NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston put on a birthday-party hat Saturday morning and was smiling and laughing and joking and joshing with writers and reporters at media day for the BCS National Championship Game.
He exuded the wide-eyed happiness most college kids would feel if they were getting ready to play Auburn for the national championship on the same day they celebrate their 20th birthday.
But a certain inevitable damper was put on the festive mood when a member of the media asked Winston about the "experience" he dealt with during the football season. Such media inquiries are usually politely and carefully worded to include phrases such as "experience" or "situation" or "ordeal" or "distractions" or "issues." These are all just code words for sexual-assault accusations.
Sadly, even though no charges were ever filed, there will always be questions about Winston and what happened that night in an off-campus apartment in Tallahassee. But why? Why do we even know there was an accusation of sexual assault? When no charges are filed and no arrests are made, why is a mere accusation of such a serious, reputation-staining crime public knowledge?
We all understand why the names of sexual-assault victims are not released and made public knowledge. That's a no-brainer. Rape victims should be protected from the stigma of such a vile crime.
But why aren't the accused given the same sort of protection? In today's world of Twitter, Facebook and Google searches, just having your name tied to terms like "rape" and "sexual assault" can tarnish your life and your legacy forever.
"Unfortunately, when there are allegations and not charges, we blow them up into things that we assume," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher says. "… You can taint someone without charges even being brought."
Said Winston's attorney Tim Jansen: "There are people who will always think of [Winston] and [associate him with] this allegation. You can't stop people from believing what they want to believe. … Where does he get his reputation back? How does he get this asterisk off of him?"
He doesn't, that's how. Winston has the smile and charisma of a young Magic Johnson in college, but he will always have the scarlet letter of these allegations. If you don't believe it, you should have seen some of the repulsive things people said about him when I announced I put Winston No.1 on my Heisman ballot.
Of course, Winston's future will not suffer one iota. He is, after all, a famous athlete. He still won the Heisman Trophy. He still will play for the national championship. He will be a No.1 NFL Draft pick and make millions of dollars.
But what about average people accused — and in some cases falsely accused — of sexual assault? What happens to them when their names are made public? Some of them lose their jobs, their families, their futures.
Sadly for real rape victims, there are those who actually make up stories of sexual assault for attention, revenge or some other sick, twisted reason. Three years ago, after a spate of bogus rape allegations, the Orlando Police Department held a news conference and said falsely reporting such crimes had reached "epidemic" levels and publicly cautioned those who concocted rape allegations.
"We want victims to continue to report crimes, but we want real victims," Sgt. Art Eld of OPD's sex-crimes division said then. "We don't want to spend useful resources chasing ghosts."
Sometimes, tragically, those ghosts don't always disappear into thin air. Who will ever forget the case of Brian Banks, the former Southern Cal recruit who was accused of raping a high-school classmate a decade ago? Facing a maximum sentence of more than 40years in jail, he accepted a plea deal that included five years in prison and being identified forever as a registered sex offender.
After Banks got out of jail, his accuser reached out to him on Facebook with an unusual message: "Let's let bygones be bygones." Banks thought the message was peculiar and employed the help of a private investigator to set up a meeting with the accuser. It was during this meeting where she admitted on hidden camera that she had lied about the rape.
The charges against Banks were then dropped, but what good was it? He'd already lost a college scholarship, a potential NFL future and five years of his life behind bars.
Make no mistake about it, sexual assault is one of the most brutal, heinous transgressions in civilized society.
The real victims of such atrocities should be protected at all costs from public embarrassment.
But so, too, should those who are only accused — sometimes falsely — of such crimes.
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