TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The faithful roared their support at the first mention of his name by the public address announcer, a hero’s welcome for their besieged football star. If there was any doubt about their support or their suspicions, it vanished in these moments before Jameis Winston took the field and rewarded them (again) for their devotion.
There are few places in this world, this country, or even this football-mad state where a man can receive a standing ovation from more than 65,000 people in the midst of a well-publicized investigation into his role in an alleged sexual assault. On Saturday afternoon, Winston was that man and Doak Campbell Stadium on the campus of Florida State University was one of those places.
As State Attorney Willie Meggs ponders whether to charge the redshirt freshman quarterback and Heisman Trophy frontrunner with the sexual battery of a Florida State student on Dec. 7, 2012, signs in the stands at the team’s victory over Idaho touted Winston’s talent and virtue. One fan brought a replica of Winston’s No. 5 jersey with the word “Innocent” on the back.
“I think it’s all made up,” said Cody Hunter, a 19-year-old making his way back to his car early in the fourth quarter of an eventual 80-14 victory. “I think since he’s gotten all big, they’re trying to bring him down.”
Hunter didn’t elaborate on who “they” are. But Saturday afternoon, in a canvas of more than two dozen fans in and around the stadium, a number of adversaries were suggested: overzealous prosecutors, ambitious members of the media, and boosters of other nationally-ranked programs who wanted Florida State eliminated from the title race during an 11-0 season that is the team’s best in at least a decade. The consensus was that this criminal investigation was at best opportunistic and at worst a sinister setup.
To be clear: Winston has not yet been charged with a crime, and his attorney says witnesses will testify that Winston did nothing wrong. Other defenders point out that the incident report from the night in question says the suspect was between 5 feet 9 and 5 feet 11 — at least 5 inches shorter than Winston.
By the same token, though, besides what is included in the brief incident report, almost nothing is known about Winston’s accuser or what she has told authorities about the alleged crime. There are as of yet no substantive reasons to doubt her credibility.
The night before the game, the victim’s family released a statement — their second of the week — disputing the claim, made by Winston’s attorney after reports emerged that Winston’s DNA was matched to a sample taken from the woman’s clothing, that she had consented to sex. “To be clear, the victim did not consent,” the family said in the statement, which was released late Friday. “This was a rape.”
In their first statement, released Wednesday to the Tampa Bay Times, the victim’s family and her attorney said a Tallahassee detective attempted to discourage them from pursuing the case.
“When the attorney contacted Detective [Scott] Angulo immediately after Winston was identified, Detective Angulo told the attorney that Tallahassee was a big football town and the victim needs to think long and hard before proceeding against him because she will be raked over the coals and her life will be made miserable,” the family said.
Whether or not that was an appropriate statement for a police officer to make, it’s been an honest assessment: the alleged victim reportedly left school last week after her attorney was told by police that information about the case was about to be released to the media.
The woman’s departure from FSU came as some of the darkest corners of the Internet dismissed her as a spurned groupie and scheming gold-digger. A number of sources circulated pictures of a blonde woman kissing Winston in a dark nightclub, supposed proof that their sexual relationship was consensual. Her attorney has gone to point of denying that the woman in one widely distributed photo is the accuser.
On Saturday, Florida State fans were more careful with their words but no less certain the alleged victim was not being truthful. “[Winston] doesn’t seem like a bad kid who would ever do something like that,” a fan named George Fillayu said. “Sometimes I think Jameis could have been a preacher.”
At the intersection of St. Augustine Street and Varsity Drive, Allison and Jennifer Mook each clasped one of the hands of their 7-year-old son. Earlier that day, Winston had cheerfully signed a football for them at the hotel where they and the football team had stayed the night before.
“The timing seems kind of suspicious,” said Allison Mook, a 1996 graduate of Florida State who was attending her first game in more than 15 years.
“I think somebody needs to make a big apology if he’s not charged,” Jennifer Mook added.
Further away from the stadium, a group of tailgaters taped a pair of signs that read “WE SUPPORT. FAMOUS JAMEIS” to their white tent. Motorists honked their approval as they whizzed past.
In the cheap student apartments and stately fraternity houses along the nearby streets, the same sentiment prevailed among students, alums and Tallahassee natives. “Obviously everyone is skeptical of the timing,” said Nikki, a 19-year-old sophomore from Tampa walking away from the stadium with her mother. “I personally don’t think [the accuser] is telling the truth.”
At the press conference after the game ended, FSU public relations staff decreed there would be no questions about anything that happened away from the field.
“The football field is a sanctuary to me,” Winston said.
The field, the stadium, the community beyond it too. The Florida State faithful made sure of it.