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Why Sports Media Ignored Matt Araiza's Innocence
Fear of social shame prevented honest discussion of punter's exoneration
This week, we have quite a headline from the great Dan Wetzel of Yahoo!:
Prosecutors: Former Bills punter Matt Araiza wasn't present during alleged gang rape
Well, this is, in theory, the end of that chapter. Matt Araiza, in exile from the NFL ever since the Bills cut him on account of this gang rape accusation back in August, will likely be let back into the league. He still faces an accuser’s civil suit, the start of which kicked off the 2022 media firestorm that swallowed up his career, but Wetzel’s piece notes how that civil case now appears to have major credibility issues:
The dual investigations by police and prosecutors included over 35 witness interviews (including some of the girl’s friends who came to the party with her that night), the results of a Sexual Assault Team exam conducted the following day and 10 search warrants that produced 4 terabytes of information, including numerous short videos of some of the alleged encounters. They led authorities to come to vastly different conclusions than what was alleged in the civil lawsuit.
It would seem that the Yahoo! article, supplemented by the 200-plus page report offered up by San Diego prosecutors, built on cited video evidence, has finally turned the tide on how this story can be discussed in media. With Wetzel now adding his gravitas, and SD prosecutors offering a public debunking of civil suit claims, it is now officially OK to speak freely about the falseness of this gothically graphic tale that resulted in the NFL’s most talented young punter getting booted, essentially, from the league.
If the conversation around this matter finally does change, then the next question is, “What took so long?” While this week’s report adds more context, Araiza was clearly innocent of the luridly viral gang rape allegations back in December of 2022, when the San Diego District Attorney announced “no path to a potential criminal conviction,” informed by “video of the incident itself.” And yet, insofar as sports media has mentioned Araiza since, it’s usually to raise questions about the riskiness of adding such a character to a roster.
I noticed this tone from those covering the super-talented Philadelphia Eagles, a team whose only real hole last season was at the punter position. Would the Eagles pick up the highly available Araiza for a psalm? The Philly reporters, though fully equipped with the evidence needed to question this idea of “controversy,” warned of controversy coming from, well, the media.
Araiza would face questions from Eagles media about the incident, and other Eagles likely would be asked about their new punter.
From the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Even if the Eagles felt comfortable after research, it’s unclear they would want the disruption signing Araiza would bring.
Also from NJ.com, leading up to the Super Bowl:
The man who was known as the “Punt God” from his time at San Diego State would come with a lot of controversy and is an improbable choice heading into the media-crazed Super Bowl.
Instead of adding perhaps the league’s strongest leg, the Eagles elected to rush back their injured starter, Arryn Siposs. Cue the following headline:
Siposs explains what went wrong on ugly Super Bowl punt
A feeble Siposs shank brought about the longest punt return in Super Bowl history, giving Kansas City the touchdown of separation they needed to ultimately hold off Philadelphia. Yes, you typically don’t want to glibly discuss the impact of these fraught matters on sports outcomes, but it’s rather incredible that the Eagles lost the Super Bowl over how the media might attack them for signing a player who’s done nothing officially wrong. There’s something odd in saying that Araiza’s been exonerated, because he’s never been charged with a crime. And yet, he can’t escape a media mentality articulated by longtime (recently retired) Eagles beat writer Les Bowen:
Yes, there are situations in life where an assaulter escapes consequence-free, due to a lack of provable wrongdoing. But that sort of scenario rarely applies to incidents that are literally captured on camera. In this case, you’ve got extraordinary claims, checked against the recording of what actually happened. If that sort of truth can’t set the accused free, then what can?
The answer to “What took so long?” has less to do with Araiza’s particular details and more to do with a media in fear of itself. On certain fraught topics, there’s a lack of trust that reasonable points will be processed reasonably. This distrust leads to a moral hazard where certain extreme accusations are tacitly, collectively accepted for fear of the low status associated with defending its targets. Sure, Matt Araiza might not actually be a gang rapist, but do you want to be the kind of guy who defends the person we’re currently pretending is a potential gang rapist? That’s not very helpful to the cause of raising awareness about sexual assault, now is it? What are you, a rape apologist???
I realize that this outlook sounds insane when articulated, but it’s exactly the dynamic and you see it play out on a range of issues. Even if you’re specifically right, you’re spiritually wrong, because you’re undermining our favored song. And boy does that make people furious. Even NBA Twitter luminaries who can acknowledge the now-evident still resent that someone spoke up about it earlier.
FWIW, I interviewed both sides’ legal teams before I posted my December article and said nothing about Araiza until the DA had cited video evidence, but I digress. The point is, if you want a specific sense of why other media members avoided the obvious conclusions of this story, you can look at some of the unhinged replies to my December article on the matter.
People in the industry don’t want that kind of blowback, even if much of it is doled out by random tweeters. Mixed in with the randoms were some actual media people, and while none are exactly major industry players, together they can comprise an intimidatingly large school of fish, creating the illusion of a leviathan by moving in unison. Do you want to go up against that if you’re working for a sports publication? First of all, you probably wouldn’t even be allowed to write what I wrote, but if you somehow did, this crew would work hard to punish you professionally. They’d be alerting your colleagues, your bosses, anyone they can find to start a firestorm in Slack.
