They came jogging up in jorts and body paint, giddy and opportunistic, ready to turn a legal decision into a football tailgate.
Six shirtless guys arrived outside the Leon County Courthouse Thursday afternoon with J-A-M-E-I-S spelled out on their chests. They were here to celebrate the announcement by state attorney Willie Meggs that he would not charge their football hero, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, with a crime in relation to a sexual battery complaint made against him almost a year ago.
And, this being America, they were here to get on TV.
TV obliged with Pavlovian predictability. A dozen cameras wheeled around and descended upon the young men, who did Florida State’s signature “Tomahawk Chop” chant on cue. When the cameras stopped rolling, they stopped chanting.
I asked the “M” in J-A-M-E-I-S what his reaction was when he heard the news that Winston was free from potential prosecution.
“We’re going to Pasadena, man!” said Kyle Clark, an FSU senior, identifying the site of the BCS title game. “That’s what it’s about.”
This can be explained and excused as a youthful lack of perspective. But a brief scan of Twitter and message boards shows that the J-A-M-E-I-S gang has company.
To many, Pasadena and the national title is indeed what this three-week public ordeal has been about. Not whether a young woman was raped. Not whether a freshly famous young man was falsely accused.
It was about this: Are the Seminoles going to have their superstar quarterback for the two biggest games of the year – Saturday against Duke in the ACC championship game and, with a victory, next month when they play for the crystal football?
Thus the humans at the center of this three-week drama were viewed by a lot of people as inanimate objects.
The accuser in this case was an impediment, an 11th-hour threat to a dream season. And the accused was a commodity – his jersey for sale in the bookstore, with not a dime of profit going to him – a valuable vehicle for advancing the sporting pleasure of those who happen to cheer for the Seminoles.
That’s a lesson for Jameis Winston, and other star athletes: a very large number of people celebrating his exoneration Thursday were not nearly as happy for him as a person as they were for themselves – because the commodity-quarterback can now deliver more gridiron glory.
“It was scary for a while,” Clark, the “M,” said. “But we’re almost guaranteed this [national championship] victory now. He’s our boy.”
As long as he wears garnet and gold, and plays like a Heisman Trophy winner – which he now will be, come Dec. 14th – he is indeed their boy. If he were a third-stringer there would be no bare-chested pledges of allegiance. And there would be no media throng to manipulate in front of the courthouse.
Yes, we are complicit as well.
It’s an American pastime to make judgments on high-profile legal cases before the evidence is in, and America was busy with this one for weeks.
Some blindly rushed to defend the unnamed accuser and vilify Winston, hewing to the age-old suspicion that football players are bad, violent creatures empowered by a hero-worshiping jock culture. Others blindly rushed to vilify the accuser, including a wildfire campus rumor that she and Winston were in a relationship and accusing him of rape was retaliation for being shuffled to the side in favor of his regular girlfriend. (Nothing that was produced by police and the state attorney Thursday supported that story.) And others blindly rushed to defend Winston, because how the hell are the Seminoles supposed to win it all without him?
Away from the satellite trucks, there was less of a sideshow element to Decision Day on the Florida State campus Thursday.
About 45 minutes before the scheduled 2 p.m. Eastern time announcement, which was televised live on ESPN, students started flowing to the TV in the food court at Oglesby Union. Senior Eric Hackett, wearing a maroon T-shirt with the “Famous Jameis 5” in gold lettering, got a table directly in front of the TV. To the dismay of Hackett and others, the combination of conversational noise at other tables and piped-in Christmas music made ESPN’s coverage all but inaudible.
Hackett fiddled with the audio on the TV, telling another student, “That’s as loud as it will go.” A manager from the nearby Papa John’s smiled and said, “We’ll try to get everyone quiet.” Bing Crosby sang “White Christmas” while students ate pizza and bread sticks and waited.
At 1:33, ESPN’s Shelley Smith interviewed a local ESPN radio guy who broke the news: Winston would not be charged. There were fist pumps from Hackett and others, but nobody was ready to take that as gospel. The crowd grew as 2 o’clock neared.
Finally, Meggs appeared at the podium. With everyone straining to hear, he gave the news the students were hoping to hear: No charges.
There were cheers and smiles in all directions, but little of the sack-dance style celebrating that would transpire downtown. Most students were thoughtful in discussing the extraordinary series of events.
“It’s like this black cloud that’s been hanging over this Florida State season,” said senior Nolan Alsobrook, a double major in Professional Sales and Sport Management. “Hopefully people will be able to put this away. But it’ a sad story either way.
“If he was charged, it shouldn’t have been, ‘I’m pissed because of the football team.’ It should be, ‘Is he a criminal or not?’ But honestly, I was real nervous about this decision. Now I can get back to being a Florida State football fan and not a spectator in an upsetting case.”
Hackett, who is from Gainesville and has many friends who go to school at arch-rival Florida, had chafed at the taunts about Florida State’s accused quarterback.
“They were so quick to put that label on him,” he said. “I ran into Jameis riding the bus a few weeks ago, right after this came out. He was wearing his headphones, smiling. I got a high-five from him and made that my Facebook status, and people were killing me on Facebook.
“You almost didn’t know how to react. You want to support him, but not no matter what. … If they were bringing charges, I’d want to hear that he was convicted before I judged him as a person. But if he was guilty I’d be glad he wasn’t representing our school on the football field.”
Winston has legally been found guilt-free. Now Florida State football fans can resume guilt-free adoration of his athletic ability, and hope their commodity-quarterback leads them to the national title.
Pat Forde is Yahoo! Sports’ national college columnist. He is an award-winning writer, author and commentator with 25 years experience in newspapers and online. This article is reprinted here with the written permission of Yahoo!