Jameis Winston and when colleges play the role of courts

We can’t let a week go by without yet another story about football, violence and / or sexual assault, can we? This time the focus shifts once again to Florida State University where one of the Seminoles is in the spotlight.

Florida State officials notified reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston on Friday that he will face a disciplinary hearing into charges about whether he sexually assaulted an FSU student in December 2012.

In a letter sent to Winston and his attorney on Friday and obtained by ESPN, FSU interim president Garnett Stokes and vice president for student affairs Mary B. Coburn notified Winston that he might be charged with as many as four violations of FSU’s student conduct code, two of which involve sexual conduct.

Florida State is currently under investigation by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which is trying to determine whether the university properly protected the woman’s Title IX rights when she accused Winston of sexually assaulting her on Dec. 7, 2012.

If you’re not already familiar with the details of the 2012 allegations, you can click through the link and get a fairly good summary. This story has more than a few potentially ugly twists and turns, but also far too much which is left unknown and currently unknowable. Not only has Winston been accused of sexual assault, but if the allegations are accurate, both the college and local law enforcement could have been involved in covering it up, whitewashing the details and sweeping a possible criminal inquiry under the rug.

Here’s the problem with the above paragraph: it involves far too many instances of “allegedly” or “could have been” and is still lacking in items which have been proven or even established to a reasonable degree. But that isn’t stopping the school from moving forward with their own brand of justice, and herein lies the problem with how such politically charged subjects are being treated on campus.

I’ve heard the argument being made that colleges monitor, investigate and punish many activities on campus as part of their code of conduct. For certain actions that’s clearly appropriate. Some violations, such as cheating on tests, plagiarizing the materials of others for a school paper or even boorish, drunken cavorting on campus are examples of things which may not cross the line into criminal behavior but could result in suspension or expulsion from the school. These are the types of charges which schools are probably best equipped to investigate and the punishments are not judicial in nature.

But the Winston case jumps fully across that line in the sand and delves into matters which are only suitable to a criminal court. Jameis does not stand accused of copying off of another student’s midterm exam. We’re talking about sexual assault. When a person is accused of that it is a matter to be taken up by the district attorney and brought before a judge and jury. If guilty, the accused will face much larger problems than losing his scholarship. (Though after conviction, the school is clearly obligated to give them the boot in addition to whatever punishment the judge sees fit to hand down.) But what if the accusation turns out to be incorrect and the student is exonerated? By taking on the role of the criminal courts, the school has effectively ended the career and fundamentally derailed the life of the student with nothing to back up the reason for it.

FSU has “identified three individuals from outside the university who are willing to hear the case.” This is apparently the day in court which will be offered to Winston before the school potentially hands down some non-judicial punishment which will alter his life forever. And what of the original criminal charge which spurred this?

In December 2013, Willie Meggs, the state’s district attorney in Tallahassee, declined to pursue criminal charges against Winston after a three-week investigation.

To be clear, this does not mean that the DA’s office is above suspicion, and since claims have been made against them alleging a coverup, it needs to be looked into. But in the meantime, it appears that the college will grab three people entirely outside the state’s legal system to sit in place of judge and jury.

It may eventually be established that Winston committed a crime, and possibly that both the university and the cops were involved in actionable illegal activity as well. If that’s the case, then swift action is required and those culpable need to face their fate in court. But we also need to ensure that a distinction is drawn between the roles of the colleges and the courts and we have the proper authorities passing judgement on those accused of wrongdoing.