But I have no Slack, no HR department and little consideration beyond that overlap between my and my subscribers’ interest. So I’m good, and certainly no victim, but in reviewing some of these responses, I can see how other people wouldn’t want to put up with this shit. While I’m amused that some busybody tried to get my friend and podcast savant Nate Duncan to rescind his Twitter “like” of the piece, I’d imagine that, were I a different person, one more dependent on a clean reputation within media, this would be all quite jarring. And that’s the point. It’s just easier to roll with a predetermined emotional narrative rather than rock the boat. That’s how I usually approached peripheral controversies back when I was collecting a paycheck, at least.
Early on in this saga, back in the Fall when the lawsuit was filed, there was only one tenor to this story and it was one of shocked revulsion. From Wetzel:
The graphic allegations in the civil lawsuit, however, created a public frenzy. It included a claim that during an Oct. 15, 2021, party at a home near the SDSU campus, Araiza led the girl into a bedroom where “at least three other men” waited. “Once inside, Araiza threw [the girl] onto the bed face first,” the lawsuit read. “[The girl] went in and in and out of consciousness while” suffering through “the horrific gang rape.” It lasted an hour and a half, the lawsuit read, before she “stumbled out of the room bloody and crying” in part because “multiple piercings had ripped through the skin during the attack.”
That scene was so horrific, and so graphic, that few in media wanted to question it. For those very reasons, though, it should have set off some skepticism alarms. This particular crime would have required a conspiracy of violent depravity among three participants, to say nothing of everyone else at the house party in proximity to a weeping bloody victim, stumbling through the place.
After an extensive review of the evidence, though, San Diego’s prosecutors sought to communicate their finding that this atrocity never happened, over a 100-minute interview with the accuser herself. Wetzel:
Perhaps most notably, the district attorney’s office concluded Araiza couldn’t have led the girl into the alleged gang rape because he had “left” the home at about 12:30 a.m., an hour prior to when evidence suggested the alleged gang rape would have occurred. A fuller picture of what police and prosecutors found, however, is now available via a 200-plus page transcript of a 100-minute meeting obtained by Yahoo Sports where a deputy district attorney offered a detailed explanation to the girl and her attorneys.
Araiza’s proven absence from the scene is a notable detail, but the scene itself also did not match what was accused. And this is known because there isn’t just video of the incident, but videos, plural.
Prosecutors also said that videos from the bedroom show that her piercings were not ripped at the time and she was not bleeding from any wounds from it. Amador said her behavior on the videos made prosecuting anyone for rape impossible.
“I don’t see any elements of force being used in the sexual encounter,” (Deputy District Attorney Trisha) Amador said.
This is all pretty seedy stuff to go over, so it makes sense that a lot of media types outside of Wetzel just preferred not to parse it. Still, the details here matter, especially if you’re citing the case as a reason to end a guy’s career.
For instance, the climbdown for some who wished to continue shunning Araiza was a shift away from the debunked gang rape and instead onto an issue of age gaps. The civil suit alleged that, in a recorded phone call, Araiza had confirmed an instance of sex with Jane Doe, which happened in the backyard of his house party. Since the accuser was age 17 at the time and since the accused was 21, this aspect absorbed some focus. While some seized on the detail as proof of Araiza’s wrongdoing, context and California law matter here.
Wetzel, citing the report, on the setting wherein the accuser met the accused:
Witness interviews from the party, including two of the girl’s own friends whom she arrived with, said that she didn’t appear to be drunk at the time. Other witnesses said the girl was telling people she was 18.
“A witness who was in the house gave a statement saying that at — at least one point in the party, that you made a statement telling people at the party you were 18,” Amador explained to the accuser. “Another witness at the party, a different one, says that they specifically heard you say you were 18 …”
There was additional evidence cited by Amador from a recording during a party the night before at a different residence where the girl says on camera that she is 18.
It turns out that we don’t lock up college kids and throw away the key when they take up with a 17-year-old at a college party claiming to be 18. As for the nature of the sexual encounter with Araiza, according to the DA, testimony from other people there, including the girls’ friends, supports the notion that it was consensual.
As a side note, it’s rather remarkable just how much exonerating evidence was collected from that evening. Though Araiza is unlucky to be in this situation during a time of social media saturation and the idiotic conformity it inspires, he’s also lucky that social media saturation ensures so many recordings take place at a party.
So what’s the conclusion? Well, to be honest, I’m not obsessed with Matt Araiza’s particular plight, even if I favor fairness and think it’s wrong that he earned only $216,148 of his four-year, $3,876,148 deal, all while becoming a legal fee magnet and national pariah. I’m more interested in and concerned about how collective fear dominates these conversations. Once a figure becomes ideologically symbolic, the narrow facts about them cease to really matter. All that really matters, from a traditional media perspective, is not undermining whatever prevailing sentiment there is on the issue. That’s pretty bleak, but it’s how it goes these days. There’s so much pressure to be on the “right” side of a story that few publicly commit to actually getting the story right. This is so even in instances where the answers are obvious, and right under our noses.