On the NFL's dark side...
After learning of disturbing accusations against their punter, the Buffalo Bills didn't act like a team valuing "culture" above "winning." Sadly, they are not alone.
Welcome to the underworld you were never supposed to see. Watch where you step. It’s nothing but sewage and despair and guilt down here. Incidents like this do not neatly splice into a “Football is Family” promo.
Fans of the National Football League aren’t supposed to know this dimension exists.
But it does. And it’s disturbing. And it cannot be ignored. Once more, the soullessness of the sport was put on public display.
Oh, the Buffalo Bills got around to releasing a player accused of gang-raping a 17-year-old female with two other San Diego State teammates. But, please. Spare me the celebratory, all-cap, emoji-laden tweets. Nobody deserves raucous applause here. GM Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott only released punter Matt Araiza because they had zero choice. To recap, the Bills had known since late July that they were employing a rookie accused of unspeakably vile behavior. They confirmed as much in a meek joint press conference on Saturday night.
Rather than practice the virtues they preach at One Bills Drive, here’s what happened after this information was acquired.
The Bills conducted what they later labeled a “thorough examination.” This consisted of the team’s assistant general counsel Kathryn D’Angelo chatting with Jane Doe’s attorney at length on the phone. The team never followed up with a second call. They listened to Araiza’s version of events — chose to believe him — and weren’t too concerned with learning more from the accuser. The attorney warned of a civil suit but, hey, training camp was in full swing. Can’t be bothered with such frivolity when there are 7-on-7 drills to conduct.
Coaches declared Araiza the winner of their punting competition in camp, releasing Matt Haack more than a week before the league mandates teams cut their roster to 53 players. This was championed by the team as a signature moment in camp with Araiza and teammates all trotted out to the podium.
Then, there was this scene. If the Bills’ PR department was trying to portray its head coach in a hip light by having him sit down with the most popular sports podcast in America — the “Pardon My Take” gang from Barstool Sports — then… yikes. That decision detonated in their face.
Rewatch the cringy scene at your own discretion. Midway through the conversation, lounged in a leather chair, McDermott was asked about Araiza. Obviously, the show’s hosts had no clue an asteroid was traveling toward Orchard Park, N.Y. at warp speed, but this is a head coach who is repeatedly described as a man who knows everything that happens at One Bills Drive. If a janitor sneezed 4 1/2 hallways down, he’d be apprised of that vital intel. McDermott was handed the power here and he wields that power to the utmost degree. The odds of him being kept in the dark on a player accused of gang rape are microscopic.
“Him and Josh are the two favorites of the local fan base here in Buffalo,” McDermott said on the podcast, playfully motioning his hands, “Hitting an 82-yard punt, right? He’s off a good start. He’s a great kid. And he could be a weapon for us. What do they call him? The ‘punt god,’ right?”
A great kid. McDermott then said the team should see who can advance the ball down the field farther: Josh Allen throwing it or Matt Araiza punting it.
All from a coach who claimed Saturday night that the franchise took the July accusations “very seriously.”
No, there is nothing redeeming that comes out of this situation. The Bills released Araiza because their backs were smacked against a wall. Plain and simple. Obviously, Buffalo isn’t alone. This is what plays out all of the time in the NFL. But the next time anyone around here bangs the character and integrity and accountability drums, let’s remember dark moments like this one. Let’s remember that “thorough” lie.
Beane said on Saturday that "our culture here is more important than winning football games." His actions suggest such a declaration is wildly false. Because if this was a team valuing culture above all, the Bills never would’ve been in this position. The culture would’ve eradicated such a disease from the body of the organization back in late July. Or even back to the NFL Draft with better scouting. For what it’s worth, I was told multiple teams were aware of the accusations. The lawsuit indicates that the San Diego Police Department has been investigating the incident since last October (when the young woman immediately went to authorities), and that it was handed to the district attorney.
For once, it’d be nice if a team was up front about its day-to-day intentions. Just admit it’s all about that bottom line. Winning.
