College football has a social media problem

Will college athletes ever learn about the hazards of PR in the Internet age?

Mar 1, 2020, 8:35 pm*

Internet Culture

Jameis Winston, star quarterback at Florida State University, has been filling up the Internet with his non sports-related antics, such as shoplifting and rape allegations. He recently made headlines once again following an incident where he stood on a table in the student union and shouted, “F**k her right in the pussy!” to a crowd of his fellow Seminoles.

However, many at FSU, along with Seminoles fans, seem to care more about Winston’s stats and his role in helping the university win the ACC National Championship than about his actions. While he brings in a lot of revenue to the school, which averages over $19 million in profit from the football team annually, does that mean he should get a pass?

The trouble with Jameis started after he was accused (and later acquitted) of raping a fellow Seminole. On the morning of December 7, 2012, a freshman reported to authorities that she had been raped after a night of drinking at a local watering hole, Potbelly’s. After giving her testimony to police, bruises began to appear on her body.

Test results would later discover semen on her underwear.

The response from students and alumni was nothing sort of revolting. For instance, take this piece on Vice by Jules Suzdaltsev:

Local athletics are a big deal; they provide a sinkhole for taxpayer dollars, promote gender segregation, and remind kids that an affordable education is not for those who can’t dunk or tackle. So let’s maybe ease up on accusing athletes, at least until they’ve finished out the season. The local sports-worship community depends on it.

The piece was meant to be a meditation on how the police had not done a thorough investigation of the incident due to Winston’s high status within the community. Readers, however, took to the comment section to jump to their alleged rapist quarterback’s defense. Danny Jiminez wrote, “[T]he author of this story is a lesbian obsessed with rape. F**k her!” Justin Wells chimes in with this doozy: “She probably consensually f**ked him, then when she found out that he was the next big thing in sports decided to cash in.” The dehumanizing comments highlighted the disdain with which many football fans viewed Winston’s alleged victim.

Months after Winston was not charged with rape, he shook the fervent football community once again by stealing crab legs from a local Publix. The Heisman Trophy winner was let off with a citation and little public shaming. Although it was a ridiculous prank, the incident reinforced the common notion that athletes are allowed to get away with anything as long as they keep bringing home the trophies.

The theft was rather curious, given that the NCAA had just recently allotted “unlimited meals” on campus in order to enhance athletes’ experiences at their schools. Why steal crab legs when you can eat to your heart’s content for free? Videos of the incident leaked online shortly afterwards, but it was a flash in the pan in the public consciousness. Winston and FSU went on to win the 2014 National Championship, and all was well.

One might think that after this track record and in the face of rape allegations, it would seem extremely insensitive and ill-advised to shout something like “f**k her right in the pussy” to a room full of colleagues and peers, but Winston seems to struggle with understanding how someone in the collegiate spotlight should conduct himself.

The Internet, and even more importantly Twitter, has facilitated the extremely rapid spread of information on every misstep of someone in the public eye. This incident seems to have been the breaking point: FSU students immediately took to social media to chronicle their run-ins with the football star, and the tone of these conversations began to take a decidedly unfriendly turn.

It’s a shame that someone as young and promising as Jameis Winston has already faced so much scrutiny before he’s really begun; however, as millennials, it’s nothing new to know that every step is being watched by the world when we exist online. As a high-profile athlete as well as a member of the Internet generation, Winston should be aware of this, making his behavior seem almost wilfully obnoxious. Although it is unclear whether FSU student athletes are provided with publicists, it would seem wise in light of recent events for some student athletes to receive social media training.

Certainly many colleges and universities offer social media education to their athletes and provide policy guidelines on the use of platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Such training also includes discussions on polite conduct. The FSU student conduct code applies to Winston as it does to other students, regardless as to his training in social media.    

Florida State is beginning to turn away from their athletic darling before he’s had a chance to become a legacy. According to reports, Florida State’s athletic department responded by sidelining Winston for the first half of their recent game against Clemson, stating that his outburst in the student union was “offensive and vulgar.” The staff further promised, “Jameis Winston will undergo internal discipline.”

We can only hope that at least a fraction of people invested in the outcome on the scoreboard are also interested in the integrity of the players on the field. It is time that the collegiate system stops overlooking the pitfalls of its players. The Internet has allowed scrutiny to come from all sides of the opinion board, and it’s about time people like Winston learned just how bright the Web makes the spotlight on college athletes.

In an age where we are constantly connected to the world through our pockets, millennials and public figures need to understand how the scope of our online lives is wide and powerful. The line between what’s public and private is blurring, and if they want to continue to play, college athletes should stop thinking they’re above the societal standards of a public leader. 

Note: An earlier version of this piece listed FSU’s annual revenue from football as $19,000. It’s $19 million.

Photo via Photo via Jerk Alert Productions/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Sep 26, 2014, 12:30 pm