Let’s get this out of the way: Jameis Winston did something stupid. He spoke corrosively, in public, about sexuality. You can read the words in the link. There’s no acute need to make them reappear in this space.
Given Winston’s recent past, one would like to think this is something he should have been able to steer clear of. Yet, this was merely speech, and not something physically violent. It was unpleasant, but it was not something which traumatized an individual person in a direct encounter… something which did happen to Janay Rice and — in a separate instance — Nicole Holder, Greg Hardy’s former girlfriend.
What we have in front of us with this latest Winston story is something between “no big deal at all” and “what an awful, disgusting, stupid monster Jameis Winston is.” No, I do not expect people to repress their hot takes. I do not expect large swaths of people to withhold outrage.
I can maintain the hope that we can do better, that we can be better, that we can speak and reason better about a story such as this one. This hope would exist in any situation, but the moment feels more urgent in light of all the disturbing stories that have flowed from the NFL in recent weeks. The intensity of scrutiny visited upon the NFL and the lives of football players, relative to sexuality and the treatment of women, has been so pronounced that Americans are more aware than ever of enduring impulses and attitudes in the human animal. I use the term “human” because this is not somehow unique to Americans or to football players. It’s more prevalent, yes, but this is not something inherent to football players or even athletes.
Leaders at the International Monetary Fund get caught being sexually abusive, not just quarterbacks. Men who are age 62 do this, not just 20-something athletes in their physical prime. Women do this, not just men. The focus here is not on what happens “most of the time,” only on whether something is inherent or not. The only “inherent” part of this is that human beings are inherently vulnerable to doing stupid things, flawed things, power-hungry things, irresponsible things. This doesn’t mean all of us succumb to that vulnerability, but we all face that vulnerability.
This latest Jameis Winston story serves as another call to get human beings — particularly in an American (and sports-centered) cultural situation — to try to deal with our shared vulnerability to our darker impulses, using the healthiest possible approach. Such a conversation should always be welcome when an uncomfortable story emerges in broad daylight.
Let’s try to start (not end) that conversation here.
NOT EITHER-OR, BUT BOTH-AND:
BEING EMPATHIC AND CRITICAL TOWARD JAMEIS WINSTON
We are guaranteed to act imperfectly, but we are not guaranteed to act horribly. One would like to think that all readers of this piece can agree on that point. There’s a vast gulf between a simple mistake and a grievous sin against humanity. This serves as a reasonable basis for framing the Jameis Winston discussion of the moment.
Winston’s speech was ugly, but his larger action was not that severe. It was not directed toward one person. It is, in the broader scheme of things, not that big a deal. However, that’s not quite “no big deal at all, with nothing to be learned from the episode.” It’s disappointing that Winston, given the particular nature of what he’s been through, would lack self-awareness about his public speech and the consequences it can carry. Yet, this is obviously not the sort of thing which should tar an athlete with a scarlet letter the way it seemingly has (and should) for Ray Rice.
You can see here that I’m trying to swim between these two walls, two extremes on both sides of this issue. This is definitely not something to be shrugged off and casually dismissed, and it’s just as surely not something to be seen as some central and final indictment. There’s a place to criticize Winston… and there’s also a place to encourage Winston to be a better, wiser man…
… so that he doesn’t become a Ray Rice or a Greg Hardy, part of one of the worst months in the near-90-year history of the National Football League, the most popular sports league in this country, the league with such a deep and lasting grip on our culture and its imagination.
This is not an either-or situation, in which only one approach and one tone of voice will suffice. This is a time to use a both-and approach. It should be critical but also constructive. It should be aware of the difficulty of Winston’s own life situation, but even more aware of power dynamics in relationships and how right speech — proper communication, essentially — sets such an important and necessary tone in an individual intimate relationship and in the whole of society as well.
How do we encourage Jameis Winston — and other prominent football players immersed in the often-distorting sea of fame and hype which can easily lead any human person astray — to be that better, wiser man? That’s as healthy a focus as one could imagine.
Let’s briefly try to start this conversation and account for many competing views and tension points.
What would you do if you had a chance to speak to Jameis Winston today, in light of what he’s just said in a public setting?
Many answers exist, all of them containing a certain degree of truth, but kernels of truth need to be supplemented with accompanying contextual wisdom. (More will be said on this shortly.)
Some would likely say to Winston, “Stop being stupid. This is not hard. You should know better, no matter how young you might be.”
