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A LITMUS TEST FOR MEDIA: CLEARED OF RAPE, ARAIZA SHOULD BE WORKING
Months after prosecutors said the acclaimed “Punt God” wouldn’t be criminally charged, he remains unsigned in post-Buffalo exile — so why is his unfair ordeal ignored by columnists and commentators?
Another year has passed without a sportswriter winning a Pulitzer Prize. The last was John Branch of the New York Times, back in 2013, for his “evocative narrative” about skiers killed in an avalanche. George Dohrmann won in 2000, at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where he uncovered academic fraud within the University of Minnesota men’s basketball program. Jim Murray, Dave Anderson and Red Smith won for commentary in the latter years of the 20th century.
Why not more?
Oh, because too many sports journalists are not journalists. They are civic cheerleaders, political activists, bad comedians, slaves to team access, crony-clingers, controversy cowards, bullshit artists, prose masturbators, DraftKings whores and mail-it-in frauds protecting paychecks. Or, they are prevented from doing their best work by mediocre/lazy/ethically compromised editors who, oddly, weren’t good enough to be writers yet became the writers’ newsroom bosses. All of which are contributing factors to the demise of sports media, in quality and metrics, with no bigger culprit than ESPN, which hired away some of the best writers and reporters and turned them into entertainers or league-friendly publicists — I was placed in the entertainment bin for eight years and 1,700 TV shows — while reducing investigative and enterprise journalism to hiccup afterthoughts.
I will stick to my blunt summation until I see one media person — uno, un, eins, en, unus, one — ask in a published column or broadcast commentary what I am vigorously asking today.
Why is Matt Araiza, cleared of being present at an alleged gang rape in San Diego, still unemployed? Months after prosecutors decided not to file criminal charges — and an entire season since the NFL’s Buffalo Bills released a rookie considered one of the best punting prospects ever — why does his future in pro football remain uncertain?
The Bills cut the acclaimed “Punt God,” you might recall, under significant public pressure last Aug. 27 while acknowledging they weren’t exactly sure what happened in the case. They released Araiza because a civil lawsuit, filed by a minor, prompted an avalanche of outcry on social media from amateur-hour prosecutors who pilloried the organization for knowing about the accusation when he was handed a starting position. They severed Araiza not in response to guilt being established. They did so as an easy and convenient way out in an American culture of irresponsible cancellation, in a hypocritical sports industry that protects a quarterback such as Deshaun Watson after accusations of sexual misconduct from more than two dozen women, and drafts a defensive wrecker such as Jalen Carter ninth in the first round after his involvement in two road-racing deaths. They cut him because a punter, despite a booming left leg that produced an 82-yarder in a preseason game, is no-brainer collateral damage for a small-market franchise recklessly using him to prop its public-relations image.
“We don’t know all the facts, and that’s what makes it hard, but at this time we think it is the best move for everyone to move on from Matt and let him take care of this situation,” Bills general manager Brandon Beane said at the time. “We just decided that the most important thing is this is not about football, it’s about letting Matt go handle this.”
So Araiza handled it. He lost a four-year, $3.8 million contract, collecting only a $216,148 signing bonus. He saw his job handed to veteran Sam Martin, who enjoyed a good season and recently signed a three-year deal with Buffalo worth up to $7.5 million with $4.1 million in guarantees. He sat and watched the Bills advance to the AFC postseason. He was not charged with a crime during a months-long police investigation of an October 2021 party at an off-campus residence, where a 17-year-old girl said Araiza — then a San Diego State standout — raped her in a side yard before leading her into a bedroom during a party, where she said she was gang-raped by a group including two of his teammates for about 90 minutes as she drifted in and out of consciousness.
“All I keep replaying in my mind is being face down in a random bed just waiting for it to be over,” she wrote in a diary about the alleged assault. “I was bloody after. BLOODY. What the hell did they do to me in there???”
Turns out Araiza, according to prosecutors, wasn’t present at the house during the alleged gang rape. Citing video time stamps, San Diego deputy district attorney Trisha Amador said Araiza was not criminally charged for a rape that allegedly occurred at 1:30 a.m. PT because he was not “even at the party anymore” and left about an hour earlier, according to a witness. Amador informed the accuser at a meeting last Dec. 7 — more than five months ago — and details were made available this week. Over an hour and 41 minutes of audio from that meeting was obtained and reviewed by an ESPN reporter who is neither an entertainer nor a shill for the Bills. Beat writer Alaina Getzenberg quoted Amador as telling the accuser, “There's a witness who doesn't have a reason to say what time suspect Araiza left the party because nobody knows about the time stamps — that he would've left the party prior to (a video being filmed).”
In a phone call between Araiza and the girl recorded on Oct. 27, 2021, Araiza acknowledged he had “hooked up” with her. He doesn’t specify whether that encounter involved sex. “I didn't really see you again, but I remember somebody saying that like you were yelling at someone, or you were angry," Araiza told the girl, according to the law-enforcement transcript. “And like then the party was going to end or something like that. I think that was the reason the party ended.”
In the end, he was exonerated. Period.
If I’m Matt Araiza, I’m considering lawsuits against the Bills and NFL, if not the accuser. Through his agent, he issued a statement to the Pro Football Talk website: “I am aware that the facts of this case have been made public. I am deeply gratified for the thorough work of the DA’s office in San Diego and for all the witnesses that were willing to come forward and tell the truth. I am thankful that the facts of this case as provided by the witnesses will prove that what I have been saying from the beginning is, in fact, the truth.
“I can only hope that now people will assess me on the facts and not what was falsely claimed in both the civil suit and in the press. I am beyond thankful for the unwavering support of both my family and friends. They have been a rock in what has been a very dark eight months for me. However, now that the truth is out, I am amazed by the thousands of emails and tweets supporting me. It has truly been a blessing to know that so many people have now judged me by the facts.”
Will NFL front offices do the same? Or will they continue to let social media mobs dictate decisions and ruin a young man’s life? As a free agent, Araiza can sign with any team. Given his rave reviews upon entering the NFL, when he was selected by the Bills in the sixth round, you’d think a franchise would snap him up quickly. Not yet, even though he’d face no consequences under the league’s Personal Conduct Policy if he lost a civil suit, which is unlikely at this point.
For now, I’m watching the sports media, including activists who jump on racial and #MeToo topics every day. There are deep industry concerns about Artificial Intelligence — AI no longer stands for Allen Iverson, folks — and how it might end journalism as we’ve known it.
Seems robots would do a better job on the Matt Araiza story than the human opinionists.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.