- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 15, 2014


None of us are surprised by the preferential treatment star athletes receive on and off campus. That’s the nature of big-time college sports, where only a few schools (like Texas under first-year football coach Charlie Strong) willingly err on the side of overkill when it comes to disciplining their players.

Florida State certainly hasn’t gone out of its way to teach Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston any lessons. His lesser offenses include shoplifting from a supermarket, putting soda in a Burger King water cup and engaging in BB gun battles.

When Winston screamed vulgarities in the student union earlier this season, the school was shamed into suspending him for the entire Clemson game after originally announcing he would miss the first half.

But all of the aforementioned misdeeds pale in comparison to a two-year-old sexual assault case that resurfaced last week.

Stealing crab legs is one thing. Raping a woman — just like hitting one — is indefensible.

Unfortunately, we’re at a point where being accused of heinous acts is nearly as bad.

No. 2 Florida State hosts No. 5 Notre Dame on Saturday in a game that could be the Seminoles’ last hurdle to a second consecutive undefeated season. But it’s overshadowed by news that Winston will face a university disciplinary hearing stemming from an alleged sexual assault in December 2012. He was never charged.

“Florida State Needs to Suspend Quarterback Jameis Winston,” read the headline on a Bleacher Report column this week.

We’ve faced these questions all season, in college football and the NFL: When, why and how long should players be suspended? What about the presumption of innocence? Are accusations alone good enough?

Not necessarily. Decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis, not through knee-jerk reactions to every allegation.

“We’ve got to be careful in today’s society to convict people in public before they’re actually due in court or anywhere,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher told reporters this week. “That’s happened in recent history.”

In fact, it happened last week about 130 miles from Fisher’s campus. Florida backup quarterback Treon Harris was suspended immediately after a sexual assault accusation.

“We have no tolerance for sexual assault on our campus,” UF president Bernie Machen said in a statement. “The university is committed to providing a safe and inclusive environment for every member of the UF community.”

He really meant there’s no tolerance for sexual assault allegations. A few days later, the alleged victim withdrew her criminal complaint and Harris was reinstated.

“The university always will take swift and decisive action when we have concerns about the safety of our students,” the school said in a statement.

Unfortunately, swift and decisive isn’t always fair and balanced for the accused.

If his accuser had dragged her feet before withdrawing her complaint, Harris would have missed more than a week of practice. He could have sat out the rest of season though he might be completely innocent. That’s not right.

I understand the urge to leap to women’s defense in these matters. The field in sexual assault cases has been tilted against women for so long, enlightened men almost feel obligated to trust them.

If they say a man forced himself on them, or laid his hands on them, we want to support them in stepping forward.

But bad apples exist on both sides of the X and Y chromosome. Just like there are men who subject women to unwanted sex, there are women who target athletes for financial gain. Hush money and civil lawsuits can satisfy some gold diggers as much as wedding rings.

Both sexes can become stalkers after being rejected. But it’s much easier for a vindictive, warped woman to “get even.” She knows that claims of sexual or domestic violence can do plenty of damage to the man, regardless of what happens afterward.

It’s kind of like the power that students hold on a teacher’s reputation. All it takes is one lie from one dishonest, unscrupulous pupil, and an educator’s entire world can come crashing down.

I get the need to remove teachers from the classroom right away after an accusation. But I don’t see why athletes automatically should be suspended.

An arrest, a police report, witness accounts, circumstances, evidence and past behavior should be factored in before passing such judgment. Sometimes a suspension will be warranted while the legal process plays out. That’s a tough break for those later proven innocent, but it’s something they just have to deal with.

Winston has exhibited lots of knucklehead behavior, but a sexual assault allegation is more serious than any prank.

That said, if he wasn’t suspended when it came up last season, there’s no reason it should happen now.

There’s plenty of time for him to face whatever might be coming, for whatever he might have done.

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