The Punter and the Rush to Judgment
No charges for Matt Araiza, post rape accusation. Will anyone in media apologize?
There’s an update on a national news story I followed in the paper of my upbringing, the legendary San Diego Union-Tribune. Local coverage often reveals the bits that don’t completely fit a favored national narrative, and this appears to be such an instance.
On Wednesday, the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office announced that former Buffalo Bills punter Matt Araiza and two other former SDSU players would not be criminally charged in an alleged sexual assault case from October 2021. Nobody in the press seems to be calling this an exoneration, and I suppose it technically can’t be; Araiza and co. were never initially charged with a crime, though the media skipped right past that part and play acted the aftermath of a conviction. He likely lost his job over this reaction, and much of his reputation. His family expressed anguish, publicly, and for that they were gleefully mocked.
Wednesday’s Union-Tribune coverage includes an aspect of this DA decision that wasn’t exactly broadcast across sports news, and is rather remarkable in its specificity. Curiously, the New York Times, the world’s paper of record, saw fit to leave out this aspect. We’ll get into this, plus examine why the broader sports media struggles to handle such accusations. Ultimately, we’ll look into why there’s such a taboo against withholding judgment until we have the facts.
The DA Decision
The UT’s recap of the DA’s decision mentions something about the investigation that wasn’t part of an original narrative. The incident in question had, remarkably, actually been captured on video. Whatever was on that video appears to have informed a “no path” to conviction conclusion:
After reviewing evidence that included video footage “of the incident itself,” prosecutors determined “there is no path to a potential criminal conviction,” District Attorney Summer Stephan’s office said in a statement.
The DA’s relayed statement mentions video not once, but twice:
During their review, prosecutors and investigators analyzed evidence that included more than 35 taped witness interviews, the results of a Sexual Assault Response Team exam, DNA results, and evidence from 10 search warrants, including the video, officials said.
This summarizing sentence from the DA press release itself read:
Ultimately, prosecutors determined it is clear the evidence does not support the filing of criminal charges and there is no path to a potential criminal conviction.
In contrast to the UT, the New York Times writeup of the Matt Araiza news, a story that includes three bylines, never mentions the cited video. They might have their unsaid reasons, but … it seems noteworthy that the SDSU teammates were perhaps saved by exculpatory video of the supposedly damning incident? To be clear, we don’t even know if Araiza was involved in said incident. We just know that the DA took a look and decided to move on.
If you followed the NFL casually, you might have heard that Araiza was evading charges, but relevant details like this were buried. As a sports news consumer, you were largely left to wonder why he escaped a courtroom, and perhaps left to assume that the world is just that unfair to victims. The lack of explanation now is glaring, considering just how worked up the broader media got over the lurid accusations back in August.
The Case That Wasn’t
In 2021, “Punt God” Matt Araiza achieved a measure of fame at San Diego State University for his superhuman kicks, historic booms that went viral. When he was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 2022, he was already a bonafide Internet sensation. He was a darling of quirky bloggers and affable jock commentators alike, a novelty cult phenomenon that was getting more mainstream by the week. Then, after wowing observers with an 82 yard punt in his first preseason game, a lawsuit (still pending) accused him and two other SDSU teammates of gang-raping a 17-year-old girl at an off-campus party. As mentioned prior, the details alleged were horrifying beyond that general description. In the aftermath of the suit, the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office confirmed that it was looking into criminal charges.
At this point Araiza’s NFL career started to unravel rapidly. It was bad enough that the accusations in the lawsuit were disgustingly lurid. There were these other items, such as diary pages, posted to social media by her attorney, recounting a bloody scene.
The suit also alleged that police had caught Araiza, age 21 at the time, in a seemingly damning admission to the accuser (“Jane Doe”), age 17 at the time:
During the call, Araiza confirmed having sex with Doe, even telling her that she should get tested for STDs. When the detectives heard this, they instructed Doe to say, ‘Wait, what STD?’ Araiza told Doe that he had tested positive for chlamydia, at which time Doe was instructed to say, ‘So you know what to get tested for OK, that makes me feel a bit better.'”
Of course, a lawsuit filing can be misleading in its depiction of events since it’s not subject to independent review, but the portrayal of this scene, combined with the depravity of the act in question, was enough to sink a career. The influencers who’d helped popularize Araiza loudly disavowed and demanded his ouster, including a writer who claimed credit for coining the “Punt God” nickname.
