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.
So the writer of the piece, Alex Kennedy, quickly brings up the rape allegation so he can brush it aside and move on to Winston’s work with teens at a football camp. It is just one of a brief list of examples of Winston’s previous, regrettable lack of “maturity”:
Winston’s off-field issues have been well-documented, from his shoplifting citation to the sexual-assault allegation for which he wasn’t charged. He believed it was important to bring up his own struggles in life in order to connect with the campers and make sure that his message resonated with them. As he told them, “If you can’t take criticism, you shouldn’t be playing football.”
This is a shifty and irresponsible way to talk about Winston’s past. “He wasn’t charged” actively hides the truth of the matter, which is that the investigation into the alleged rape was actively hampered by university officials, the police, and Winston’s attorneys. This is a case that was handled by police officers who failed to interview key witnesses and do basic investigatory work, and who allowed Winston’s own lawyers access to police reports and witnesses while waiting months to inform the prosecutor’s office that an allegation had been made.
All of that might make it difficult to frame a story about Winston’s newly developed strength of character. So much more reason for Kennedy to hurry on to the scene with the football campers and to the praise from the teammates who need Winston to succeed.
“He cares about the kids and this community,” Louis Murphy, the camp host, who catches passes from Winston from a living, is quoted as saying.
“His work in the community is like no other,” defensive tackle Akeem Spence is quoted as saying.
“It’s very important to me,” Winston said of his work in the community. “I know I can’t be in my hometown all the time, but I can be a face and be a voice in St. Pete and Tampa.”
Kennedy hits all the other faux-redemptive notes that a story like this depends on: His teammates and friends tell what a hard worker Winston is; Winston puts in “nearly seven hours” at the football camp to which the reporter has come to watch him. 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.
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.