Imagine this scenario: New York City, the Downtown Athletic Club, Saturday night, Dec. 14. The Heisman Trophy winner is announced, and he is in attendance only because he was bailed out of jail after being charged with rape.
There was an all too real chance of this imaginary scene actually unfolding, before the state of Florida decided not to prosecute Jameis Winston, quarterback of No. 1 and undefeated Florida State.
Willie Meggs, state attorney for Florida, called a media conference Thursday afternoon to announce that there will be no criminal charges filed against Winston.
“We did not have a reasonable likelihood of conviction,” Meggs said, speaking to reporters in a news conference carried live by ESPN. He said that “inconsistencies” and “memory lapses” by the accuser were “problematic in this case.”
Among the problems for the prosecution: the accuser had told police she was feeling the effects of “five or six shots” of alcohol before she was taken in a cab to Winston’s off-campus apartment. But Meggs said laboratory tests showed she had “0.04 percent alcohol – not very high.”
She had trouble providing consistent details of what she was doing on the night in question, and Meggs said, “We found no evidence of any major impairment or use of drugs.”
So Winston was exonerated. Legally, but perhaps not morally. He admitted he had sex with the woman. And Meggs said, “There were several people in the room when this event occurred.”
Winston refused to talk to police, but through his lawyer he said the sex was consensual. She said it was not. According to a search-warrant affidavit obtained by FOX Sports, she tried “to fight him off.”
He did have the decency to take her home.
Whatever happened was probably not something Winston can be proud of. But it was probably not enough to cost him the Heisman Trophy.
The ballots have been sent out, and they are due back Monday, Dec. 9. Although voters are instructed not to reveal their votes, enough have leaked out their intentions to project Winston as the second consecutive freshman quarterback to win the most cherished award in the sport.
The way out of this dilemma would have been Alabama continuing as No. 1, with its superclutch senior quarterback, AJ McCarron, overtaking Winston. Some Heisman voters were saying they switched from Winston to McCarron because of the rape accusation of which Winston, on advice of legal counsel, was not providing explanations.
But despite the best efforts of McCarron, Alabama lost its No. 1 status with its last-second loss to Auburn in Saturday’s Iron Bowl. That ended McCarron’s chance for the Heisman and all but clinched it for Winston.
However, it not for Meggs taking action when he did – and it’s hard to fault his reasoning — the Heisman would be hopelessly clouded in controversy, Famous Jameis becoming Infamous Jameis.
Can you imagine Nancy Grace getting hold of this? Night after night coverage of the trial of a 19-year-old football star.
Winston has been under investigation since January, when a 19-year-old co-ed at Florida State reported to Tallahassee police that he physically forced her to have sex with him in the early morning of Dec. 7, 2012.
She called police an hour after her sexual encounter with Winston, but she did not know his name at the time. He had been a highly publicized recruit, but he had yet to play a game for Florida State. A month later she recognized him on campus and notified police of the identity of her alleged attacker.
The Tallahassee Police Department seemed in no hurry to investigate the complaint. Meggs said it would have been helpful to have a statement from the cab driver who took the accuser to Winston’s apartment. Meggs said police could have obtained that statement “a year ago – but not now.”
For his part, Winston has betrayed barely a hint of nervousness. If he’s guilty of anything, it doesn’t appear to be bothering him.
His performance on the field has not wavered — except for a brief case of clock mismanagement Saturday during a 37-7 rout of in-state rival Florida. His coach, Jimbo Fisher, was angry enough to grab Winston’s face mask as he yelled into it.
After the game, Winston cheerfully faced the media and said, “It feels so good, doing it here while everybody is on our back and everything is going around in our heads.”
He gives the impression that he and his teammates will not be distracted as the public scrutiny increases now that they’re into the college football postseason.
Florida State, 12-0, seems an overmatch for 20th-ranked Duke, 10-2, in the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte on Saturday night (8 Eastern, ABC).
Regardless of the score, America will be focusing on Jameis, wondering what’s going around in his head.
So far, he seems to be doing well by staying out of court and by maintaining a positive image for the court of public opinion. For this is where lawyers can let their client down. They shield them from the public, and the public suspects they’re hiding something. And they have to live with that suspicion for the rest of their lives. Long after the lawyer’s bill has been paid.
The public asks: Why didn’t Jameis cooperate with the police when the investigation began? Why didn’t he admit to having sex with this young woman before the DNA evidence came out? Was he having so much sex with so many girls that he can’t keep track of them? And why is this of any concern to the public anyway?
But it is. And the public will keep asking. Meggs said he will release a full report of the evidence “as soon as possible – so people can make their own judgments on whether he’s worthy of these awards.”
The stench could linger. Along with disturbing questions. Will there be a civil suit? A “preponderance of evidence?”
And we thought Johnny Football was a publicity problem for college football. It seems hard to believe now that we complained about last year’s Heisman winner signing too many autographs.
Wouldn’t the Heisman Trust prefer a financial scandal here? Steroids?
Remember, we thought it was a huge deal when Reggie Bush had to give up the Heisman Trophy in 2005. He was accused of accepting financial support in violation of NCAA rules.
All those things seem almost seemly compared to rape. Yes it will be nice if this case is closed before it began. But that may be wishful thinking.