Linda Robertson

Linda Robertson: Jameis Winston rape case continues to haunt Florida State University

Florida State University agreed to pay nearly $1 million to settle a lawsuit by a former student who accused QB Jameis Winston, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, of rape.
Florida State University agreed to pay nearly $1 million to settle a lawsuit by a former student who accused QB Jameis Winston, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, of rape. AP

Jameis Winston is still adding to his legacy at Florida State, a year after turning pro and being selected No. 1 in the NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and two years after winning the Heisman Trophy and leading the Seminoles to a national championship.

But on Monday what Winston left the university was a $950,000 bill and another blot on its reputation. The stain is bound to get worse. The repercussions of an unseemly encounter late at night in 2012 continue to haunt FSU, its former quarterback and the woman who accused him of raping her.

FSU agreed to pay nearly $1 million to settle a lawsuit by former student Erica Kinsman accusing administrators of neglecting her complaint with a tardy and shoddy investigation.

She has filed a separate sexual battery suit against Winston in federal court, set for trial in Orlando in March 2017. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is also investigating FSU’s handling of the case under Title IX law.

Perhaps eventually Winston will give a full account of what happened in his apartment after driving there in a taxi with an intoxicated Kinsman and others. He has denied her claims and said the sex was consensual. His lawyers contend her lawsuit is a “stunt” designed to take advantage of his star-athlete status. He was never criminally charged by the Tallahassee prosecutor, who cited a poor police investigation, and was cleared in a campus code of conduct hearing by a judge who also cited a lack of evidence.

Yet Kinsman has endured humiliation and upheaval to pursue her case and allow it to represent what happens to victims of sexual assault on college campuses nationwide. She did not flinch in her decision to shine a spotlight on a recurring question in our sports-worshiping society: Do athletes receive special treatment when they are accused of misbehavior?

Kinsman had no guarantee of monetary gain, only of having her name dragged through the mud, often by cruel football fans.

The settlement, in which FSU admits no liability, requires FSU to run five years of sexual-assault awareness programs and publish annual reports on their content and progress. Her legacy raises standards of prevention and accountability and has a positive impact on FSU and its students.

“I’ll always be disappointed that I had to leave the school I dreamed of attending since I was little,” Kinsman said in a statement. She is planning to graduate from another school in the spring. “I am happy that FSU has committed to continue making changes in order to ensure a safer environment for all students.”

Education on the crime and the law was sorely lacking at one of the state’s leading institutions of higher learning.

“Jimbo Fisher now knows what Title IX is and how to respond when one of his athletes is involved,” said Kinsman’s lawyer, John Clune, an expert on campus rape cases, referring to the FSU football coach.

FSU’s perennial success on the field will keep it under scrutiny, especially since the Winston inquiry was at least the second in which athletic department officials neglected to report an alleged rape. The same thing happened in 2003 with the Travis Johnson case. Johnson was later acquitted at trial.

“When an athletic department is faced with a significant issue with one of its marquee athletes you need to be able to count on them to do the right thing,” Clune said. “Schools can have great sexual-assault awareness programs, but then the athletic department doesn’t give a damn. FSU had a problem in 2003 and nine years later had a similar problem, and that’s my asterisk on the changes they have implemented. We’ll see what happens next time.”

Kinsman has been forthcoming and consistent in her testimony. She also appeared in The Hunting Ground, a documentary about campus assault, and filmmakers hailed the settlement as “a win for survivors everywhere.” Winston has refused to testify, answering only one question at the conduct hearing — a vague response about what Kinsman said or did to give consent.

“Jameis Winston has stonewalled the process,” Clune said. “But he’s going to have to sit for a deposition for seven and a half hours. That’s the purpose of the civil case.”

Many questions remain about what occurred between Winston and Kinsman but it’s clear Tallahassee police and FSU leaders did not respond quickly or thoroughly to her complaint. After Kinsman identified Winston, police failed to talk to him for two weeks. Apparently when he said he was busy with baseball practice, that was more important than conducting a basic investigation or collecting a DNA sample. When the prosecutor belatedly got the case, he lamented elementary lapses in detective work and the loss of key evidence, including a video of Winston and Kinsman in the act recorded at the doorway of the bedroom by a friend of Winston.

FSU’s inaction gives at minimum the appearance of protection of Winston in hopes that Kinsman would disappear or give up. Can’t let some coed stand in the way of the quarterback’s eligibility and the millions in revenue a No. 1 ranking brings to a big-time football program. FSU athletic officials met with Winston’s lawyer and decided not to initiate the required disciplinary inquiry, according to a New York Times examination of how the accusation was handled.

FSU president John Thrasher tried to diminish the significance of the case again Monday by implying that only $250,000 of the settlement was going to Kinsman for damages and $700,000 to her lawyers.

“FSU would have no idea what the fee agreement is but it’s nothing remotely close to $700,000,” said Clune, citing confidentiality as well as state standards on fees.

Once again, belittling Kinsman has proved to be the wrong strategy for FSU.

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