of anyone in the top 20 on the NCAA yardage charts. He leads the nation in passing efficiency (192.6), completing 68.8 percent of his attempts with only eight interceptions.
But what has stood out the most is his poise in the spotlight. Since his debut against Pitt – when he was nearly flawless completing 25 of 27 passes for 356 yards and four touchdowns – he’s been the consummate team leader. On the night of his toughest test on the road at No. 3 Clemson on Oct. 22, Winston delivered a pregame pep talk that was confident and carefree. Then he backed up his words with another landmark performance in a 51-14 blowout against fellow Heisman hopeful Tajh Boyd that erased all doubts about which was the best team and quarterback.
There was nothing not to like about the kid. He was charismatic and talented and the best player on a field of great players.
After that night, the Heisman was Winston’s to lose – and the rape allegations almost did that for him. Unless there was some resolution to the case before Monday’s deadline, there was zero chance of me casting a vote for him and risk honoring a rapist if he was later charged and found guilty.
In the past I have voted on the Heisman for players who smoked pot, players who violated underage drinking laws, players who had been involved in fights and players who were – for lack of any legal transgressions – simply jerks. I voted for both Reggie Bush and Cam Newton despite swirling rumors of major recruiting violations (Bush later got stripped of his Heisman).
None of these things, in my opinion, nullified what any of those players were able to accomplish on the football field in those seasons. Their sins were being young collegians who did some immature things. We all went to school with friends who did some of those same stupid things, or did some of them ourselves. It may not be something to be proud of, but part of growing up involves making mistakes and learning from them.
My personal code, however, draws the line at inflicting intentional harm upon others. Sexual assault ranks high atop the list of unforgiveable sins.
But Winston will not be charged for any crime. There may be suspicion but there’s no proof that he did anything wrong. Holding my suspicions against him would be just as wrong.
So despite all the unsavory sycophants doing the tomahawk chop and celebrating their blind allegiance with total disregard for anything but their football team, I’ll grit my teeth and write Winston’s name on my ballot.
I may not feel too proud or happy with that choice, but under a system of innocence until proven guilty it’s the right thing to do.