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GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT: WHAT IF `PUNT GOD' ARAIZA ISN’T CHARGED?
Without resolution in a lengthy police investigation, the Buffalo Bills cut their acclaimed rookie punter based on accusations in a civil lawsuit — should teams allow social-media mobs to end careers?
If guilty as accused, the “Punt God” will find no heaven to save him. He’ll be headed to a more appropriate place, a federal prison, where he can rot away with his sins from a night last October. That is when a 17-year-old girl said Matt Araiza, then a San Diego State football standout, raped her before leading her into his residence 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???”
Horrific as her details are, in the latest accusation of sexual violence involving a well-known athlete in America’s leading sport, Araiza has not been charged with a crime in that California city. A months-long police investigation continues — clumsy at best, suspicious at worst, with the university’s lagging response worthy of scrutiny. But until criminal charges are filed, if they are filed, we are left with a sports employment precedent that begs discussion if not criticism.
The Buffalo Bills released Araiza, likely ending his promising NFL career, while acknowledging they aren’t exactly certain what happened that night. They released him because a civil lawsuit, filed by the teenager Thursday, prompted an avalanche of outcry on social media, though the amateur-hour prosecutors on message boards aren’t sure what happened, either. The Bills cut him because fans and media pundits are excoriating the organization, which knew of the accusations in late July, for handing Araiza a starting position last week and turning a purported blind eye to the seriousness of the matter. The Bills cut him because they couldn’t stand the heat, because they don’t want the distraction, because they are considered AFC favorites to reach the Super Bowl — a prize that infamously has eluded them since the 1990s, when they lost the big game four consecutive years.
They cut Araiza not in response to guilt being officially established. They cut him as an easy way out, a convenient option given their lofty seasonal expectations and an intense national #MeToo climate. In an America where one should be presumed innocent until proven guilty — or so they say — the team’s decision seems premature and arbitrary, if not unfair and unconstitutional.
“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 Saturday after making the move. “We just decided that the most important thing is this is not about football, it’s about letting Matt go handle this.”
But what if criminal charges never are filed against Araiza, he of the booming left leg and 82-yard punt in a recent preseason game? Should an athlete — or anyone in this country — lose a career based on the contents of a civil lawsuit that may or may not lead to anything? Can’t anyone, male or female, use such legal means as weapons, true or not, to settle a personal score for some reason? Wouldn’t it be easy to gin up stories, with the help of headline-seeking accident attorneys only happy to help and cash in? Is that what America has become in 2022, the land of the woke and the home of the smear, allowing online mobs to influence the fate of a public figure without any qualified justification?
Why can’t we patiently wait for the facts, for the official conclusion? Or do facts no longer matter in a society that must rush to judgment, either as a form of spontaneous entertainment or a soul-soothing salve that makes people feel better about their own lives and indiscretions? I’m in no position to form a judgment about Araiza or his accuser. Why would the mobs be any better positioned unless they were in the house on Rockford Drive that night?
“The facts of the incident are not what they are portrayed in the lawsuit or in the press,” Araiza said in a statement, via his agent. “I look forward to quickly setting the record straight.”
In relentlessly perpetuating a crusade that cancels bad guys, millions of #MeToo activists should be applauded for legitimate extermination efforts. But how about first waiting to see if they’re truly bad guys? Then hurl all the venom in your collective spleen, as I will. The public’s presumptions are encouraged by the likes of Dan Gilleon, the plaintiff’s attorney, who said in a statement, “This was a horrific crime, the kind of which happens all too often. What makes these crimes different is not only that they were committed by self-entitled athletes. Just as awful as the crimes, for months, multiple organizations — SDSU, the San Diego Police Department, the San Diego District Attorney, and now the Buffalo Bills — have acted the part of enablers looking the other way in denial that my client deserves justice even if the defendants are prized athletes.”
I’ve made it clear already, but I’ll state it again: If Araiza is convicted, send him away to a prison life of bread, water, COVID-19 and killer rats. And if he isn’t? An NFL team had better give him his career back. I’m dreaming here, but media companies — social and professional, assuming any are professional — shouldn’t let readers comment on legal cases that remain in investigation phases. The Athletic, in its seven-year infancy, generally has done strong investigative work. But the New York Times, which purchased the sports site this year and believes in message boards, would be wise to eliminate the raw random exchanges that dumb-down the accompanying journalism. If staff reporters are bound to standards, why let readers with personal biases and agendas comment and sway discourse when, again, none of them know what happened in San Diego? They think they know. They don’t know.
The NFL’s conduct policy isn’t a factor in Araiza’s case. The allegations of rape, false-imprisonment and gender violence crimes occurred months before he was drafted by the Bills. Still, for comparison’s sake, Deshaun Watson is keeping his career with the Cleveland Browns — and most of his guaranteed $230 million — after he finishes serving an 11-game suspension and paying a $5 million fine to charity. He never was charged criminally, but Watson was rocked by civil lawsuits from 24 women accusing him of sexual misconduct during therapeutic massage sessions. The league, in its lengthy investigation, concluded he engaged in “egregious” and “predatory” behavior. So if Araiza is drummed out of the league permanently, without a criminal charge against him, wouldn’t it represent another double standard amid the NFL’s reign of hypocrisy? You know: Protect the star quarterback, Watson, while making an example of a disposable punter.
Araiza’s attorney, Kerry Armstrong, says he’s a victim of “a shakedown” after signing a four-year, $3.87-million contract with the Bills. The deal wasn’t guaranteed, beyond a $216,000 signing bonus. Saying “there is no doubt in my mind” Araiza is innocent, Armstrong said of the decision to release him: “Matt is very disappointed his career with the Bills ended not because he played poorly, but because of false allegations leveled against him by a young lady and her attorney. I hope he is back in the NFL soon. He deserves to be, as he is the hardest-working 22-year-old I know.”
Just the same, the extent of Watson’s creepy actions only became publicly evident upon the multitude of civil suits. Might civil action against Araiza lead to justice for his accuser? Gilleon says Araiza’s attorney called with a settlement offer that immediately was rejected. This suggests the accuser wants more from him than money, apparent in her emotionally charged comments to the Los Angeles Times after her lawsuit was filed.
“I just really want to see some sort of accountability," she said, while accusing Araiza of giving her a drink that contained alcohol and other “intoxicating” substances. “I feel like I've dealt with enough of the consequences of what happened that day.”
There would be plenty of reasons for San Diego State to cover up a gang-rape allegation: 310 million, in fact, as in the dollars spent to build a new home, Snapdragon Stadium, in a market without pro football. With the college game swirling in a conference realignment hurricane, a program on the rise seeks upward mobility. Saturday, the Aztecs will christen their stadium with a nationally televised game against Pac-12 opponent Arizona.
But there are at least as many reasons for the death-by-Twitter mobs to rail against someone called “Punt God” because, well, they can. After due process, maybe Araiza’s next job will be cleaning toilets behind bars. If he’s cleared in the end, criminally and civilly, the mobs should apologize en masse. Sure, right.
They’ll already be seeking their next target, real or perceived, guilty or innocent, “Punt God” or otherwise. There must be a better way, a smarter way, a fairer way, a more American way. Or is this America now, a land without due process?
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.