We live in times where there is zero tolerance for crimes and indiscretions. Thankfully, because of the #MeToo movement, the issue of sexual assault and harassment has been moved from one where a male-dominated world shrugs to being prosecuted and taken seriously.
But what if you are innocent?
Matt Araiza is a punter who earned the moniker Punt God while at San Diego State. He regularly boomed the ball 80 yards. He won the Ray Guy Award as college football’s best punter. The Buffalo Bills drafted him in the 6th round and signed a nice contract. Then, during the 2022 pre-season, his world came crashing down.
He was accused of being part of a gang rape while in college. CBS, NBC, and ABC all covered the accusation nationally. The Bills cut him. The morning after that decision, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith gave a loud, lengthy, winded analysis that in print has all of the right allegeds and if found guiltys, but the verbal and non-verbal cues show someone pouring gasoline on the fire. None of these networks included this story in their nightly newscasts, granted there was the E. Jean Carroll v. Donald Trump verdict and the George Santos indictment, but there was room to cover other stories.
Well, after some time, the San Diego Police and District Attorney released a report that states Araiza was not there when the alleged incident happened. He had been gone from the party for an hour.
In the days leading up to filing a lawsuit by the alleged victim in August 2022 to the cut from the Bills, there was a social media hurricane damning Araiza and sharing the clips and articles. I can’t imagine he could go anywhere in the home of San Diego County without feeling that someone would confront him. He was the very definition of a pariah. In our cancel culture, he was as shunted as it gets.
But, now it seems he is innocent. Will the networks report on their evening news this development with the same vigor? Will Stephen A. Smith offer a message of contrition with the same brio and force? Probably not. And Matt Araiza, like the Duke Men’s Lacrosse team, is left to put together the pieces of his life.
It makes you wonder if Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible are still part of the high school curriculum. Where is the ethic of thou shalt not bear false witness?
From a brand perspective, he has little or no shot of reclaiming a pristine image. Now that this has happened, it is unlikely that a team will sign him. He could work with a sponsor and do one of those promotions. Like for every punt over 50 yards, there will be a donation to a rape crisis center. Matt Araiza could spend every off day of every week going to area high schools and middle schools to speak to students about respecting gender and sexual boundaries.
He could do all that, but it won’t make a difference to a segment of our population.
He will always have to deal with people who convicted him before a trial. Who got a rope and mentally hung him. Who would be gold medalists if jumping to conclusions were an Olympic sport? But are they being just? Could they stand up to judgment, for they have been judging?
Araiza will not get those awful days back, either. He was torched publicly. He could not go anywhere without the constant reminder that he was under investigation – and convicted by many – of a heinous crime.
It is good that we now live in a time and place where even a former President of the United States is held to account for his actions. But in Trump’s case, the evidence against him was heard by a judge and jury. We live in a time where several prominent people lost their jobs when their employers found there were grounds for sexual harassment or assault. Many of them are members of the news organizations named above.
In this case, it is my understanding that the employer did investigate the incident around their draftee. They were aware of inconsistencies with the accuser’s story and that it was more than likely that Araiza was not at the party when the incident happened. They released him anyway, and the Dresden-like firestorm was fueled.
Given that these news organizations did not deal with their own issues or turned a blind eye towards prominently accused media powerbrokers such as Harvey Weinstein, do they feel they need to take the victim’s side automatically and vigorously? As the esteemed writer Roger Kahn once said, “There aren’t two sides of the story. There is only one side. The Truth.” Where was the investigation? Where was the reporting? Wasn’t there someone on one of these staff who knew how to dig around a police department or get sources from the DA?
False accusations are extremely rare. Particularly in the realm of sexual assault. Still it is wise, though difficult to heed the words of Benjamin Franklin “it is better a hundred guilty persons should escape than one innocent person should suffer.”
If Araiza was approached and declined to do interviews, who could blame him? What would you do in that position? But someone, the Buffalo Bills, his agent, or his attorney should have worked with him to get his story out. With crystal clear 20/20 hindsight, that is what should have happened.
In the social media era, it is as though the FCC gave us all a license and let us broadcast. So let’s be careful before we pile on. And to news organizations out there, you aren’t just dealing with a high-profile professional athlete. You’re dealing with a person. A citizen deserves their right to a fair trial. So don’t rush to judge. It is more important in these cases to be right than to be first or follow the herd.
Jim Bloom is a marketing executive currently located in Dallas, TX. He has been involved with several digital, mobile, and social startups. Bloom also directed the marketing of the Moneyball era Oakland A’s and Toronto Blue Jays.