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BILL DWYRE

Jameis Winston has smiles for BCS media, but cloud remains

The Florida State quarterback is affable in talking to reporters about BCS title game, and he no longer faces a court case, but it is worth considering the fallout beyond football.

January 03, 2014|Bill Dwyre
  • Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston will try to add 'national champion' to his resume, which already includes Heisman Trophy winner.
Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston will try to add 'national… (Gregory Bull / Associated…)

For a while, it was difficult to know whether we would hear more from Jameis Winston via the courtroom or the football field.

Now, as sports people like to say in the aftermath of negativity, Winston has put all the bad stuff behind him.

No courtroom looms. Ahead is the glamour of playing a leading role in Monday night's Bowl Championship Series title game at the Rose Bowl. Winston is Florida State's quarterback. His top-ranked team will face Auburn. There are many story lines, but Winston's is the attention-getter.

Just the ordinary stuff would be enough.

He is a redshirt freshman. He will be 20 years old on game day. He has already won the Heisman Trophy. He is a spectacular player, leading the Seminoles to a 13-0 record by passing for 3,820 yards and rushing for 193.

In his first start, against Pittsburgh, he completed 25 of 27 passes, and one of the incompletions — ruled a non-catch — was a controversial call.

He threw 38 touchdown passes, even more noteworthy considering that, in the NFL, Peyton Manning's successful pursuit of Tom Brady's record of 50 has been one of pro football's season highlights. The NFL plays 16 games, and Manning and Brady are grizzled veterans. Winston is, until Monday, a 19-year-old kid.

The accolades and adulation are well-placed. So is the "but" you knew was coming.

A year ago, Winston was involved in a sexual encounter with a Florida State student. She called it rape. He didn't call it anything for almost a year because nobody, notably the Tallahassee, Fla., police, asked. When they did, and once the case was resurrected via leaks to the media in November as Winston's prominence grew as a leading candidate for the Heisman, he called what had happened "consensual sex." He did that through his lawyer.

So, we had yet another "he-said, she-said" sexual assault case involving an athlete. And just before the Atlantic Coast Conference football title game and the voting deadline for the Heisman, we got the predictable "we just can't prove it" announcement.

Florida State Atty. William Meggs chortled his way through the news conference — apparently, these sexual assault cases are real knee-slappers — and Winston was not charged with any crime.

That brings us to Friday morning at BCS media headquarters in Newport Beach, where reporters received prolonged access to Winston for one of the few times since all the bad stuff hit the news.

The fascination is obvious. There will be millions watching him play Monday night, and few will be neutral. He will be the elephant in the room, the No. 5 with a cloud drifting overhead and a perceived asterisk on his jersey.

Most Florida State fans love him unconditionally for his football skills and tuck the other stuff away in the back of their minds. Some parents of daughters will grimace and frown, maybe even turn the channel.

TV will probably tread lightly, because bad news and perceived bad actors are bad for ratings. Plus, all together now, "He was never charged."

That phrase is a crutch typically embraced by those who want it to convey "he's innocent." Not so, at least not known. It's more likely to mean the people prosecuting weren't certain they could win, so they didn't try.

Even that is subjective. A former attorney named Julie DiCaro, a rape victim herself, wrote recently on Deadspin.com that her reading of the Winston police report showed enough to prosecute.

That's her view, and everybody the least bit interested in this game has one. A Dec. 6 story on ESPN.com drew 7,000 comments.

All this makes Winston perhaps the most polarizing player ever in this bright-lights, Super-Bowl-of-college game.

The assumption would be that Winston would do his best to keep a shell around himself this week. Not so. He is a Deion Sanders in the making. He is quotable, engaging, bright, eager to answer and please. He is one of those people who doesn't just smile, he lights up. Those who feel strongly about the rape accusation probably wish he had the personality of a jerk, but he doesn't. He comes across as confident, not cocky.

He credits his teammates at every opportunity, saying they deserved the Heisman, not him. He knows sports history and cites it. He mentions Ethan, 8, the son of Florida State Coach Jimbo Fisher. Ethan has a potentially life-threatening blood disorder known as Fanconi anemia.

When he is questioned, usually in some sort of code that includes words such as "the controversy" and the "bad times," he doesn't duck or bob and weave. He jabs back.

He says things such as:

"I didn't do anything wrong."

"What people think outside of this and what people are trying to do, I can't control any of that."

"The football field is my sanctuary."

He also says, bravely and incorrectly, "My life hasn't changed at all."

You wonder if he ever thinks about whether that is the case for the young woman involved in their sexual encounter, whatever it was.

That would be the young woman who doesn't have the same chance to charm the media that Winston does, the young woman who is no longer a student at Florida State.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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