Writing a piece praising the character of an athlete who’s faced sexual assault allegations is fraught with peril, and ESPN’s The Undefeated appears to have been the latest outlet to trip up. The site, ESPN’s newly launched vertical covering race and culture, ran a piece by Alex Kennedy Tuesday that was titled “The Continued Maturation of Jameis Winston.”
The piece largely focused on teammates praising Winston’s character and his volunteer work at football camps, and included only “Winston’s off-field issues have been well-documented, from his shoplifting citation to the sexual-assault allegation for which he wasn’t charged” in reference to the 2012 rape accusation against him.
It’s since taken heavy fire from both Deadspin’s Tom Ley and Slate’s Laura Wagner, in pieces headlined “The Undefeated Can’t Find Anything Bad To Say About Jameis Winston” and “The Undefeated’s Jameis Winston Profile Is Sports Journalism At Its Worst.” Wagner makes a convincing argument that this treatment doesn’t accurately represent the seriousness of that rape allegation, the evidence against Winston detailed in the Tallahassee Police Department’s released reports (including his semen in the victim’s underwear, the bruising on her body, and more), or the heavily-criticized response of the police and the school. Here’s what she writes:
This is the only mention in the entire article that Winston, now of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was accused of raping a fellow Florida State student in 2012. The rape accusation against Winston is given equal weight as shoplifting, with both “off-field issues” cited as bits of juvenile adversity that Winston had to overcome to become the man he is today. There is no discussion of the fact that, by their own admission, both Florida State and the Tallahassee police botched the investigation into the alleged rape.
The Undefeated profile, written by Alex Kennedy, reads as a glorified press release.
…Absent, too, was any discussion of the fact that the police did not contact Winston for two weeks after the alleged victim identified him on campus. Likewise, it failed to mention that it was nearly a year before police collected DNA from Winston. And it didn’t include that the school settled with the alleged victim for $950,000.
Beyond just the execution of the story, Ley takes issue with its motivation:
The Undefeated has published a soft-focus profile of Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston that is so remarkably bad that I honestly don’t understand how or why it ever saw daylight.
The headline over the piece is “The Continued Maturation Of Jameis Winston.” Before you even reach the body of the piece, The Undefeated is tipping you off that the reason this story exists is a very bad one. Jameis Winston is a second-year NFL quarterback who was credibly accused of raping a woman while he played at Florida State, and was aided in getting clear of that charge by a police department that showed no interest in investigating the case. Winston showed competence in his first season in the NFL, and there is a reasonable chance that he will develop into a franchise quarterback. It is awkward to try to develop a player into a marketable professional property when he is closely identified with a rape case.
Thus: “Maturation.” You may have heard that Winston was accused of doing a bad thing, but that does not mean you should think of him as a bad person. He is just a person who was not yet mature enough, back then, to avoid trouble. That immature Jameis Winston belongs to the past, and now it is time to focus on a new Jameis Winston.
…What the piece doesn’t supply are any quotes from someone who isn’t a friend or associate of Winston’s, or anything even approaching a meaningful discussion of the rape allegation.
What Ley discusses at the start there is perhaps the really interesting side of this: why would The Undefeated publish this story? Jameis Winston helping out at a teammate’s football camp and receiving positive comments from his teammates might make an okay blog post or potentially even a local newspaper story for someone covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but it’s hard to see the final story as having much national significance, certainly for a race-and-culture focused site.
As described above, it’s certainly soft-focus and does read like a press release. The only mention of Winston’s off-the-field issues is in relation to how he’s learned to “take criticism” and how he wants kids to “overcome adversity.” That’s highly problematic, especially when it’s from a site that’s supposed to be looking deeper on issues. They certainly didn’t do that here.
However, Ley’s comments about what was cut suggest there may have been a different angle in this piece initially. Here’s what he writes on that front:
Shortly after the story was published, Kennedy tweeted (and then deleted) a quote that didn’t make it into the final draft:
I’m interested in this quote’s exclusion from the piece. Not because it is righteous or illuminating—the endlessly scrutinized Johnny Manziel is a hilariously badly chosen example of an athlete who doesn’t get enough negative media coverage—but because it could have at least offered Kennedy an opening to make this story something other than a glorified press release. Murphy might be wrong in that quote, but at least he’s expressing ideas that are worthy of engaging.
The reasons Kennedy or his editors had for leaving that quote on the cutting room floor are the same reasons why this story is so stupendously bad. It was never meant to offer any critical analysis or frank discussion, but to gently remove words like “rape” and “cover-up” from conversations about Jameis Winston, and to replace them with “football IQ” and “potential.” It’s just supposed to sit there, unthinking and inert, showing us a few pretty pictures of Jameis Winston frolicking in the sun with some kids, dulling our senses until we won’t even flinch the next time a play-by-play announcer mentions all the adversity Winston overcame on his way to becoming one of the faces of the NFL.
The idea that Winston receives unfavorable coverage thanks to his race is a provocative one, but one that might have generated potentially-useful discussion if explored more fully. For example, an analysis of Google News coverage of him versus a white quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger who has also faced sexual assault allegations might offer data to support or refute that point, and that data could then be discussed, hopefully by some experts and not just Winston’s teammates. That might be an interesting read, and something worthy of The Undefeated.
Ley’s right that the quote here was probably cut because it didn’t fit the tone and focus of this piece, though. This wasn’t a serious look at Winston and how he’s covered in the media. It was a soft promotion of him, and an attempt to rehabilitate his public image. Readers should expect more than that from a site with The Undefeated’s resources, staff and mission.