Jameis Winston becomes a symbol

— -- Former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, late in his storied career, would publicly long for the days when a phone conversation with the chief of police would clean up any mess his players might have made. If a semblance of those old-school ways remains alive in Tallahassee, we see the price that the university and its most famous athlete are paying for it.

The sexual assault accusation against Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston is not going to become a narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. It's not the next "Serial" podcast. It will not stay within the parameters of a television script, with the corners neatly tied together by the end of the last commercial.

It is real life, and it is messy, and it is not going away.

In his ruling in the FSU disciplinary hearing, Justice Major Harding said: "In light of all of the circumstances, I do not find the credibility of one story substantially stronger than that of the other."

He said/she said stories aren't swept aside easily, not as long as the party that feels wronged has another forum in which to be heard.

That's why the reluctance of police to investigate the case did Florida State and Winston no favors. Other than Seminoles fans, Winston is seen as a young man whose status as a star quarterback kept him from being prosecuted. The perception of shoddy police work has left Winston having to defend himself against the belief that he remains untouched because of who he is, not because of what actually happened.

Winston's name will not be cleared by a definitive account of whatever happened between him and a former Florida State student two years ago. That account doesn't exist. The truth is that only two people know what happened between them that night. One of them believes that Winston committed sexual assault.

A local prosecutor looked at the evidence last year. Harding, the former Florida Supreme Court justice presiding over the university conduct code hearing, looked at the evidence this month. They came to the same conclusion. Florida State announced Sunday that there is insufficient evidence to find Winston guilty.

In settings both judicial and quasi-judicial, Winston has won. But his victories seem as narrow as those on the field this season. Winston has become a cause célèbre in his innocence, a highly recognizable face to attach to the rising discomfort across the country regarding sexual assault on university campuses.

The wheels of justice in Tallahassee moved slowly in the case against Winston. City police didn't seriously investigate the charge for 11 months, and then only when a Tampa reporter began to ask questions. The trail of evidence grew cold in the interim.

As The New York Times reported in October, the university initially failed to pursue an investigation, as it is legally obligated to do, after athletic department officials decided the case had no merit. When Florida State finally acted, it staged a probe as best it could. Ignore the cynicism that maintains that the university made sure its investigation would find its star quarterback innocent.

"The university selected Justice Major Harding, a highly qualified and respected jurist, to remove any doubt about the integrity of this process and the result," Florida State president John Thrasher said in a statement Sunday.

Yet Harding could be Oliver Wendell Holmes, and he still could go only where 1,000 pages of evidence, collected in three separate investigations, took him. When Harding arrived at his conclusion, he found the local prosecutor had been there for a year.

So the cry of Winston's backers, Seminoles fans legion in number, will continue to ring out his innocence. His detractors will continue to see him as a man-child coated in the Teflon of athletic talent and bathed in the heat of the celebrity spotlight.

Winston bounced between those two poles with behavior that guaranteed him continued notoriety. He got a ticket for shoplifting seafood at a grocery store. He got suspended for a game in September for a juvenile campus stunt. Winston has now gone almost three months without doing something stupid, give or take his 17 interceptions this season, and congratulating him for that feels like damning him with faint praise.

If Winston continues to act responsibly, he will remove the tarnish from his Heisman Trophy.

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher has been defiantly tone-deaf in defending Winston. His statement that there was no victim because there was no crime is breathtaking in its insensitivity. But Fisher's unwavering belief in his quarterback reminds all of us that Winston is more than a symbol.

American sports fans are a forgiving lot. They might have forgiven Winston a long time ago if police and the university had done their jobs.