The NFL's unenviable challenge

·4-min read

In college, Matt Araiza was a budding folk hero, a cannon-legged rogue whose low-earth-orbit kicks for San Diego State earned him the killer nickname of "Punt God." Drafted by the Buffalo Bills, he appeared headed for similar stardom in the pros, unleashing gravity-defying kicks in the preseason. And then on Thursday, news broke that Araiza was the focus of a civil complaint, accused of graphic sexual violations of a 17-year-old minor.

‌We're all too familiar with how these cases tend to go in sports: the team makes vague statements about "internal investigations," the player releases some bland pablum written by the team's PR officials, and everybody waits out the news cycle until a new crisis rises up elsewhere.

‌Not this time. The accusations against Araiza are heinous and infuriating, disturbing enough that the Bills decided to cut ties with Araiza shortly after news of the lawsuit became public. Whether the accusations are true or not isn't the point in regard to Araiza's job; the fact that the accusations exists is.

‌Araiza's presumption of innocence has absolutely no bearing on his employment as an NFL player. He's innocent in the eyes of the law until proven guilty, and he's entitled to a fair trial if it comes to that. He's not entitled to a roster slot on an NFL team, any more than some troll kicked off Twitter is having their inalienable right to free speech violated. An employer can fire an employee based on accusations alone ... which, in turn, leads us right to another NFL case where that didn't happen.

FILE - Buffalo Bills punter Matt Araiza waves to fans after a preseason NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts in Orchard Park, N.Y., Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022. With a nickname like
The Bills released Matt Araiza after allegations of sexual assault emerged. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus, File)

‌It's a direct line from the handling of the Araiza case to the handling — or mishandling — of Deshaun Watson's numerous sexual assault allegations. Like Araiza, Watson hasn't been convicted of anything. Unlike Araiza, Watson still has a job even after the allegations came to light ... with the largest guaranteed contract in NFL history, too.

‌You'd be right to wonder how the Bills would react if these kinds of accusations were leveled against one of their star players. We can't prove a negative, no matter how compelling it might be to do that, but it's not hard to imagine that the Bills might take a bit more time analyzing the merits of the case if the focus was a player more crucial to the team's fortunes than a rookie punter.

‌(Worth noting, and worth further discussion at another time: the Bills had known about the accusations, and a potential criminal investigation against Araiza, since last month, after drafting him but before they cut a competing punter. But the team didn't take decisive action until the accusations became public knowledge.)

‌Justice moves slowly, which, if you think about it, is very much the way it ought to move. That puts justice at odds with the world of sports, where snap judgments and sweeping declarations keep the lights on and keep fans coming back. We tend to want our solutions the way we want our games: delivered quickly and with finality. But justice isn't quite that simple, nor should it be.

‌NFL teams in the post-Watson era face an unenviable challenge in meting out the league's version of justice; a calm, measured approach to investigation doesn't fit in a world where defenders and critics of accused athletes demand swift, decisive action. The wheels of justice can take months, years, multiple seasons to reach a conclusion.

There's a middle ground between "deny, smear the accuser and cover it all up" and "fire anyone accused by anyone else at any time," and that's the narrow space NFL teams must now navigate.

‌If the justice system works the way it's supposed to — granted, that's a big "if" — Araiza will get exactly what he deserves. And then he'll have the opportunity again to get an NFL job, the way both convicted felons and unconvicted innocents have before him. That's how it ought to go, for a star or a rookie alike.

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Contact Jay Busbee at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.