The big media reactions were, if anything, less reserved. Rich Eisen lashed himself for having had his show support Araiza in some prior NIL deal, as though he should have intuited an obvious rapist nature.
Eisen expressed “outrage … just as a father and a human on the planet.” He used terms like “beyond vile.” He lamented of the supposed rape, “And it happened 10 days before he was on this show with us and we were giving him a deal.” Eisen, like all the major hosts who discussed this topic, had enough professional awareness to throw in the occasional qualifiers that conveyed “alleged,” but their impassioned speeches sounded more like sentencing judge than analytical detective.
Pat McAfee, the incredibly personable now-College GameDay co-host, and a former NFL punter himself, felt the need to pile on Araiza, whom he hyped. McAfee effectively admitted that he was feeling pressure on Twitter to comment on the accusations (“A lot of tweets last night telling me, ‘You gone be quiet about this?’”), before concluding, “It seems to be, we are probably not going to see Matt Araiza ever again.”
The Bills dutifully cut Araiza, but hardly escaped criticism. They were faulted for not doing due diligence on an incident from last year. Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott was later excoriated for calling Araiza a “great kid.”
During this whole maelstrom of presumed guilt, Araiza’s parents released a statement in defense of their son. In a normal universe, we might simply chalk that up to parental love, irrational though it may be, or even mull whether it’s a sign in his favor. In this universe, because the parents used the term “cancelled,” it was an occasion for media members to performatively sneer at these obviously odious right-wing MAGA racist rapist raisers. Twitter influencers had some fun with these peoples’ pain, but few went as far as New Deadspin, in an unhinged essay that ironically began with calling the parents “unhinged”:
Speaking of unhinged, there’s Matt Araiza’s parents, who not only try to portray their son, accused of rape, as the victim (Araiza denies the allegations), but themselves as victims, as well as coming up with whatever statement a computer program designed to generate right-wing word salad would spit out as long as you included just enough terms that are chum to fuckwits. Clearly they are trying to woo a certain crowd to their side. Which probably makes some sense, given the makeup of many football fans.
“Innocent until proven guilty,” is a bad concept here, apparently:
I particularly love when someone reaches for the oasis of “innocent until proven guilty,” but Mother and Father Araiza even include the fact that it’s “the rule of law” while not admitting or even realizing that no one is in court just yet. Outside of court, everyone is just about free to feel however they want.
I should note that, unlike the NYT, ESPN in its news story on Wednesday quoted the SDCDA on the video evidence bit. This fits with how their written coverage on Araiza over the past few months has been dry and by the book. Their TV product, on the other hand?
First and Last Take
Yes, we know that First Take and similarly patterned shows will lean towards hyperbole, which can be charming. But there’s a certain ugliness to how ESPN hosts handled accusations so grave. Football commentator Dan Orlovsky, who does a great job when discussing the mechanics of his sport, approvingly assessed the Bills’ cutting of Araiza with:
Don’t tell me about culture. Show me about culture.
That was light fare compared to what Stephen A. Smith unloaded:
Let me just say this about Matt Araiza and the other alleged culprits in all of this. You’ve got far more than football to be worried about. This is rape! This is rape!
Moderator Molly Qerim added:
A lot times, when we talk about, hey he said she said, they have the visual evidence as well.
Indeed they did, apparently. Additionally, it should be noted for people still committed to the notion that Araiza committed a statutory crime, that no charges came his way for this either, after all the evidence was reviewed. In other words, after all the media huffing and puffing, he’s been cleared on the criminal front.
It’s at this point that I have to ask the sports media, and I know you’re not supposed to ask it: Why are you guys so credulous in these situations? When this incident hit the news, I wasn’t totally sure what happened, but all those details that had Rich Eisen fulminating? They were bad enough that they should have provoked some measure of internal skepticism.
While it’s possible that a teenager suffered a 90-minute gang rape at a college party in which a crew of attackers ripped away her ear, belly and nose piercings before she “stumbled out of the room bloody and crying,” that scenario seems extreme enough to fact check if you can. I’m reminded of the infamous UVA tale where the victim supposedly was raped on broken glass in the frat house. Look, rapes obviously happen, sometimes in college settings, but the media has this issue where it is more likely go all-in on less believable stories. Why? First, because the unusual story is inherently more captivating and second, because the worse accusation seems more dangerous to oppose. Who wanted to speak for Araiza in this instance? What are you, pro-gang-rape of teens?
