OK, We Really Need To Talk About 'The Hunting Ground'

In the new documentary "The Hunting Ground," the sexual assault case against Jameis Winston is a key example examined by the filmmakers. Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Editor's note: On Thursday, espnW columnists Jane McManus and Kate Fagan went to see "The Hunting Ground," the new documentary that explores the issue of sexual assault on college campuses. One of the subthemes of the film is college athletics and how that billion-dollar industry might work to protect college athletes. The film also includes the first public interview with Erica Kinsman, who accused Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston of sexual assault in 2012. Below is an email exchange between McManus and Fagan as they share their thoughts about the film.

Fagan: Wow.

McManus: Exactly. What is so effective about this film is the number of women and men who speak so emotionally about their own experiences. So often when rape survivors do this, they are shouted down. But you just can't shout down dozens and dozens of people. You have to confront the issue.

Fagan: And that issue hit really close to home, right? Because the business of college athletics is a significant part of the film. And I couldn't help, as a woman who works in the sports industry, feeling like somehow I'm not doing enough. Or, even worse, somehow contributing to this culture. Because so much of sports is about creating heroes, about building up these mythical figures. Yet that very same system -- in this case, big-time college athletics -- also has a dark side to which we don't give nearly enough airtime.

In the film, we watch these young women -- 19, 20, 21 years old -- decide that they need to change the system, that they are going to call out these administrations that are protecting the bottom line instead of protecting students. And I couldn't help but ask myself the question, "What can I do to help?"

McManus: As women in this business, we walk a fine line. I cover the NFL. Jameis Winston's alleged victim drops her own anonymity in order to speak on camera about the alleged assault. Florida state attorney Willie Meggs agrees to be interviewed and is asked directly whether he thinks Winston was guilty or innocent. Meggs threads the needle, saying, "I think I didn't have sufficient evidence to prove that he sexually assaulted that girl against her will. I think things that happened that night were not good."

So when people talk about how charges weren't brought, that's absolutely correct and important. But it was from a lack of evidence, not judicial absolution. Meggs told ESPN in December 2013 that the Tallahassee Police Department's 11-month delay in turning the case over to his office "hampered" the ability to get enough evidence.

And yet over the next month as we build to the 2015 NFL draft, we will hear people talk about Winston's situation, in all its gravity, as a "distraction." There are complicated dynamics underpinning the case, and yet it has to be flattened out in a quick conversation about the benefits of a pro-style offense. Can those two things be blended? Is there room for a more nuanced discussion in a sound-bite-driven environment?

Fagan: For me, this brings up a larger question about how we're going to talk about these issues in the sports world. Will it be the occasional "special edition" because of a headline story that forces us to discuss this for one news cycle? Those types of stories and shows are important, of course, but they also allow us to forget about this issue the other 364 days of the year. So, for me, the question is: How do we recognize this issue on a more day-to-day basis? We're not going to stop covering, say, college football, but it would also make (moral) sense for anyone covering that sport to recognize the institutional issues that help contribute to silencing victims.

Also, on a nonsports note: Who will be the first college president to say "enough is enough"? Who will be the first president to care more about the individuals actually on their campus than the potential applicants and the alumni with deep pockets?

I'd buy a sweatshirt from that school!

McManus: Come on, Kate. Sports are supposed to be escapist fun! No one wants to be majorly bummed out when they are watching the NCAA tournament this week. And it wouldn't feel like we had to if colleges would deal appropriately with allegations concerning their own players.

"The Hunting Ground" really connects those college presidents with the decisions made by sports teams in the wake of sexual assault charges, like at Oregon, Tulsa and Missouri. Women are now filing lawsuits to get schools to address the issue. Finally, a language that college boards understand.

There is a patchwork of standards across the country and a recognition that the judicial system doesn't always function properly -- look no farther than Ray Rice punching his then-girlfriend and rendering her unconscious yet facing few meaningful legal consequences. In light of this, the NFL revised its approach to allegations of gender-based and sexual violence, and will investigate allegations and remove players from competition as the legal case plays out. Colleges and universities should consider a similar policy to address allegations, other than duck and deny.

Fagan: Duck and deny -- sounds like a sports move.

Key takeaway from the film: If you care about the future of college sports (or just colleges, in general), see this movie.

Arm yourself with some knowledge.