Creative Liberties Taken in Latest ESPN Piece on Jameis Winston


I’ve not yet seen The Hunting Ground, the film about sexual assault on college campuses that features Jameis Winston’s accuser, Erica Kinsman. But I don’t need to to point out the holes in a piece penned about the film and published yesterday on The brief article, written by Jane McManus, essentially discusses how eye-opening the film is in exposing the runaway problem of rape at our colleges and universities, especially with regard to the involvement of student athletes.

I’m here neither to argue nor endorse that finding– again, I’ve not seen the film. But I will take issue with several turns of phrase employed by McManus.

If you’re paying attention, it doesn’t take long to pick up on logical fallacies employed by McManus. They begin in her title, which is “What ‘The Hunting Ground’ Shows About Jameis Winston and Campus Culture.” This is a double-barreled title, one that conveniently lumps Winston in with the larger issue of campus assaults. Even though Winston has never been arrested — let alone charged, and certainly not convicted — this title ties him to the overarching problem, basically saying to the reader that if there’s a problem with sexual assault, there’s a problem with Winston. It’s inaccurate at best, duplicitous and underhanded at worst.

Notice, however, that even though “Campus Culture” is the broader, big-picture issue, McManus — or, more likely, an editor at ESPN — is careful to get Winston’s name in there first, so her piece will come up sooner when people search his name in the days leading up to the NFL Draft. ESPN and McManus may struggle with fairly communicating the facts, but their SEO is spot on.

Disingenuousness in the title. Not a great start. Maybe things improve in the actual article.

Maybe not.

McManus begins by discussing next week’s draft. She discusses Winston’s current plan to spend time with family in Alabama: “Instead of sharing a bear hug with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the quarterback likely will stay home.” You hear that? We’re two sentences in, and McManus has employed fuzzy, feel-good words like “share,” and “bear hug,” and then set up Winston in opposition to the positive associations they conjure. And why is he doing it? To “stay home,” she writes, as if Winston is some brooding teenager refusing to come out of his room.

Check out the next sentence: “He says it’s because he wants to be around his family.” Now tell me how that’s different than this one: “It’s because he wants to be around his family.” McManus’ language (the first sentence) features just two more words — “He says” — but they underscore the idea that these are Winston’s words, which are not to be taken as interchangeable with the truth– and thus, a distinction must be made between the two.

Picture one of those cliched, black-and-white political attack ads– you can hear her tone: “Bob Smith says he wants to lower your taxes…” It’s calling into question one’s integrity.

And it continues: “And Goodell won’t force him to appear; he undoubtedly understands that the optics of welcoming Winston — who was accused of but not charged with raping a Florida State classmate — are complicated at best.” How dedicated is McManus to trashing Winston? She’s glorifying Roger Goodell, the man criticized for his blasé approach to assault in the league he runs. Here, it’s suggested that Goodell is somehow letting Winston slide on something, as if choosing to be with his diabetic grandmother, who cannot travel, is something otherwise worthy of reprimanding. Again, Winston is set up as some sort of delinquent, whereas Goodell is the permissive overseer letting him slide on eating his broccoli. He’s Uncle Joey. Furthermore, Goodell regularly poses at the NFL Draft with players not just accused, but charged, and even convicted, of crimes.

Another unfair imbalance occurs in the next paragraph, when McManus claims that “#FSUTwitter and survivors’ advocates may forever argue the facts.” So, if you believe Winston, along with the rulings of professional law enforcement, credible legal minds, and the evidence and testimonies thus far presented, you’re chalked up as a member of #FSUTwitter, implying that you’re merely siding with Winston out of loyalty to your school’s football program. But if you take up with Kinsman, you’re an advocate of survivors, which, of course, implies that Kinsman has indeed survived rape.

Furthermore, if this can really be “forever argue[d],” then isn’t McManus besmirching the important notion of “innocent until proven guilty” that is such a valuable cornerstone to the American criminal justice system? It seems like McManus would rather see Winston charged and convicted based on the very public opinion she’s seeking to shape.

McManus tries to sum up the the film in the next paragraph: “Kinsman drops her anonymity and talks at length about her version of events — a version that has remained the same for more than two years.” Her attempt at synopsis winds up as pure fabrication. Has McManus paid any attention to this case? Kinsman didn’t know Winston– then she did. She was knocked over the head. No, she was drugged. No wait, she was intimidated. Consistency has not exactly been a strong suit of the accuser.

Much of the rest of the piece discusses details of the film, which, again, I’ve not seen, so I’ll obviously recuse myself there. But McManus finished by hoping to pull at the readers’ heartstrings, characterizing the respective predicaments of Kinsman and Winston as follows: “One has been shunned by her community, while the other will emerge from a tunnel to cheers on Sundays this fall. The images are lasting: A smiling Winston holds the Heisman Trophy, a resigned Kinsman tells her side of the story once again.” First, an issue with diction: “resigned”? Kinsman may or may not be many things, but her actions have established her as far from resigned. Does someone “resigned” file suit against both Florida State and Winston? Does someone “resigned” forfeit her anonymity to appear in a major documentary? No.

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There may very well be issues with institutional attitudes toward allegations of sexual assault at the college level. But McManus has taken it upon herself to assume to know the facts, and, in this final image, elicit sympathy for Kinsman while begrudgingly suggesting that Winston is getting away with something. But given the evidence presented so far and the decisions made by legal scholars far more knowledgeable than myself or McManus, the image of Winston running onto an NFL field to cheers is much more in line with what he deserves than her one-sided judgements.