Football Carries Jameis Winston Over Goal Line

Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. He is the author of the best-selling "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning," the basis for the eight-part ESPN mini-series. He also wrote "The Challenge," the winner of the 2009 Scribes Book Award, and "Death Comes to Happy Valley."
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The biggest college sports scandal of the season is over: Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston will not be charged with sexual assault.

William N. Meggs, state attorney for Florida's Second Judicial Circuit, announced at a press conference in Tallahassee this afternoon that his office didn't have the evidence to bring a case to trial.

It was a long, drawn-out investigation; the alleged rape happened almost a year ago. But it ended just in time for the undefeated Seminoles to finish their quest for a national championship, and for Winston, the front runner for the Heisman Trophy, to stake his claim to one of the most prestigious awards in all of sports. (Ballots are due next week.) A coincidence? Meggs, a Florida State alumnus himself, said so at today's press conference. Of course, his statement sent the room into a giggling fit, which was awkward all around.

We still don't know what happened, but each conflicting narrative is ugly in its own familiar way.

Did a high-profile athlete commit rape and get away with it? After all, Meggs didn't say Winston was innocent, just that the state wasn't confident it could meet the burden of a "reasonable likelihood of conviction."

Or was Winston the one who was taken advantage of by a "cleat-chaser" and her opportunistic lawyer?

Were local authorities pressured to pursue bogus charges because it seemed reasonable to assume the worst about a college football star?

Or were they actually engaged in a coverup for a local hero? The accuser's lawyer said she had been warned by one detective that her client should think long and hard before pursuing charges against Winston because "she will be raked over the coals and her life will be made miserable."

As divergent as they are, the various scenarios are unified by a common reality: They exist in a parallel universe in which football is the center of gravity, exerting its inexorable sway over all in its path.

Tallahassee, Florida, is not State College, Pennyslvania. An alleged rape is not equivalent to the serial sexual abuse of children. But it's hard not to see the Jameis Winston story as a variation on the same theme as the Penn State scandal. Whether the main character of this particular story is a star athlete wrongfully accused or unjustly exonerated, the plot still hinges on football's absurdly exalted status in a college town.

The power of the game was evident from the start, with Seminoles fans whispering conspiratorially that the victim's lawyer, who is also her aunt, is a graduate of their team's archrival, the University of Florida. Yes, some people believe football is that important.

You can't separate Winston's guilt or innocence from football, because in Tallahassee you can't separate anything from football. Its dominion is so vast it extends beyond the university and boosters, beyond students and fans. The criminal justice system looms small by comparison.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.