One thing can be said about University of Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson winning Best Athlete in this year's Best of Missoula poll: It proves the contest is not fixed. What else the Indy readers' choice might indicate is less clear. It is certainly remarkable, but what to remark?
It's hard to argue that Johnson won based on athletic performance, since he did not play football this year. He was suspended from the team and then expelled from the university before the 2012 season began, after a fellow student accused him of rape. Johnson last played in 2011, when he led the Griz to the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals but lost the 2012 Best Athlete award to UM point guard Will Cherry.
Cherry took second in this year's Best Athlete category. Unlike Johnson, he continued to play for the Griz, but participation in athletics is evidently not what determined Best Athlete this year.
So what did? Why did Indy readers not pick Johnson as even one of the top three athletes the year after he played a standout season of football, only to vote him Best Athlete the year he was acquitted of rape?
My friend Smokestack theorized that Johnson's win is a testament to how many smart alecks live in Missoula. As a member of that population, I find his hypothesis plausible but unsatisfying. I didn't vote for Johnson. I voted for former Missoula Osprey Socrates Brito. Surely, there are enough funny choices and too few wiseacres dividing their votes among them for mere smartassery to vault Johnson into first.
My friend Green, who has devoted her career to helping victims of sexual assault, takes a darker view. She saw Johnson's win as proof that this town can love the Griz a little too much. At a moment when the Department of Justice has just concluded investigating both the university and the county attorney's office for their handling of sexual assaults, voting a suspended quarterback Best Athlete after he was acquitted of rape seems in poor taste, if not simply obstinate.
One hopes that even the most dedicated fans would not like a player better just because he was accused and then acquitted of rape. If there is something wrong with how Missoula thinks about the Griz, it lies somewhere in that. Yet if readers voted Johnson Best Athlete because of his trial, we can also interpret their choice more charitably.
Say what you will about Jordan Johnson; he spent a year defending himself against one of the most frightening and damaging allegations imaginable. The prosecution argued that he deserved it, that what he did to his fellow student was far worse. In the end, a court found him not guilty, and a segment of the Missoula population embraced him.
The charitable interpretation is a story of remarkable open-mindednessof a small town that looked at a 20-year-old man accused of rape not as a monster, but as a possible victim of bad circumstances who deserved its sympathy. When he emerged unscathed, the good people of Missoula didn't grumble that he probably did it anyway. They lamented that he was ever accused in the first place, and they voted him Best Athlete to show their support.
I like that interpretation, because I like Missoula and the people in it. The charitable interpretation appeals to me so much that I have spent the last 10 minutes sitting in my chair trying to think of ways it could be true.
Here's the thing, though: If I were Jordan Johnson, and I had missed a season of football while a jury found me not guilty of rape, I would not be psyched to win that award at the end of it all. Probably, it would make me feel kind of weird.
If you're wondering what the results of this year's Best Athlete poll might mean, imagine what Johnson is thinking. He didn't win it the year he started at quarterback and led the Griz to the FCS semifinals. He won it the year he stopped playing football and had the worst experience of his life.
There's a Rorschach blot for a young man to stare at. If Indy readers wanted to do Johnson a favor this year, they did not offer him an unqualified boon. They reminded him of a chapter in his life he would probably rather forget. They reminded us all that our returning Griz quarterback played a hell of a season in 2011, and that a jury concluded in 2013 that he did not know he forced himself on a woman.
The Best of Missoula poll is a celebration of what makes this town great. Certainly, our willingness to keep an open mind is Missoula at its best. So is our outrage at injustice when we see it, and even so is our sardonic sense of humor. They were all there when we opened the paper last week, and I can't say what they could possibly mean together. Maybe that tension is the best of Missoula, too.
Dan Brooks writes about politics, consumer culture and lying at combatblog.net.