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Why 'The Hunting Ground' could cast a shadow over Jameis Winston

On April 30, something surreal is going to happen in the world of sports.
Florida State Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston (5) walks off the field after defeating the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Bank of America Stadium. FSU defeated Georgia Tech 37-35. (Photo by Jeremy Brevard/USA Today via Reuters)
Florida State Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston (5) walks off the field after defeating the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Bank of America Stadium. FSU defeated Georgia Tech 37-35.

Since this piece was published, Jameis Winston was selected as the number one pick of the 2015 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Despite frequent coverage of Winston's alleged "off-the-field issues," the FSU quarterback's selection was far from a surprise to people who follow football.

On April 30, something surreal is going to happen in the world of sports.

Florida State University’s star quarterback Jameis Winston will likely be announced as the No. 1 pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 2015 NFL Draft. At that same time, audiences in select cities will be able to watch Erica Kinsman, the young woman who accused Winston of rape in December 2012, describe the alleged assault in excruciating detail in the new documentary film “The Hunting Ground.”

Winston was cleared by FSU of any wrongdoing in December 2014. He was not charged with a crime by the state attorney’s office due to insufficient evidence and he has consistently maintained his innocence. The mainstream sports media has not ignored the allegations against him, but they have largely accepted the official conclusions and moved on.

But "The Hunting Ground," which highlights the allegations against Winston, is out just as the issues of sexual assault on college campuses and violence perpetrated by NFL players have arguably never been more prevalent in the nation's consciousness. 

RELATED: Jameis Winston accuser files federal lawsuit against FSU

Winston’s supporters, and potential future employers, seem unconcerned with what the film portrays.

“From what I know right now, yeah, we’re OK with where he is,” Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith told The Tampa Bay Times in February. “He’s been accused of a crime. There’s an allegation. He was cleared.”

The circumstances under which Winston was exonerated by FSU remain a source of considerable controversy. In “The Hunting Ground,” Kinsman recounts notifying authorities of an assault within hours after she alleged that it occurred. However, according to the state attorney's investigation, the rape kit she was administered on Dec. 7, 2012 was not DNA tested until Winston provided a sample nearly a year later. That same investigation also found that key witnesses were not questioned for months, if at all, after the allegations were made and Winston was identified as a suspect.

State prosecutor William Meggs told The New York Times last year, "The case was not properly investigated from the start. I mean there were so many things that needed to be done, and did not get done."

In that same interview he criticized the methods by which Winston was initially contacted by Tallahassee police.

"It's insane to call a suspect on the phone," Meggs said. "Had it be done right by the get-go, we might – I’m not saying we’d have a different answer or a different result --  but we would certainly have more clarity."

A DNA match with Winston was eventually discovered by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement but he has maintained that his encounter with Kinsman was consensual. In Kinsman's on-camera testimony in the film, she says it was anything but.

She describes a harrowing experience of being drugged, assaulted in two different rooms and later discovering the identity of her assailant when he entered one of her freshman classrooms.

She recounts being ostracized by both FSU and local law enforcement, who she claims were more concerned with preserving the reputation of the institution and their undefeated quarterback in the midst of a championship run. “All these people were praising [Winston] … and calling me a slut, a whore,” she says in "The Hunting Ground."

According to transcripts (available here) from several hours of school hearings, Winston and Kinsman provided starkly differing accounts of what occurred in December 2012.

There are significant details in Kinsman's story that are in dispute. She testified that she believes she was drugged on the night of her alleged assault, but authorities found no evidence of illegal substances in her system and concluded that her alcohol intake was not sufficient to impair her judgment. Two witnesses -- both teammates of Winston’s -- have sworn that they observed the quarterback and Kinsman having consensual sex. Winston himself has alleged that Kinsman sought $7 million in settlement money from him, while her team has countered that his attorney first approached them about settling. Some of these details are omitted from “The Hunting Ground.”

And Winston's defenders have claimed that Kinsman did not contact authorities or make a public outcry immediately after her alleged attack, citing text messages she sent regarding her campus ID. However, she did tweet "someone help me," and call 911 minutes after she returned to her dorm room. Kinsman's attorneys have argued that her behavior was not inconsistent with that of a sexual assault victim.