Here’s an idea, in the face of such pressure. Maybe, if a sexual assault story seems almost too shockingly depraved to be believed, it should be approached with some measure of … patience? Not even skepticism. Just patience.
The Sordid, Unmentioned Pattern
Okay, now for the next part you’re not supposed to say, and it’s one of those underground topics that I’m guessing you won’t see broached elsewhere in sports media (which is why we have a niche here). We don’t necessarily have to apply it specifically to this situation, which has its vagaries, but just understand that it’s a running theme in a lot of incidents that lead to accusations, especially in college sports. You see, there are many athletes who like to engage in group sex, and not just the common male-fantasy version. Chalk it up to athletic camaraderie, chalk it up to opportunity, but college players have this tendency to do it, well, together, in drunken situations.
To your average person, this might sound insanely decadent, if not completely sick. It’s one of the reasons why, even if current Knicks guard Derrick Rose was found not liable in the rape lawsuit against him, his version of events still provoked disgust. “We men,” Rose explained of himself and his two buddies coming over for group sex with a lover of his:
I said we men. You can assume. Like we leaving to go over to someone’s house at 1 a.m., there’s nothing to talk about.
Rose was so shockingly blasé in his explanation, I believe, because it’s an unremarkable act in his world. To the uninitiated, though, is a pretty foreign way to spend an evening. This is especially true of “we” media members, who tend to lead boring domestic lives.
It’s pretty obvious to me that a lot of college sports legal disasters emerge out of a group sex setting, usually involving a lot of booze. I’d link to the multiple accusations, incidents and trials that have come out of such settings but I’d rather not absolutely declare any one of them as specifically fitting this pattern. Just know that it’s a pattern. Drunken athletes encourage a drunken woman into group sex, or maybe she’s doing the encouraging, or maybe who knows. It’s a template for a young person feeling horrible the next day, even when all is consensual and above board. And of course, that’s not always the case. Maybe, in a booze-flooded situation, she’s cajoled into this, maybe even strong-armed into this. Maybe she’s incapacitated part-way through, or even forcibly raped from the start by a group of men locked into the worst kind of mob mentality. It’s easier not to parse all this, let alone think about any of it. For now, what happens at these parties is a problem that dare not speak its name, at least not in the specific.
The Reactive Status Quo
It’s easier to simply avoid these issues by ignoring them and braying for the ouster of anyone accused. But allow me to propose an approach that’s even easier than the stupid conventional wisdom that one must merely “believe” accusations and react accordingly: Let the law handle such matters. As in, if it’s serious enough to be considered sexual assault, it’s serious enough for the criminal justice system to decide and not a reactive sports league or team.
Right now, having learned nothing from UVA, Duke Lacrosse and yes, I’m adding SDSU, there are journalists pressuring the Warriors to do something about reserve wing Anthony Lamb. (Full disclosure: The main such journo criticized this website in its infancy.) Lamb’s accuser is suing his former university, as opposed to Lamb himself. She claims that, after the two had broken up from their six-month relationship, they had an argument, started to make up from the argument and then he raped her. That’s the short version of what the lawsuit alleges.
The narrative depicted in the suit could be true. But guess what? “Could” cuts both ways. It could also be false. Almost nobody in the media seems capable of admitting that the latter happens, leading to a moral hazard in which the media hivemind just presumes the most disturbing scenarios to be unassailable. Of course, life is often more complicated.
“Innocent until proven guilty” is a valuable heuristic, inside the courtroom and outside it as well. It’s good to review evidence and understand whether a person should bear consequences for a crime — moral, legal or both. It’s bad to simply punish people on the basis of an accusation and little else. And it’s amazing how such a take is now “contrarian” or “right wing” in media spaces.
Today, based on the available evidence, a lot of people in journalism owe Matt Araiza an apology. I doubt he’ll get one, at least at scale. The media rationalization for crowdsourced, knee-jerk punishment is that our legal system is broken. They must rush in to fill the gaps, deliver pain where benighted judges and juries would pull up short.
The issue is that someone with this mentality is often more vengeful than careful, and unrestrained by procedure. The courts aren’t perfect, but they at least represent a process, with rebuttals and counterbalances. The media isn’t a process; it’s just a prosecution. It’s one pushed absent real rebuttal, or consideration. Go to the justice system and you could possibly get a fair result. Go to the media for justice, and, to quote a popular TV show, “you’ve come to the wrong place.”