Katie Hnida: There are a lot of 'really scary questions' in Winston case

A pioneer in the issue of sexual assault in sports, the kicker acknowledges the challenges ahead to change the culture

Explore our coverage from Sex Crimes in Sports

AUSTIN – Katie Hnida, the first woman to score a point in an NCAA Division I-A college football game, says she was treated with the utmost respect as a student-athlete at the University of New Mexico.

But she’s more remembered for her time at the University of Colorado, which was a different, much darker experience.

“When I was at CU, I felt like I was more of an object, that I was not actually a person,” she said during a panel at South By Southwest last month,. “That the violence that was perpetrated against me and just the way these guys looked at me, like I was a joke, I wasn’t even a real human being.”

She continued: “The second that you turn somebody into an object rather than a human being it’s so much easier to do all sorts of terrible things to them.”

In February 2004, Hnida opened up to Sports Illustrated about being raped by a Colorado teammate in 2000, as well as other instances of sexual harassment by members of the football program. Soon after, other women came forward with rape allegations involving Colorado football.

With more and more sexual assault cases coming to light in the sports world, Hnida is now rightly regarded as something of a pioneer. At 33, she’s a longtime speaker and leading activist on the public speaking circuit, helping to raise awareness about sexual assault.

Shortly after SXSW, Hnida spoke with “America Tonight” about going public as a sexual assault survivor, what victims in cases involving athletes go through and what she’d say to NFL teams that are thinking about picking Jameis Winston in this month's NFL Draft. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity.

Big picture: How has the national conversation about sexual assault in sports evolved in the last 10 years?

So much has changed. It’s really amazing to see.

When I came forward, I didn’t know any other rape victims. There weren’t a lot of us out there by name at first. Now, we have so many young women coming forward, brave survivors speaking out and making a change. 

Katie Hnida found a much different locker room culture at New Mexico compared to her time at Colorado.
Jake Schoellkopf/AP

I know you've said that you'll be forever labeled by your experience. For you and others who’ve accused athletes of rape, what’s that burden like?

It can carry across different professions and there are very powerful men who do rape. Carrying that burden of coming forward with information about someone who you really love and respect is difficult. It’s not easy for people to imagine them committing a crime, especially not one as atrocious as rape.

Sometimes, that’s where we see this great divide. These are people’s favorite players. They don’t want to imagine these people are capable of doing something so inhumane.

As part of our Sex Crimes in Sports series, we examined how universities protect athletes involved in sexual assault accusations. Some accusers will never see justice in their cases. Why does this keep happening?

If I had an easy answer, I would propose a solution.

One reason it keeps happening is there’s so much money involved in sports and winning comes at all costs. We’re confused sometimes at the role athletics should play at the college level. (And the pro level, too.) I love football and sports. But at end of the day, it’s just a game. No one lives or dies if you win or lose. Human life should always be more important than a game. If you’re a victim of sexual assault, your life is irreparably changed. It’s just the way that it is.

I think a lot of schools too, in terms of their athletes, are protected because they bring a lot of positive media attention to a school. They’re very visible. They represent the university and the universities want to keep projecting out a positive image.

I love football and sports. But at end of the day, it’s just a game. No one lives or dies if you win or lose. Human life should always be more important than a game. If you’re a victim of sexual assault, your life is irreparably changed. It’s just the way that it is.

Katie Hnida

We’ve highlighted the lack of NCAA policy or oversight concerning athletes who’ve been accused or charged with sexual assault. Should the NCAA do more or is it better to leave those decisions in the hands of the member institutions?

The NCAA has remained basically silent on this topic. By not taking any kind of action on it, there’s this clear, gaping hole.

That being said, if the NCAA puts a policy in place, they have to do it the right way. They have to make sure they’re consulting with survivors, coaches and athletes, and making sure we’re putting together something effective for everybody. It has to be addressed and addressed at the top level.

This is happening and it’s a major, major problem in college sports. The NCAA is supposed to be king of college sports, so they should be held accountable.

Sexual assault accusers in cases involving athletes often face a very public backlash from fans that are deeply attached to these athletes. What was your experience? 

It’s very interesting what we saw at Florida State. It was a classic example of how the Tallahassee Police Department just failed in their job to do a proper rape investigation. I don’t doubt that part of it was due to the fact that the perpetrator was a football player.

I think what you face as a victim when you accuse – I hate that word so much – when you come forward with rape allegations [against] someone in the public eye, the backlash is so much worse. Thankfully, the media attention is better now than it was when I came forward. The media stuff was out of control. No one seemed to know how to handle these stories. There wasn’t a lot of awareness about survivors and how it affects us. That has gotten more coverage and I’m pleased about that. In the end, once it leaves the news, you still have a victim who’s dealing with this for the rest of her life, one way or another. 

Katie Hnida was met with vitriol from fans when she came out with her rape allegation more than 10 years ago.
Ed Andrieski/AP

In the fan bases, it gets particularly nasty. There are a lot of rumors and a lot of misinformation that’s not true that’s taken as fact. You get the people who actually threaten you. It’s disgusting and terrifying.

When I came forward, I had a number of physical threats to me and a few death threats in there, too. We took everything seriously, because you just don’t know what’s going to happen. It was all crazy. When I returned to campus at the University of New Mexico, I had police who were around escorting me to and from class to make sure I wasn’t bothered. I didn’t know about that for the longest time. My head coach at the time, Rocky Long, did that. For him, I was one of his players and he took care of me. That’s the way he works. If we could get everyone to work like that, it would be a hell of a world. If we had 130-plus coaches like him, there would definitely be some much-needed changes.

Say I am a general manager of an NFL franchise interested in taking Jameis Winston or any other player accused of sexual assault. What's your advice to GMs who are thinking about taking players who were accused but not charged?

Here’s the largest problem with this and the public forgets this: [Winston] was not exonerated. He did not go through trial and proven not guilty. Insufficient evidence does not equal not guilty. That’s something that really critical for everyone to remember, particularly for these coaches and general managers. Quarterback is an important, very visible position.

I’m not saying Jameis Winston is guilty because, in reality, only two people know what happened that night. But there are an awful lot of really scary questions and a lot of unanswered things that he never answered himself.

Now, Hnida is partnering with organizations such as NO MORE to help spread the word around sexual assault and domestic violence awareness.
Katie Hnida/Twitter

It's been more than a decade since you first spoke publicly about what you went through at Colorado. Given everything that’s happened since then and what you know now, what would you tell the 18- or 19-year-old version of yourself who was going through some pretty dark days?

I would tell myself to reach out for help as soon as possible. Rape is one of those things that can isolate you. The emotion of shame comes with it, and there’s a giant stigma, and trauma is so shocking. Your entire sense of self is shattered and leaves you in a state where you don’t know what to do, you don’t know who to tell or if anyone is going to believe you. We still live in a culture that’s very victim blaming. “Why did I go over there?”

My advice certainly for a younger me would be to reach out immediately and to know that victims are not alone. We’re all in this together; you’re not by yourself. It’s been a really heartening thing to see so many people working to fix the problem and getting the attention they deserve.

More from America Tonight

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter