Today is one of the most important days in the college football season and the reason I know is because every December for about 30 years I voted on the Heisman Trophy. Each year the list seemed to dwindle down to just a few candidates and – believe it or not – how a finalist performs in one of the many rivalries that end the regular season today has a real impact on the ballot.
The Heisman Trophy ballots arrived this week and they must be returned to the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City by Dec. 9 before the awards ceremony Dec. 14. So the huge question, albeit unwritten, on the ballot going into a Saturday that features the leading candidates is this: “Are you innocent until you are proven guilty?”
Yes, if I were to fill out a Heisman Trophy ballot tomorrow afternoon, as I did for years, the chances are good that Florida State’s Jameis Winston’s name would be among my top three choices. There is no question he has had a sensational season but there is a huge question in the minds of voters across America whether the freshman quarterback will soon be indicted on sexual assault charges in Tallahassee. Mind you, he has never been charged and my view is that he is innocent until proven otherwise.
But there is increasing evidence that a year-old investigation has been botched by the Tallahassee Police Department and that the life of a coed was almost ruined. In the last few weeks, renewed interest in the case has exploded and Heisman voters openly wonder what to do. "It is innocent til proven guilty, right?" Bruce Feldman of CBS.com told the Associated Press. "Do people think the Heisman Trophy is more important than that?"
Listen to John Silver of the Journal Inquirer in Connecticut: "This is a conundrum as a voter that is a can't-win situation. On one hand, I want to give Winston the benefit of the doubt and, if he's the best player in college football, then he should get it. But, character matters, and imagine the thought of Winston at the Heisman ceremony with a sex charge awaiting him when he gets back to Tallahassee? That's a disaster for the Heisman and college football."
While responsible news outlets would never print the victim’s name or picture, both can disgustingly be found on fan-based FSU sports websites and the victim’s family has now made two public statements, the gist of both being the girl was most definitely raped last December. She went to authorities and then the hospital immediately after it happened. Winston’s lawyer claimed it was consensual. Suddenly the Heisman Trust has a problem so ugly it is unprecedented.
The mission statement from the Heisman Trust reads: “The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.” Those last two words, “with integrity,” is more than a catchy phrase but the great majority of the voters see only the words “performance” and “excellence.”
That is exactly what happened in 2010 when Auburn’s Cam Newton won the award before leading the Tigers to a national championship. Cam, you’ll recall, started his college career at Florida but was thrown out of school about as quickly as he once launched a stolen laptop computer out of a dormitory window to get dismissed in Gainesville. There were also rumors he had been paid to sign with Auburn over Mississippi State. Regardless, he was an easy winner.
This time last year Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was squarely aligned to become the first freshman to ever win the trophy and, while he has been every bit as good in this, his second season, his off-the-field behavior has been dreadful and his autograph scandal quite embarrassing. Add his “show me the money” on-the-field antics and it is a given any voter “with integrity” will leave Johnny Football off the ballot.
According to ESPN, Winston is still leading in sample balloting, commanding an impressive lead over running back Andre Williams of Boston College and Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron. Manziel is fourth, following by Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch.
Winston’s statistics are incredible, 32 touchdowns, just seven interceptions and a completion rate of 69.6 percent. The Seminoles are also unbeaten and, if he avoids being indicted, he will probably play in the BCS national championship game.
Williams, on the other hand, has hardly had the exposure on a 7-4 Boston College team. He has rushed for a miraculous 2,073 yards this season, scoring 16 TDs at 6.5 yards per carry. McCarron, who has thrown for 15 TDs against 5 interceptions for a 68.6 completion average, has made a late surge in Heisman sampling as he and his famous teammates dominate one team after another. Today’s Iron Bowl match-up at Auburn will be telling.
A spokesman for the Heisman Trust has said the trophy’s governing body will make no premature announcement but, if necessary, will step in. One scenario would be that if Winston is indicted, the Trust could disqualify him from the ballot and voters could be polled for alternate selections.
The state district attorney in Tallahassee announced earlier this week there are still some unanswered questions in its renewed investigation, but when the city’s police department issued a time-line Friday in an effort to curb criticism, Winston’s lawyer immediately accused the police of revealing sensitive information and tainting a jury pool if one becomes necessary.
What an unexpected mess this has become.