The judge who presided over the FSU hearings wasn’t moved to choose one version of events over the other.

"I do not find the credibility of one story substantially stronger than that of the other,” retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Major Harding noted, according to transcripts from FSU's code of conduct hearing on Dec. 19, 2014. "Both have their own strengths and weaknesses."

Although Harding ultimately ruled that there wasn't enough evidence to satisfy the burden of proof, he pointedly said he was not prepared to accept that Kinsman "intentionally fabricated an elaborate lie."

Meanwhile, FSU has come out swinging against "The Hunting Ground," produced by RADiUS-TWC, a Weinstein Company film label, that has partnered with NEO Philanthropy in a campaign to raise funds for "student-led campaigns, public education, policy reform, and prevention approaches."

The film's director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering previously collaborated on the Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary "The Invisible War," which examined sexual assault issues within the military.

"The filmmakers interviewed Erica Kinsman, but no one representing Florida State," FSU president John Thrasher said in an official statement rebutting the film. "This provides the viewing public with an incomplete and erroneous view of what the University did to investigate Ms. Kinsman's allegations. This distorted presentation is all the more egregious in light of the fact Ms. Kinsman has filed a lawsuit against the University over the case."

The filmmakers have countered that they did reach out to Thrasher, but got no response. "Rather than attack the messenger, President Thrasher should show leadership and focus on the problem that has existed on his campus for decades," Dick said in a statement this month.

Kinsman's complaint, filed in January, claims that FSU failed to promptly investigate Kinsman's allegations and should have removed Winston from campus prior to the football season. Thrasher told msnbc at the time he was “disappointed” by the lawsuit. The school filed a motion this month to have Kinsman's complaint thrown out. This week, Kinsman's attorneys responded to the school's motion, calling the school out for a "deliberate violation of their known duties."

FSU is one of over 100 schools under investigation by the federal government for Title IX violations. Last year, the school's interim president Garnett Stokes announced plans to establish a permanent role for a campus Title IX director. "From my perspective," Stokes told the Tallahassee Democrat editorial board, "one sexual assault is too many."

Winston went on to win a title and a Heisman Trophy during his freshman season. For all of his alleged off-the-field misdeeds, he was forced to miss just half a game over the course of his college career. Meanwhile, Kinsman says she became the “most hated girl in Tallahassee” and was forced to leave school to escape threats and intimidation from her peers.

Her story is just one of many featured prominently in “The Hunting Ground,” which at times is as much horror film as documentary. Its intent is to both frighten and enrage its audience, and it does so effectively with a barrage of stunning statistics on campus rape and with compelling first-person accounts of what it’s like to be shunned by a school you were predisposed to trust and love.

RELATED: Victim’s choice, not police involvement, should be lawmakers’ priority

Multiple women (and some men) address the camera in “The Hunting Ground,” sharing shocking stories of being asked, “What would you have done differently?” by campus officials after they sought help from them. In almost every case the accused attacker was not expelled or reprimanded in any significant fashion.

Recently, Winston has indicated that he may not attend this year’s NFL draft in person – a decision that has raised eyebrows but may be greeted by the league’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, with a sigh of relief.

Goodell spent much of last season attempting to do damage control for the league’s image in the aftermath of the Ray Rice domestic abuse scandal and the subsequent exposure of the league’s inadequacy in dealing with violence against women.

Now Winston may become the new face of the NFL. His side of the story doesn't get airtime in the 90-minute film, though he may unwittingly be its star. According to the film's producers, Winston did not respond to requests to appear in the film. His affable, seemingly carefree public persona is purposefully shown in contrast to a sympathetic portrayal of Kinsman, who says that what happened to her "doesn't make any sense."

Early on in "The Hunting Ground" a college president is shown telling a crowd of incoming freshman: "What happens in college, stays in college -- most of the time."  With the ongoing focus on Kinsman's case and several more like it, that statement is starting to look increasingly like a relic of a dark and sordid past. 

Editor's note: These piece has been updated to include Erica Kinsman's tweet on the night of the alleged assault and the fact that the producers of "The Hunting Ground" did reach out to Winston and FSU to participate in the film but they did not respond.