Do Sports Build Character — Heisman Trophy Edition

December 6, 2013

“I think they handled it tremendous,” Fisher said of the team’s reaction to the Winston investigation. “I think it’s because they believe in each other. They trust in each other. They believe in what we’re doing here. They want to play for each other.”

That quotation is from Jimbo Fisher, coach of the Florida State Seminoles, about his team after the Florida Attorney General announced that no sexual assault charges would be filed against his star quarterback Jameis Winston. (A link to an ABC report containing the quotation is here; I saw a clip of Fisher saying this on ESPN’s Sports Center.) I’m struck by the double standard he voices in terms of what he expects from players on the field and off the field. And which do you think is the more important realm?

Put Fisher’s execrable grammar to one side. Fisher is praising his players’ commitment to one another: the respect they have for one another, and the trust they put in one another. To play well together as this Florida State team does (ranked number one in the polls), his players need to be committed to one another day in and day out. Fisher is praising his players for maintaining that attitude through the very public consideration of whether rape charges would be filed against Winston. And I take Fisher to be crediting the football program at FSU for instilling these values: that is “what we are doing here.”

But what about his players values off the field? Do they show respect for others? Are they steadfast in their commitments? Do they trust others and act in a trustworthy way?

We do not know what transpired between Winston and the unnamed young woman who made the accusation of rape. The Attorney General’s statement doesn’t clear Winston of responsibility; it simply says there was not sufficient evidence to have a high probability of finding him guilty in a court of law. Winston himself admits that there was a sexual encounter the night in question. He claims the encounter was “consensual.”

I have my doubts that “consensual” is the best term to characterize the encounter. The simple fact of her complaint makes that unlikely. But for the moment, let’s imagine that term as somehow appropriate. Let’s ask whether Jameis Winston showed respect for the young woman that night. Let’s ask whether he behaved in a trustworthy way. Let’s ask whether he showed commitment that can be expected to endure? These are the values Fisher wants to say his program is promoting in these young men. But to ask these questions is to answer them in the negative, each and every one.

So, again, I am struck at the complete disconnect in Jimbo Fisher’s mind. And his disconnection is just today’s exemplar of a disconnect that runs through big-time Division I athletics. Whatever the values ostensibly taught on the field, these character traits are not carried off the field.

In the next week, various sportswriters across the country will fill out ballots for this year’s Heisman Trophy winner, given each year through such voting to the best college football player in the nation. Jameis Winston has emerged as the odds-on favorite to win the award this year. Sports writers took it as axiomatic that if Winston had been charged with rape that he would not have won the Heisman. But now that he will not be charged, he appears again as the favorite.

Hasn’t done any serious crime for which he can be legally prosecuted: is that our measure of character? Or do we expect something more of young men and women when we single them out for honor?

Of course I don’t have a vote, but if I did, I wouldn’t vote for Jameis Winston to win the Heisman Trophy. Would you?

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
This entry was posted in Athletics, Responsibility and Ethics, Student Life. Bookmark the permalink.

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