Florida State case unneeded distraction for Penn State

Eric Barron, selected to become the next president of Penn State.
Eric Barron, selected to become the next president of Penn State. (AP)
Posted: April 21, 2014

Penn State has a problem. I'm sorry to tell you that it involves football.

Also, an alleged sexual assault.

After a Florida State University freshman reported she had been raped in December 2012, the prime suspect was identified as star quarterback Jameis Winston, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy and lead the Seminoles to a national championship.

Winston was never charged. The police claim it was due to lack of evidence, though there was plenty, including DNA, witnesses, and a secretly recorded video of a portion of the incident. Yet according to an exhaustive and damning New York Times report by Pulitzer Prize winner Walt Bogdanich, "there was virtually no investigation at all, either by the police or the university."

Why does this matter to Penn State? Because Eric Barron, who was Florida State's president at the time, has been named the next leader of the Pennsylvania school, which has already been battered by a scandal over sexual abuse that went ignored by administrators. Penn State is the last school that needs another such blemish.

Asked about his role in investigating the rape charge in February, Barron said, "It's incredibly important that an institution follow due process."

In Tallahassee, though, there appears to have been little due process - and even less investigation.

Penn State stands by its decision to hire Barron. "Presidential searches are confidential," said university spokesman David La Torre. "However, in electing Dr. Barron, the trustees conducted all appropriate, thorough background checks and investigations required by institutional policy for all employees."

But the Winston matter raises many questions, especially about Barron's role and Florida State's responsibility and response. "How did something like this happen on his watch?" asked Carol Tracy of the Women's Law Project. "What kind of leadership and direction had he given to all of the administrators under his authority? If he didn't know, why didn't he know?"

Florida State's athletic department knew about the rape allegation as early as January 2013, when an assistant athletic director called the police about the case. "Even so, the university did nothing about it," the Times reported, and it allowed "Winston to play the full season without having to answer any questions."

Florida State declined to tell the Times whether administration officials, including Barron, were aware of the accusations against Winston. The university's official response to the story focused on offering support services to the victim and protecting her confidentiality. That's despite the accuser's full cooperation with authorities, and although her legal team, family, and friends have pressed for action.

Under federal law, athletic department officials must report any complaint of sexual misconduct to school administration. Universities are obliged to investigate regardless of the police response.

Florida State now alleges "no university official outside the Victim Advocate Program received a report from any complainant naming Winston prior to when the allegations were made public in November 2013."

That would be almost a year, and most of the football season, after the athletic department learned of the allegations against Winston.

The statement strains credulity.

Florida State has more than 32,000 undergraduates, but none may be better known to administrators than Winston, who is projected to be the top NFL draft pick in 2015. If Winston had not meant so much to the university's football program, and potential revenue stream, would the case have been more rigorously investigated?

The accuser subsequently filed a complaint with the Florida Department of Education civil rights office, which has agreed to investigate the university's response to sexual violence complaints.

"It would be difficult to overstate the importance of football to Florida State and its hometown," Bogdanich noted. The same holds true for Penn State and State College, home to the nation's second-largest football stadium.

"What has Penn State learned?" Tracy asked. "If there's any place that should make sure that the new president understands that sexual assault must be dealt with effectively and transparently, it would be Penn State."


kheller@phillynews.com

215-854-2586 @kheller

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