Greg Cote

Greg Cote: It’s a shame that Jameis Winston’s off-field controversy overshadows FSU’s big game

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher (L) talks with Heisman quarterback Jameis Winston during warm ups before FSU's NCAA college football game against Clemson in Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014.
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher (L) talks with Heisman quarterback Jameis Winston during warm ups before FSU's NCAA college football game against Clemson in Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. AP

It is the game of the year: No.2-ranked Florida State hosting No.5 Notre Dame in a Saturday night matchup of unbeatens in Tallahassee that will shape the inaugural College Football Playoff. It’s too bad for the sport and for the defending national-champion Seminoles that who wins doesn’t feel like it is very important right now, doesn’t feel like what matters most. It is more than too bad, actually. It’s a shame.

In a simpler time, this game would be centered on how well Heisman Trophy-winning FSU quarterback Jameis Winston plays. Instead, it’s about whether he should be playing at all.

In a simpler time, coach Jimbo Fisher would be talking about how his team plans to stop the high-powered Fighting Irish. Instead, the only defending he’s talking about is defending Winston.

Again.

You know the quote, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” famously attributed to Vince Lombardi?

Fisher must hold that as gospel because, in the name of winning, this man has put up with and looked past more trouble from Winston than any coach should — his tolerance commensurate with the QB’s immeasurable talent. Depending on one’s vantage, Fisher is either saintly in his forgiveness and trust, or conveniently setting aside his priorities and moral compass at least until perhaps the season is over.

Fisher would hear both outrage from fans and praise from many others if he simply announced that the various allegations against Winston — the cumulative weight of them — make the young man undeserving of continuing to represent the university. To be the face of it, really.

Instead, Fisher said Winston would play Saturday, business as usual, even though there was enough doubt that some Las Vegas sports books took the game off betting boards over the uncertainty.

Things pile up:

A police report that involved stealing soda from a Burger King.

Being among the players who used BB guns to shoot out windows of an apartment complex.

On surveillance video, stealing crab legs from a local Publix.

Standing atop a table in the campus Student Union shouting misogynist vulgarity.

Now, the latest: signing more than 950 memorabilia items for sale, which would violate NCAA rules if Winston was paid for doing so. Which he denies. And which Fisher believes.

All of this, of course, might seem like a relatively minor parade of immaturity if not for the dark, overriding umbrella of the ongoing sexual assault allegation and investigation.

The only football team penalty Winston has paid thus far: a suspension from the Clemson game earlier this season, for the shouted vulgarity. (Originally, it was a half-game suspension, until an incredulous outcry over the absurdity of that led Fisher to make it a whole game).

Like Tammy Wynette standing by her man, Jimbo has stood by his quarterback.

Signed autographs on memorabilia led Georgia to suspend star running back Todd Gurley earlier this month but has caused no such action by Fisher, even as the idea of Winston signing hundreds of items including jerseys for free may, to some, stretch credulity to a snapping point.

“He hasn’t taken a dime from anything,” Fisher vouched for Winston this week. “He’s very accommodating.”

That the December 2012 rape allegation has not gone away makes everything else seem small.

In December 2013, the state declined to file charges, citing a lack of evidence, which Fisher has treated like “case closed.” Just recently, he seemed naïve, callous or tone-deaf in saying, “There is not a victim because there was not crime.”

That’s wishful thinking, as if the matter were neatly resolved. It isn’t.

FSU now plans a disciplinary hearing in which Winston could yet be charged with four violations of the student conduct code.

Winston’s attorney, high-priced David Cornwell, working pro bono, apparently, accuses FSU of not protecting Winston’s interests because its disciplinary hearing was not in a “timely manner” — an irony because others suggest the school has gone too far in protecting Winston.

A Fox Sports report indicated that details of the original Tallahassee Police Department investigation of the rape allegation were passed along to the school’s athletics department before ever reaching the state attorney’s office — shady protocol at best, illegal at worst.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education investigates FSU’s handling of the whole matter.

How sad that a player who has won a national championship and a Heisman will leave college (eventually) notorious and more known for controversies than accomplishments.

How sad that FSU plays its biggest game of the year on Saturday, and the game itself seems so small.

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