Others would say something to the effect of, “Your school and your parents really aren’t guiding you well, but that doesn’t excuse your actions. Grow up, and try to find a priest/counselor/minister so you can get your mind right.”
Others would say, “You know, Jameis, you’re a smart person, but you have to be aware of what it means to be a public figure in American culture. What you do and say might be something that shouldn’t fly through the internet and sports cable shows, but it does, and you just have to be savvy about that.”
Others would say, “Look, you have so much in front of you. You can’t be careless in any public situation. Find ways to vent or give expression to ‘man talk’ in private settings with people you know and trust, and with which there’s a mutually understood network of caring where no one might be offended or injured by anything you say.”
All of the above statements contain some truth and, therefore, some value. Yet, I keep going back to the need to find a middle ground between “It’s no big deal” and “This is a defining picture of who Jameis Winston — a 20-year-old person swamped with pressure, publicity, and the possibility of a very lucrative NFL future — truly is.”
One thing which has to be said up front is that we should not feel it important to have to define or label Winston himself. Labeling his speech and actions as offensive? Yes. The person? No.
If you were to talk to Winston today, you wouldn’t tell him he was stupid, would you? You can (and should) express disapproval toward his actions, but when you cross the boundary and say that the person is stupid, that person — Winston or anyone else you might counsel in a similar situation — will not be able to truly hear what you’re saying. That person will tune you out and will no longer be in a frame of mind to want to give your words a fair hearing.
Calling Winston stupid or insisting on this — as though it’s somehow productive — also gives Winston himself an excuse to not think at a higher level. Calling him stupid reduces him as a whole person. The focus here should be to make Winston — and other athletes lazily or prematurely tagged as “dumb jocks” — experience epiphanies of mind and heart so that they can flourish as members of society, part of the human family. If you were to speak to Winston today — if you had a chance to get him in a quiet, private conversational setting — you would want to convey a rebuke to him, of course, but you would also want to be constructive. Being constructive means speaking in a way that the person you’re talking to will be in a frame of mind to want to hear what you have to say.
This is where the conversation changes and leads to one more set of points, with which I’ll conclude this commentary.
When rebuking Winston, the rebuke should quickly give way to an explanation of why Winston’s words — and corrosive speech about women or sexuality in general — are so harmful, even if not directed toward an individual person.
Language helps frame our reality. The words we use shape our outlook on the world. It is true that 20-year-olds do stupid things, and that at such a young age, it’s hard enough for anyone in this particular (American) culture to figure out much of life and all of its challenges — a sense of one’s place in the world, one’s sexual identity, one’s impending career choices, one’s relationship to a set of beliefs and values, one’s evolving relationships with family and friends, everything. Yet, it is for that very reason young people need to be taught how to communicate with respectfulness, gentleness and clarity.
Words are not nearly as violent as fists or uncontrolled appetites — such a statement has already been expressed in this piece. Yet, words, if not modified and reshaped, especially in public, give rise to the belief (and/or the perpetuation of said belief) that people in power can say whatever they want without consequence. Jameis Winston and various NFL players under scrutiny need to realize (and be taught) that in fact, words from public figures typically do carry consequences. Naturally, actions will either prove words to be hollow or sincere, positive or negative, in the fullness of time. Yet, words do shape and help create contexts in which a public figure’s actions and gestures will be seen and, ultimately, evaluated.
From a pure public relations standpoint, anyone trying to talk sense to Jameis Winston should be telling him about the need to speak and act in ways that will smooth the path ahead of him.
On a much deeper moral and spiritual level, anyone trying to talk to Winston should be saying something to the effect of what Saint Paul said in his epistles from Scripture: If you are careless and wayward in little matters, you have a much bigger chance to make great mistakes that do harm to people in much larger and more consequential theaters of human endeavor and activity.
The money line at the end of all this: Our universities, to the extent that they promote and depend on athletics to fill their coffers and promote their public image, should be highly concerned with the way in which they teach big-ticket athletes as whole persons. Big-time athletic departments should view it in their best interests — and more importantly, the best interests of the students they take into their care — to offer a truly (more) holistic education on how to communicate with other people, how to communicate in a public setting, how to be a whole person who can act with respect (and know how to pull it off) at all times.
Some would call this a classical education, not just educating for a job or a test of narrow academic competencies.
While our universities need to figure out that part, hopefully we — as people within a larger cultural and social situation — can learn how to strike this balance between being critical of Jameis Winston and, on the other hand, being empathic toward a young man who is just 20 years old and dealing with a lot of intense forces… and not very well at the moment.