A Heisman Divided: Winston Moment Sad, Empty

It was difficult to make out the smile on Jameis Winston’s face, given the thick exhaust inside the Best Buy Theater. The room was filled with awkwardness and doubt, blowing in from various precincts of America, with Winston as the elephant and a national TV audience still stink-eyeing him as the restless, skeptical jury. Never mind that he never has been arrested or charged with a crime, something Johnny Manziel couldn’t say a couple of seats away.

For an anxious three weeks in this country, the winner of the Heisman Trophy was investigated for sexual assault. And though the probe was closed, Winston was cleared by the Florida state attorney and the Florida State Seminoles are headed to a national championship game in southern California, people can’t unwrap their arms from the elephant. He won the award as college football’s outstanding player by the fifth-largest margin ever, yet the critical divide was glaring nonetheless. While a whopping 668 of 900 total voters chose him as their winner, an equally whopping 115 voters left him entirely off their ballots.

That’s why this unprecedented scene in New York was so empty, so sad. We live in a society where folks believe what they want to believe, regardless of facts made public in the Winston case via a 248-page report from the prosecutor. None of us was inside the off-campus apartment in Tallahassee that night, more than a year ago, yet everyone seems to have an opinion of what went down, turning the proudest moment of a young man’s life into a referendum on ignorant, guessing-game suppositions.

The fear is that they’ve just handed the Heisman to a rapist. Which is wickedly unfair, because in America, a person is innocent until proven guilty. Three hundred and seventy-two days and nights have passed since the alleged incident, and while no one can be sure that the Florida justice system wasn’t as dubious in Winston’s case as it has been in so many other cases through recent time, no one has shown us with definitive clout and content in 53 weeks that a star quarterback was vindicated via corruption. Until such concrete evidence triggers a new investigation, and until a new investigation reveals that Winston should stand trial, and until a jury of his peers finds him guilty of rape, how can 115 people in clear conscience have the audacity to keep him off a Heisman ballot?

You’re assuming he’s guilty when you have no idea what happened.

You’re assuming he’s guilty when he hasn’t been charged and has been cleared by a prosecutor.

Are you stereotyping? Are you a racist, perhaps?

“I knew I did nothing wrong,” Winston was saying, explaining why he didn’t speak during the investigation. “I knew I could respect the process and I’d eventually be vindicated. It was more about me being silent for my family because I didn’t want to put my family in those situations.”

It’s a story that reminds us that we’re firmly planted in the complex doo-doo of the 21st century. We don’t trust the filthy, crooked mechanism of big-time college sports, a multi-bllion-dollar sham that tramples over academia, so we think it’s entirely plausible that a major football power would be in cahoots with a local police department that was covering up a rape. Those are among the sensational claims made by the accuser’s attorney, Patricia Carroll, who is calling for Florida’s attorney general to conduct an indepedent investigation.

“If victims are subjected on an ongoing basis to what this victim was, then there is a serious problem in the state of Florida and certainly the Tallahassee area,” said Carroll, adding, “Do I believe this failure of an investigation was related to the fact he was on the football team? I do.”

If Carroll is to be believed — and the notion of a lying, grandstanding lawyer is as plausible as a police department protecting a local football power that defines the identity of a mid-size Southern town — then the attorney general should proceed. If it’s true that medical information was missing from prosecutor Willie Meggs’ report — injuries associated with sexual assault, such as lower back and neck pain — then the discrepancy should be explored. Meggs said the toxicology report measured the accuser’s blood-alcohol level at 0.4, which isn’t high enough to be considered drunk behind a steering wheel and would eliminate the possibility that the accuser was drugged. If Carroll has proof that the accuser had headaches and memory lapses caused by a drugging, as the lawyer claims, then another investigation is appropriate and necessary. No one should have a problem with the concept of investigations, as many as the authorities want to perform.

The problem is the perception war being waged by Carroll — and her curious timing increments — which continues to drag a still-innocent man through the national mud because he happens to be a public figure. Why did Carroll and her client disappear for nine months, then return when a story was suspiciously leaked to TMZ — lawyers plant those kind of leaks — immediately after Winston emerged as the Heisman favorite and Florida State cracked the top two in the Bowl Championship Series standings? Why did Carroll wait until the eve of the Heisman ceremony, a full eight days after the Meggs press conference that cleared Winston, to accuse Tallahassee police detectives of botching forensic tests and not taking blood tests to determine if the accuser had been drugged?

