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The New York Times Article Isn't Just About Florida State. It's Also About Us

The nation's paper of record writes about a college football star, and in the process documents a deeper problem in our culture

Stacy Revere

If you're a living, breathing college football fan with access to a computer -- that should cover most of you -- then you've probably already read The New York Times' damning article retracing the investigation into the sexual assault allegations against Jameis Winston. If you haven't, it's well worth a read; it's the kind of carefully reported and well-written journalism that rarely gets done about the potential misdeeds of sports figures.

There's not that much new in the broad strokes, and there might be even less for those who keep up with the online rumor mill. The Times found a second woman who didn't accuse Winston of sexual assault, but still felt uncomfortable after an encounter with him. It appears that there might have been a video recording of at least part of the incident that drew so much coverage, but it was destroyed.

Most of what is surprising, at least to some extent, is the meticulous gathering of details by the Times that exposes the failures of the investigation into what happened that night. Investigators didn't review the security footage at the bar, something that any fan of a television procedural could tell you is a key step in any case. By the time the cab drivers who might have driven Winston's party home were spoken to, it was far too late for them to remember anything. The police officer who took the lead on the case had done some security work for university boosters.

The conclusion we are to draw from this is that Tallahassee is a college town with a dark side, and that Florida State's influence is so far-reaching -- and perhaps uniquely so, even for small college towns -- that an investigation into a football player is doomed from the start. As a reporter who is based in Tallahassee, I can wholeheartedly vouch for the fact that FSU and its athletics program are extraordinarily important to the city.

But I'm not sure that this sort of thing wouldn't happen in another college town. In fact, this sort of thing almost certainly has happened in another college town without anyone finding out about it. The most disturbing proof of that, and the indication that this is a problem that goes even deeper than college towns, comes in some of the vignettes the Times provides about other alleged victims.

There was one time I almost audibly gasped while reading the story. It comes in a description of the investigation of an alleged assault that had nothing to do with Winston. The reaction of the Tallahassee police officer who responded is astonishing.

"The first thing he asked me," she recounted, "was if I was sure this was rape or if I just didn't want a baby or wanted the morning after pill." He also made comments, she said, "like, 'Are you sure you want to file a report? It will be very awkward, especially for a female.'"

In his complaint to the police, the father wrote that Officer Pate had suggested that an investigation "would be futile, as 'this kind of stuff happens all the time here.'" The family also said the police had focused more on the accuser than on the accused.

That, in the space of less than two paragraphs, is the problem.

Because we can make this about Jameis Winston and FSU football -- and to some extent it is. We can make it about the treatment afforded to star athletes -- and when the reason given for not immediately getting a DNA sample from Winston is that it would cause publicity, it's hard to come to the conclusion that part of the story here isn't a community's willingness to ignore the sins of its so-called heroes.

But if all of those things could be magically taken away, if we could create an alternate universe where Jameis Winston never existed and where Florida State didn't play football, there would still be a 19-year-old woman who told a police officer she had been through a hellish ordeal, only to have that officer ask her if she was just trying to request birth control.

The woman's case never went to trial, in part because of the kinds of inconsistencies that make even legitimate rape cases hard to prove. The officer? Police documents indicate he "was counseled on the public perception of officer actions and speech during investigations." Which should have been the least of anyone's concerns.

The public perception of what Pate said -- in fairness, this is if the woman's account is true -- is not the issue. What Pate said is the issue. And not because Christopher Pate is a bad person; indeed, he is a mirror into the way our society too often views the victims of rape and sexual assault. And sometimes the truth is messy and sometimes a criminal case can't be sustained and sometimes, on the rarest of occasions, the alleged victim is lying. But often, none of that is true, and the victim's credibility is still the first suspect.

The woman interviewed by Officer Pate did not accuse a football player, as near as we can tell. There's no evidence that she accused a notable public figure, or anyone else you would expect to get special treatment. Normal treatment apparently includes some authorities doubting the victim. And until that changes, until we all start from the point that there is rarely any reason for lying about being raped any more than there is a reason for lying about being mugged or being kidnapped, we're going to continue to have a problem with sexual assault in this country.

The most chilling possibility in the Jameis Winston case wouldn't be that he got away with a sexual assault because he was a football player -- thought that's frightening enough in its own right. The most chilling possibility would be that he got away with a horrific crime, and that his being a football player had little or nothing to do with it.