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Jameis Winston and the NCAA's Golden Cage of Privilege

Ever since becoming a college football demigod, Jameis Winston's off-the-field life has been defined by the privileges the NCAA can both grant and deny.

by Tomas Rios
Oct 20 2014, 4:55pm

Photo by Adam Hunger/USA TODAY Sports

Any story involving Jameis Winston, the NCAA, and Darren Rovell isn't headed anywhere good, but that awful combination is even worse when placed in its full context. A context that shows how the NCAA's century of exploitation has helped decay our collective morality, and left in its place moral tenets indistinguishable from those we associate with the days of American genocide and slavery. In the middle of it all is Winston, who lives in a golden cage of privilege that contracts and expands per the needs of those exploiting his labor. Privilege, in the case of Winston and America as a whole, decides to what degree you can expect to get fucked over by the world.

Privilege is also what decides who gets the shit-end of a Darren Rovell story.

Last week, a series of reports spearheaded by Rovell, ESPN's sports business reporter, revealed a suspicious volume of Winston autographs had been certified through the James Spence Authentication (JSA) website. The reports uncovered more than 2,000 such autographs, many of which were authenticated sequentially by JSA—the implication being that Winston signed the items en masse for a memorabilia dealer who would have (presumably) paid him for that service. In other words, ESPN ran a series of reports that held no value to anyone, save for the NCAA's compliance watchdogs. While it's easy to make fun of Rovell's #brand obsessed nature, here we see what happens when a pseudo-reporter with the critical insight of an especially brilliant boulder is granted the full faith and credit of an outfit with ESPN's unmatched resources.

Read More: Who We Talk About When Athletes Are Accused of Sexual Assault

Following Rovell's ESPN-commissioned snitching on Winston's (likely) side-hustle in autographed memorabilia, the NCAA-mandated compliance department of Winston's school, Florida State University (FSU), set itself to the task of investigating perhaps the single most important crime of our era: the possibility that a college athlete made money off being a college athlete. Fear not, we have already been assured by FSU that there is not yet any evidence suggesting Winston had the temerity to make money for anyone other than the NCAA and FSU.

This is the same FSU that stands accused by the New York Times of violating federal law over its non-handling of rape allegations brought against Winston in December 2012. An investigation by federal education officials is ongoing, but the facts of the case are damning. Records uncovered by the Times show that university officials knew about the rape allegations by January 2013 and waited until January 2014—after Winston won the Heisman trophy and led FSU to victory in the BCS championship game—to even attempt to ask Winston about the allegations. Granted, there is no small measure of madness in expecting universities to play an active role in matters of criminal justice, but given that Tallahassee police waited 13 days to contact Winston after he was identified by the victim as her alleged rapist, perhaps there is something to be said for spreading out the incompetence.

A group of Jameis Winston fans reacting to the news he'd been cleared of criminal charges. Photo by Tallahassee Democrat-USA TODAY Sports-USA TODAY Sports

If nothing else, Winston's present situation makes for a good case study on just how much privilege an exploited person can wield. Winston, as perhaps the most financially valuable athlete in all of college sports, enjoys the most privilege anyone in his field can have—and yet he is still just another unpaid laborer, another cog in the NCAA's ongoing con on the American people.

On one side of the ledger is the fact that Winston was accused of rape and benefitted from the sort of dispassionate investigation common to cases of sexual assault. Winston—the Heisman-winning quarterback of a culturally adored college football juggernaut—enjoys a privileged status in any community where FSU football holds sway, but it's not like someone needs to be famous to get away with rape in this country. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey administered by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 60 percent of all sexual assault cases go unreported. Part of the reason why lies in how the Winston case was handled by both FSU and the Tallahassee police department, as well as the local reaction to the allegations, which ranged from misogynistic to wildly misogynistic. The failure to charge Winston was inevitable, foreshadowed the moment the investigating officer asked the victim "Are you sure you want to file a report?" Really, the way this country handles cases of sexual assault makes clear that this country could not give less of a fuck about sexual assault. However, the same goes for the rights of workers.

From 2011-2012, FSU football generated $34,484,786 in revenue; a figure that has undoubtedly skyrocketed since Winston's reign began in 2013. FSU has already vaulted from twenty-first to eighth in in licensing royalties revenue following its 2014 BCS title. Winston will see exactly none of that money because the NCAA has damn near resolved capitalism's end-game: extracting labor without compensation. The vast majority of American society is perfectly happy with this setup because capitalism spurs on the base instincts that should have been lost when the human species hustled its way out of the food chain. Consider that we escaped nature's cruelest system and replaced it with one of our making; one that allows us to cheer on the exploitation of young adults without a hint of moral quandary. The fact is that humans have demonstrated a great tolerance for exploitation as long as they're getting something out of it, and college football does deliver on its promise of consequence free violence for the viewer. No one who watches college football is actively processing the fact that their chosen entertainment is, at its core, socially acceptable exploitation.

Anyone who doubts where this country stands on the idea of exploited labor need only consider the absence of a broad social movement to address the injustice of colleges and universities exploiting the labor of their own students. While the legal movement to address the exploitation inherent to college athletics has made advances, the whole of American history shows that the side with more money—more power—always manages to recast small defeats as revolutionary change. It's the same trick of placation that has allowed the American love affair with oppression to find new forms while we idly point to culturally ancient victories over America's greatest sins. Somehow, the same country that ended slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation simultaneously engendered a social myopia that left future generations convinced that the sins of the past come with a social half-life of zero, despite definitive evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, the criminals of the modern, "post-racial" America are constantly learning how to contort themselves into legitimacy without giving up a cent off the bottom line.

This is why an allegation of rape against Winston is met with an institutionalized shrug; it poses no threat to the NCAA's profit margin. However, the possibility that Winston may have resorted to black market memorabilia deals to recoup a fraction of his exploited labor is a matter of grave importance to both the NCAA and their business partners at ESPN. The television rights contract between FSU's host Atlantic Coast Conference and ESPN is worth $3.6 billion alone, which means both sides have a financial stake in keeping a veil of legitimacy on the sham of amateurism. ESPN taking up the role of de facto compliance department officer shows how the broad decay encouraged by acceptable exploitation can take hold even within the supposedly sacrosanct world of journalism. There is no conspiracy here per se, it's just how shit works when there isn't a clean dollar to be made.

And so the alleged rapist who got off thanks to a botched pseudo-investigation led by various permutations of the American id is now learning a valuable lesson. The lesson is that his golden cage of privilege is enviable by the standards of an exploited worker, but it's still a cage. Having a multi-billion dollar industry on your side is a wonderful privilege when you stand accused of a crime, but being part of that same industry means it will turn on you the second your crimes threaten the power that allows it to grant privilege in the first place.

It might be unintentional, but at least the NCAA is willing to teach its exploited laborers how America works.