“I’m not focusing on football,” Carroll said. “Sometimes it’s not about football. Sometimes it’s about rape.”

And sometimes, it’s about pursuing a money grab. Carroll said she and the alleged victim aren’t pondering a civil suit — yet. Consider that to be a wide-open window for a payoff on Winston’s behalf. Opportunism is big business in the legal racket.

As for a reopening of the case, it’s not happening until there’s a better reason than a shouting attorney. Only Florida Gov. Rick Scott has the authority to appoint a special prosecutor, and on Friday, a spokesperson for his office ruled it out. “The state attorney’s office and FDLE (Florida Department of Law Enforcement) did a thorough investigation of this case, and they concluded no further action on this matter is required,” Jackie Schutz said in a media-circulated email.

I am willing to listen to a good conspiracy theory as much as anyone. But it’s outlandish to think Jameis Winston was sprung from a long prison term on so many levels, from the governor on down, just so he could win the Heisman and play in the national title game. “It appears to me to be a complete failure of an investigation of a rape case,” Carroll said.

Then keep pleading the case, as a good lawyer does.

And let Winston be.

When he was announced as the winner, the room didn’t erupt in wild applause. Winston walked over to hug his parents, who were fighting back tears, and then he walked to the podium to thank God and deliver an impassioned if bumpy speech. HIs theme: “Trusting the process.” He was referring to his legal ordeal, of course, but he also talked of trust even in trying times when his father was jobless three years ago and Winston and his mother had to support the family.

“When I looked down, I saw my mom’s and dad’s eyes and they felt so proud,” Winston told the media afterward. “I haven’t seen that look in their eye for a long time. It’s not that I feel complete because we still have a national championship (to play for), but when you see your mom and dad and they’ve been struggling through this whole process, to see a smile on their face comforted me.”

At one point during the ceremony, Winston looked at ESPN’s middle-aged interviewer, Tom Rinaldi, and said, “Sometimes, I feel like I’m your age.” It broke the ice in the room, and when Rinaldi asked about how he might have been mischaracterized during his legal case, Winston bared his soul.

“I’m a family man. I love life,” he said. “And I love my college experience. I’ve got to grow. Every day, I’ve got to be a better man. I know I did nothing wrong, and I know that, and I was eventually vindicated. People gotta know I love life.”

He spent the weekend meeting all the Heisman legends. One of them, Tony Dorsett, has been through his own personal ordeals and extended advice to Winston that, in the end, might be more important than the trophy itself. “I talked with his parents and they want me to sit down and talk with him, and I will,” Dorsett said. “I’ll talk to him about some of the do’s and don’t’s. That man has probably learned one of the most valuable lessons you can learn by now. And that’s to be very careful. You can’t trust anybody. You have to have your guard up. You don’t always want to be that way, but sometimes that’s the way you gotta be.”

Winston knows already. “My dad always told me, ‘Jameis, good ain’t never going to be good enough,’ ” he said, per ESPN. “It’s never going to be good for all the people that probably look down on me and the people that’s probably saying bad things. But, I mean, my innocence was proven. So this last month has made me, it’s probably that humbling moment that you have in your life.”

In a few weeks, he’ll be in Los Angeles, answering more questions. You sense Jameis Winston will be able to handle anything thrown at him, for life. “It reinforces that good things happen to the good guys,” said Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, who cried during the ceremony. “The trials and tribulations and things he went through, he had to stay strong. It’s the true mark of a man when you have your own individual issues and you never let them get in the way of us reaching our goals as a team.”

Of all the people in his world, Winston leaned on Fisher in these hard times. Remember when Fisher grabbed Winston’s facemask last month? Tough love. Said Winston: “One thing that coach Fisher has always told me, especially through this process: `For you to be a man, the kid in you must die.’ I believe that kid in me has died. I’m always going to have my personality. I’m always going to have my character. But I have to become a man.”

Let the angry words and lingering suspicions fade in the winter wind. Life goes on, next month out here in Hollywood, an apt backdrop for a torn and tortured drama.