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On Media, Moral Obligations and Reporting – Football Fabulosa

Are there moral obligations inherent in reporting that compels the media to report things that teams, players and agents might not like?  This column’s topic is one that I have pondered for a long time without ever coming to a real answer. I think the answer is and should be yes but there are dangers that must be confronted and addressed.

The media gets a lot of criticism at times for how it handles stories on athletic transgressions, sometimes rightfully so, and to be fair it’s a fine line between reporting factual information and rumors. Our great nation was founded with an enduring principle that freedom of speech is a vital aspect of a healthy democracy. Speech should not be forbidden or banned because one disagrees with the message.

I was already contemplating this topic and then this morning a rather interesting article crossed my path via twitter from Melissa Jacobs, a/k/a The Football Girl, on a topic I have written about before and that is the NFL’s treatment of women. Matt Schauf discussed the issue very well in this article and you should read it. In it he addressed how very little the media covered the assault allegations from 2008 against Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

I consider myself fairly informed on this issue and I had never heard of the charges against Larry Fitzgerald. The others mentioned in the article I did but it must be noted that none received more than a cursory mention at best. If you research Fitzgerald’s allegations you won’t find a mention past early January 2009. If you research Ahmad Brooks you only find his recent assault against teammate Lamar Divens. Daryl Washington and Ray Rice’s are recent and get mention but not a lot of attention. Rice in particular received an outpouring of support and married his alleged victim.

As for Roethlisberger and Sharper, those allegations involve rape which typically carry far greater consequences legally. Roethlisberger has gone on to somewhat rehabilitate his image and settled one of his rape allegations back in 2012. The other case never got prosecuted and it is unknown whether that case settled quietly before anything happened legally. It rarely gets mentioned anymore except by those who consider these things to be important and that number is disgracefully low.

As for Sharper, those allegations are fairly new and reports fairly recent. NFL Network finally fired Sharper after the string of allegations became to difficult to ignore. I like to think the many people writing about the issue finally brought that change. Without information, there can be no backlash and debate and therefore no change.

It was the controversy surrounding Desean Jackson that initially got me to pondering this subject however. Jackson of course was released by the Philadelphia Eagles at the end of March following a now infamous article by the New Jersey Times discussing the Eagles concerns over Jackson’s alleged gang connections.

In the uproar that followed Jackson’s release a few hours later, it was generally assumed the Eagles planted the story to justify moving on from Jackson who had long been known to have issues but who was coming off a career year for the Eagles with 82 receptions for 1332 yards and 9 touchdowns. The paper has since denied those charges and indicated they reached out to Jackson and his representatives a few days prior to publishing the story with no real response.

The paper stated they became aware of the gang connections from sources outside the Eagles who would not comment to the paper other than to state they were unaware of the ties. Jackson himself addressed the allegations in an interview with ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith. You can find a good summary here and also see what Jackson wore during the sit down. There is a lot of posturing from both sides on the issue.

There were many who felt the article should not have been written. The NFLPA said it would investigate Jackson’s release by the Eagles. Jackson quickly found a new home signing a 3 year $24 million contract with Washington.

I found myself rather baffled by the backlash to the reporting. Isn’t this what reporters and newspapers should do? Shouldn’t we be against the burying of reports like this rather than encouraging it? Far too often reports like this get buried because of inside and outside pressure by teams, agents and/or players.

Consider what SI writer Greg Bedard had to say about Jackson and his coverage of Aaron Hernandez when he worked for the Boston Globe. Could a more in-depth look at Hernandez have changed anything? It’s hard to say but it does beg the question.

In general, I am a firm believer in more information rather than less. That’s not to say we should encourage sketchy reporting at all. There is a fine line to be sure between reporting unsubstantiated rumors and something with fire to go with the smoke. It’s also relatively easy to report these matters in a balanced fashion. Let’s not forget Jackson and his camp had ample enough time to formulate  a response. With Jackson, there was more than enough substance for the article to run.

More coverage is needed on the NFL and its members attitude and treatment of women. As I wrote in the article mentioned above, very little coverage is devoted to these issues. There is a stark lack of reporting in draft coverage of violence against women. While it has gotten somewhat better, there is still a far too common tendency to downplay and in some cases downright overlook assault charges or allegations against athletes who are entering the draft.

Take Taylor Lewan for example. I mentioned him in my first article. Since then I have had conversations with 3 men who are very sports minded and pay attention to the draft. None of them knew about his off the field issues including his pending assault charges and well this which is so disgusting I won’t go into detail here. The feds are investigating Michigan’s handling of that entire mess.

All this leads me to my question which I present here. Does the media have a moral obligation to report these allegations and rumors for the benefit of the public? Would lives have been saved if Aaron Hernandez wasn’t able to operate in what appears to be relative impunity? If Michigan had acted sooner would there be assault charges currently pending against Taylor Lewan?

I think the public has a right to know these things. Likewise, I think the media has the obligation to report on them and not to shield the athlete or the team. The public should have the right to determine whether the information is valuable and what do do with it. Sometimes it’s takes backlash and public pressure to enact change. That cannot happen without a media that is devoted to reporting and uncovering the truth.

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