Jameis Winston #3 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers leaves the field following a victory over the New Orleans Saints on Sept. 20, 2015 in New Orleans, La.
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty

‘Hunting Ground’ documentary hangs around amid Jameis Winston’s rise

On Sunday, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston had the best game of his nascent NFL career, throwing five touchdowns in a blowout win against the Philadelphia Eagles, but his performance on the field may have been overshadowed by a documentary which aired the same day on another network. 

“The Hunting Ground,” which was recently nominated for a Producer’s Guild Award for Best Documentary, details sexual assault allegations made against Winston during his tenure as a student athlete at Florida State University. In the film, his accuser, Erica Kinsman, tells her story on camera, alleging that Winston raped her in December of 2012, a claim he has vehemently denied. FSU later cleared Winston of any wrongdoing and criminal charges were never brought against him due to insufficient evidence.

Since then, both Kinsman and Winston have sued each other, but their legal battle has taken a backseat in the press as his rookie season has unfolded. When CNN announced they would air “The Hunting Ground,” which the film’s producers say Winston declined to be interviewed for, last Sunday, it brought the ongoing drama back into the spotlight.

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“CNN may have persuaded itself that Mr. Winston’s status as a public figure insulates your company from a libel judgment,” a letter to the network from Winston’s attorney read. “If CNN decides to proceed with this broadcast, we will perhaps have the opportunity to test that legal proposition in a court of law.”  

Kinsman’s attorney countered: “Mr. Winston is apparently in the midst of another PR battle this week due to the release of ‘The Hunting Ground’ on Sunday. When your lawyers’ letters written on Friday are somehow getting printed in the media on Saturday, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what’s going on. His latest attack is an attempt to revive his lawyers’ media themes and, as expected, shows no understanding of rape trauma and misrepresents the actual evidence. More importantly, Mr. Winston should get used to the rape allegations against him because film or no film, they aren’t going away.”

CNN aired the documentary as scheduled, which drew both praise and criticism from people on either side of the Winston debate.

Winston was selected number one overall in the draft this year, amid serious questions about his conduct off the field. In addition to the sexual assault allegations, Winston had been a regular source of unflattering headlines for incidents off camera, including alleged shoplifting and an explicit, offensive outburst on campus. There was genuine concern about whether Winston’s reputation would impact his stock in the NFL, which was coming of the heels of a season under the shadow of domestic abuse allegations and controversy.

When you draft a quarterback, you’re not just picking a guy to help win football games. You’re picking a guy who’s going to sell merchandise, fill the stadium, and serve as an ambassador for your brand,” Stefan Lovelace, manager of sports marketing at IMRE, told MSNBC in May. 

But most sports pundits agreed that if Winston were to simply win, and do so consistently, his personal life problems would earn less scrutiny. And that appears to be the case. The Bucs are an improbable 5 and 5, with a longshot chance of making the playoffs. After a rocky start, Winston is looking more and more like a legitimate NFL starter and perhaps most importantly for his backers, he has avoided any embarrassing off-the-field controversies this season.

Nevertheless, despite not being widely distributed, “The Hunting Ground,” has hung around. The film, which explores the campus rape crisis in schools across the country, has been attacked by some, including Harvard University, which is featured in the movie, for its fact-checking and alleged pro-accuser bias, but it has earned rave reviews and been consistently listed as a strong contender for a Best Documentary Academy Award. Should the film reach that pinnacle or even win the Oscar, it could keep its profile high as Winston’s team attempts to make a playoff run.