On Saturday night in New York, the best player in College Football will be handed the coveted Heisman Trophy.
The awards ceremony will be overshadowed, however, by an alleged case of sexual assault that once again brings into focus the second class status of any victim who doesn’t happen to be a high-profile college athlete in the US.
There’s no more famous, no more coveted symbol in the game than the small bronze statuette, modelled after the pre-war footballer Ed Smith, stiff-arming an unseen opponent and inspiring touchdown celebrations to this day by gently arrogant young candidates for what is effectively a lifetime membership of a club for the elite of the collegiate game.
As I’ve written in this column before, the Heisman voters are required by tradition to take into account character as well as performance.
And although it is as good as it gets at that level of the sport, it is by no means an infallible prediction of future success as a pro. A universally popular winner two years ago, Robert Griffin III has endured a hellish 2013 that began with a second serious knee injury in January. Now it looks as though he’ll round off the year as the underperforming pawn in a Washington football power grab.
His coach Mike Shanahan is appropriately unsettled by the cosy relationship shared by Griffin and controversial Washington owner Dan Snyder, a businessman canny enough to know the future of his operation is better served by the winning smile of RG3 than the grumpy features of Shanahan.
The mini-saga seems to be closing in on its denouement this week and is more entertaining than it should be — Shanahan deems to be daring his boss to fire him by dropping his quarterback for the rest of an already failed season. It’s a coaching move that makes sense but with one home game to go before the season ends, it would hurt Snyder’s bottom line.
It’s a messy contrast to that glitzy night two years ago when the camera flashes bounced off Griffin’s beaming smile and ESPN fawned over the Superman socks the then Baylor University quarterback wore under his expensive suit.
As far back as the spring, those of us fortunate enough not to be enveloped by Tallahassee, Florida’s intoxicating obsession with football were beginning to learn about a gem of a quarterback Florida State University would be unveiling for the 2013 season. First thing we needed to know was that in order to pronounce 19-year-old Jameis Winston’s first name, all we’d have to do would be to rhyme it with ‘famous’. Famous Jameis crept on to the national stage courtesy of amateur YouTube videos of him throwing spiralled passes over rooftops and his genuinely outrageous antics in front of any press camera, big or small.
He hit the ground running with his Seminoles team in September and they are all set to play for the National Championship in January. Winston will run away with the Heisman Trophy, clearly superior to last year’s winner Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron.
The decision process was made much easier for voters last week, however, when Florida State District Attorney Willie Meggs decided against pursuing sexual assault charges against Winston.
The decision was announced at a bizarre press conference broadcast live on ESPN and it proved to be an unsettling conclusion to what was a murky investigation into a crime against a young female student that took place a year ago but was swept under the carpet as Winston prepared for the year of his life.
It is unclear what really happened that night and the alleged victim herself endured some memory lapses along the way, but in deciding not to go ahead with the case against Winston the player enjoyed the benefit of a couple of doubts to a greater extent than any other mere mortals who have found themselves in similar circumstances.
Tallahassee police defended their investigation and the manner in which they approached the high- profile nature of their suspect, saying they preserved evidence from the incident despite the victim’s unwillingness to press charges.
But when Winston stands tall on Saturday night and his large smiling eyes survey the adulation he will no doubt receive, when he looks ahead to another year on a great campus before the prospect of millions in earnings, there will be a shattered young life left out in the cold. Nobody will really know why — and when the world belongs fleetingly to Winston, no one will care.
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