Late last week, Tampa Bay Buccaneers star quarterback Jameis Winston was accused of groping a female Uber driver during a ride in 2016. Since the most recent accusation was made public (there have been others dating back to 2012), news outlets have speculated about the way that the NFL should handle these allegations, as well as what their investigation into these claims may entail. As the NFL, and the public, deliberate, a number of questions arise. Why do our social institutions value Winston and his word over the numerous women who have spoken out against him? Why hasn’t Jameis Winston faced any repercussions for his actions? And why do men with money, power and connections get the benefit of the doubt when their victims do not?
In 2012, Jameis Winston was accused of rape by a fellow student at Florida State University. She filed a report and told Tallahassee and campus police that she wanted to press charges against him, but no criminal charges were ever filed. Winston claimed that his accuser’s account of the evening was false. Ultimately, he was not formally charged, but was sued by the student in a civil suit that was settled in 2016. She also sued FSU for mishandling her case. Winston maintains his innocence.
Because Jameis Winston didn’t face criminal charges for this alleged crime, many supporters suggest that referring to the now settled case serves only to vilify an innocent man. However, I believe that we should continue to talk about Winston and the unfair treatment that his accusers have received until something is done about it. I am appalled that he is being paid to live out his football dreams even after additional allegations against him surfaced on FSU’s campus and have now surfaced regarding his behavior since he has become an NFL player. Regardless of what happened in Winston’s home that first night in 2012, he should have been suspended from the FSU team and should have never entered the NFL draft until the case was properly investigated.
Winston’s treatment during the rape case/allegations more than exemplifies one of America’s foundational maxims: citizens are innocent until they are proven guilty. Winston was not kicked out of school or off the football team, his NFL career was not hindered (he was the first pick in the 2015 NFL draft) and he was able to finish school without being driven off campus or out of the public eye. However, his accusers, specifically the one woman who took legal action after speaking out in 2012, were not afforded this same treatment. According to our legal system, the student’s police report should have been considered a truthful account of events until it was proven otherwise. Yet, this student was pressured to rescind her claims by Tallahassee police officers and by other members of the Florida justice system. Her claims were ignored by police for months while FSU also failed to take necessary actions as mandated by Title IX federal law. She was assumed to be guilty (of filing a false police report, of slander, of making false accusations) until she could convince the Tallahassee justice system, campus administrators and all FSU fans that she was innocent — a nearly impossible task and one that Winston was not required to complete.
To be true, Jameis Winston is simply one example of how a man with strong relationships to those in power receives differential access to legal rights and social support when compared to a woman who does not have money, power and/or connections. As Douglas Massey, a distinguished scholar in stratification notes, there are two mechanisms that create and maintain these kind of social divisions: “the allocation of people to social categories, and the institutionalization of practices that allocate resources unequally across these categories.” In this case, individuals are divided into the categories of powerful versus powerless. There are those with the money or connections to influence legal and judicial systems and there are those without. The resource that is allocated unequally between these two groups is access to the legal right of being innocent until proven guilty. The powerful receive protection and (more than) fair treatment from the justice system, while those without money and power do not receive comparable levels of judicial support. As the saying goes, money talks and bullshit walks. People with money use their funds and relationships to manipulate institutional systems to maintain and accumulate more social and economic advantages. Furthermore, they assist those who are not affluent, but who nonetheless serve to make the powerful even richer. This is the space that Winston occupied when Tallahassee’s most powerful rallied around him to ensure that his money-making ability was not compromised. Then, upon being drafted as a player in the NFL, Winston used his new position to maintain the protective legal shield that had been placed around him. He gained access to even richer and more powerful connections who have continued to protect him at the expense of the “powerless.”
It should be noted that men possess a disproportionate share of the nation’s wealth and therefore have a disproportionate amount of power and influence. White women earn $0.77 for every dollar earned by their male counterparts and they own only $0.32 of wealth for every dollar of men’s wealth. So, while the powerful and powerless do not always strictly fall along gender lines, it cannot be ignored that women are much less likely to have access to financial resources in comparison to their male counterparts and subsequently are less likely to have comparable levels of influence over the legal and judicial system.
Black men and women make and own less than their white counterparts and are therefore less likely to have the power to influence social institutions. Because of their lack of representation in influential populations, many in the black community are inclined to be exceptionally supportive of black men who do acquire money and/or power (think Bill Cosby). But rallying behind one powerful black man is not worth silencing the voices of numerous powerless women, regardless of their race.
I am not writing this piece to try Jameis Winston in the court of public opinion or to suggest that he be prosecuted for crimes he didn’t commit. I must note that I am enraged by the manner in which the nation’s imbalance of money, power and access to due process disproportionately impacts black men and women. I fully believe that work must be done to address the harmful impact that such inequality has on the black community. But the power that Winston has wielded, while it may not reflect the influence that other black men have in interactions with the law, is still completely unacceptable.
Winston’s accusers have not received fair treatment in the justice system or in the court of public opinion. I will not be satisfied until Winston is held up to the same scrutiny as his accusers have been. Until that day comes, I maintain that the NFL and the justice system have a responsibility to the powerless to not pay, promote or glorify Jameis Winston.