A few months ago, one of my roommates brought home a blowgun. Like any red-blooded American male, we immediately went outside to try and shoot stuff. One of those things was a squirrel in our backyard. My roommate hit one, but I am not the marksman he is and didn’t come close. I tell you that story to say: I know what it means to be 18 years old and just mess around like Heisman winner Jameis Winston.
On Wednesday, the USA Today posted a story citing a November 2012 incident involving the Florida State quarterback and a pellet gun, but you wouldn’t know it by the headline that reads, “Jameis Winston stopped by police at gunpoint in 2012 incident.”
That grabs your attention. That gets you reading and — more importantly — sharing on Facebook and Twitter, which is the real point of a headline such as that one. Then I scrolled down to read what Winston as well as teammate Chris Casher did, and I felt like I had wasted my time.
Winston and Casher were out one night with a pellet gun on a trail near campus. They told a campus police officer they were hunting squirels after the officer drew his weapon and forced the two to get on the ground because he believed the pair had a firearm with them.
When the kerfuffle was over, the two were given back the gun and the pellets that went with it, and later that night were involved in a previously reported incident involving a pellet gun shoot out later that same night at an apartment complex.
Now, the USA Today is far from being above clickbait — they have an entire website devoted to such things called Forthewin.com. The content of the story itself is not that, but thanks to that headline, that is what this story became.
This is not to disparage Rachel Axon’s reporting or to say that what she reported is not news. Axon dug and found something noteworthy — and also kind of funny — about the most high-profile athlete in college football. That’s her job. It is also news in the barren wasteland of July.
But the headline — that she probably didn’t write — attached to the story ruins the work under it. The ensuing piece didn’t live up to the headline’s billing and is more sordid than it should be.
This is where we are with Jameis Winston.
Part of it is his own doing. Of course if he didn’t get into the BB gun “battle” at the apartment complex, or shoplift crablegs, or put soda in a Burger King water cup or obviously if he was not previously wrapped up in allegations of rape, this would not be news.
But because of that, it is.
This story exists in its current form thanks to our 24-hour news cycle. Jameis Winston — like Johnny Manziel before him — lives in a chicken-or-the-egg dichotomy that is sports media in 2014.
Is it Winston’s fault for doing — as far as this incident is concerned — what young guys often do? Is it the media’s fault for reporting anytime an athlete so much as farts downwind? Or is it the fault of the fanbase with an appetite that is insatiable for news about those it idolizes.
The truth is, of course, various bits of all three. In the 1920s, sportswriters hid Babe Ruth’s extra-marital affairs, but the media in this day and age is not a vehicle to deify America’s sporting heroes. The media has an obligation to turn up stones to find what is there about public figures, which Winston certainly is.
The manner in which the story was presented makes it seem more egregious than what really happened and does a disservice to Winston.
Insult to injury was added when the USA Today had to issue an editor’s note that admits to a fact error. The incident did not actually happen on FSU’s campus like the original story stated.
Instead, it occurred across the street from it. That would then make the incident not a formal violation of the part of the school’s conduct policy that says having a gun on campus is prohibited.
The paragraph detailing the code of conduct aspect was removed by USA Today, and the editor’s note admitting the gaffe was placed in italics at the top of the story.
Thanks to the viral nature of the headline and the athlete prominently featured, the story got legs and migrated to all sorts of aggregating blogs — even one for a national outlet like Fox Sports.
Fox, in its regurgitation of the story — which has also been edited since the original posting — seized upon the initially reported facts that the incident happened on campus and that it was a violation of the code of conduct in its paraphrasing of the story. That made Fox, for a time, a national platform that disseminated incorrect information about a high-profile athlete on its high-profile website. And so the cycle snowballs on and on.
Jameis Winston found himself squarely in that media cycle’s crosshairs Wednesday. He knows once more how those squirrels felt in 2012.