Ninety minutes. That’s half a football game, and the amount of time it took a jury to declare former Tennessee Volunteer football players A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams not guilty of rape. The verdict lifted a nearly four-year cloud of rape accusations off the duo.
Johnson and Williams’ story plays out like so many encounters on college campuses. The two star football players got blisteringly drunk at a college party and met up with two young women. The combination of hormones and liquid courage morphed into remorse the next day, with a Title IX coordinator letting the pair know it was okay to call their regret “rape.”
It came as no surprise when the Knox County District Attorney’s Office decided to indict Johnson and Williams on charges of aggravated rape. The University of Tennessee was already under scrutiny for how it handled sexual assault claims, and it would be unthinkable to let two star athletes walk away from rape accusations.
Johnson and Williams were shown the orange and white door at Neyland Stadium, and both were lucky to remain students until graduation. Johnson’s invitation to the NFL combine, however, quietly vanished the moment rape accusations bubbled to the surface.
So the duo lived their lives as “alleged rapists” for nearly four years. During that time defense counsel did everything they could to protect their clients. Voir dire for the trial involved extensive questionnaires regarding “campus violence, casual sex, group sex, race and UT Athletics.” Motion practice extended to accessing the accusers’ social media accounts, since both women scrubbed and ditched their phones after the encounter.
Unfortunately, even winning the social media fight didn’t help since both women deleted their social media accounts before the defense team got access. It would be hard at trial to prove a central theme of the defense: both accusers had prior relationships of some kind with Johnson and Williams before the night of the drunken hook-up.
The trial itself was a vindication of Johnson and Williams’ persistently-professed innocence and an indictment of the accusers’ credibility. The defense team, in a surprising twist, rested following presentation of the State’s evidence. That’s a ballsy move when your client is staring at lifetime on a registry. It’s no surprise the accusers left the courtroom before the verdict was announced.
Unfortunately, the close of this trial doesn’t signal the end of Johnson and Williams’ troubles. A better sequel would be asking, “What’s next?” Johnson acts as though he’s ready to return to football at a moment’s notice. He’s kept in shape over the last four years, and seems to keep his hopes high the NFL will come calling now that he’s scored a not guilty.
“I’ve been staying ready, staying in shape,” Johnson said. “They were saying … that I’m smaller now than I was back then, but actually I weigh 255 and I’m still ready to go.”
The reality in Johnson’s case is he’s putting heavy hopes on a league attempting to salvage its continually dwindling fan base. Four years is a long time in a professional athlete’s career, and younger, faster prospects have already caught the NFL’s eye. In a time when team owners are under fire for potentially fining players who kneel for the national anthem, hiring a linebacker with even a whiff of potential sexual misconduct in his past could be a revenue-crushing liability.
Williams won’t fare much better. A walk-on at UT, his success was largely tied to the athletics department and his fellow teammates. It’s likely he’ll spend the rest of his days working to pay off any accrued student loans far from the gridiron.
Male athletes hold a special place of hatred in feminist circles. They are the embodiment of dreaded “toxic masculinity,” genetically gifted, trained specialists who work in a merit-based system striving for excellence. Claiming the scalp of such a specimen is celebrated as a moment where the dreaded patriarchy is smashed once more.
The problem is during the moments of euphoric feminist celebratory glee at driving one more spike into “male privilege,” the celebrants forget they’ve destroyed a life.
A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams, according to the legal system, did not rape two women at a college party four years ago. Despite that, both men carried the burden of the phrase “alleged rapist” for four years. And with the Internet’s nasty tendency to remember everything, the two star athletes went from “alleged rapists” to “formerly accused rapists.”
That’s a tough obstacle to overcome in a world where #MeToo means more than evidence presented in a courtroom before a trier of fact.