“The Buffalo Bills had no choice but to cut their young punter after so badly botching their response to our claim,” the victim’s lawyer, Dan Gilleon, said in a statement. “They ignored us, as though what I warned them would happen could be avoided if they just kept their heads in the sand. This is what enablers do.”
What did you know and when? That was what Beane and McDermott needed to answer during a 27-minute joint presser on Saturday night. Their answers were less than satisfactory. The accusations didn’t seem to matter a whole lot to the Bills until everyone else found out about them via the civil suit in the Los Angeles Times. That’s when the Bills put their heads together and decided to tell everyone they “conducted a thorough examination.” Such careful investigative work apparently did not include a further chat with Gilleon. This was a problem the Bills tried to wish away. Maybe reaching out to the other side would’ve gleaned detail that the entire world saw over the weekend.
Beane said the Bills had the “boulders of what was being accused.”
That’s one way to put such a heinous act. As gut-wrenching as it is to read, here are two excerpts from the lawsuit. It is worth your time, right down to Araiza telling the alleged victim she should be tested for STDs.
There was more, too.
Gilleon tweeted parts of the accuser’s diary from this time. That’s equally difficult to read:
“I feel sick in the head,” the diary reads. “I told the police today what they did to me and I felt like I was no help at all. I can barely even remember.
“All I keep replaying in my mind is being face down in a random bed just waiting for it to be over. I remember being led to a room where they were all already waiting. I had a bad feeling about this party from the start and f--k me for not listening to my gut. They were just taking turns with me as if I’m just some f---ing body to be used under their free will. I have no idea how long I was even in there or how many guys had sex with me and now I feel like some slut who should have been more careful. I was bloody after. BLOODY. What the hell did they do to me in there??? All my piercings are gone and my neck is disgusting. I don’t know if they are hickeys or bruises but they f---ing hurt. I’m supposed to go to school tomorrow and I’m scared people will see.”
It’s one thing to keep everyone in the dark over what transpired the final 13 seconds of a football game. Back in February, McDermott shifted into “execution” autopilot, stuck his head in the football sands and, no, it didn’t make many people at One Bills Drive very happy. There were coaches and players who felt the head coach should’ve explained what happened. It’s quite another problem to have a player on your roster accused of this all and do nothing but feed into the legend of the “Punt God.” The reputation of the Buffalo Bills took a massive blow nationally and it’s all 100 percent warranted. This was the No. 1 sports story at all major outlets, and even made its way onto NBC Nightly News. That’s the external damage. There’s a good chance the Bills have work to do internally, too. This is a roster full of husbands with wives, fathers with daughters, brothers with sisters. How do they feel about the Bills letting this slide for nearly a month? I’d wager not good.
A somber press conference that tip toes around the case does not suffice. This mishap could cut deep with some of the 53 players in the locker room. Not to mention the coaching staff.
All the Bills did was react. They were exposed.
The culture will need to be repaired.
Again, this is sadly par for the course and a symptom of a larger problem. Those Cleveland Browns deserve all the scorn they’ve received these last five months. This is what happens when people running a football team act devoid of emotion, when you run such a well-oiled machine. Countless coaches, GMs, scouts sleep at the office — this becomes their life in every conceivable way. They sacrifice family time, they lose themselves, all in the name of doing everything possible to gain an edge on the field. Clicker in hand, eyes are glued to a screen, they hit play and rewind and pause and play and rewind over… and over… and over again… obsessed with finding the best possible players to build a winner. That’s the goal: Winning at all cost. It all sounds noble in theory but proves dangerous in practice because this comes with inherent blind spots. When the locomotive moves 150 MPH in one hellbent direction, it’s bound to backfire. One screw loosens underneath the hood and — look out — everything bursts into flames.
A 17-year-old accusing one of your players of raping is essentially ignored.
By no means should all 32 teams cut loose every single player that ever has a red flag. Each situation is independent. Each demands careful examination. From there, a team follows its own moral compass. Some teams are historically willing to throw their morals out the window. Then, there’s the Bills telling us over and over again how unbreakably strong their moral compass is. We’d expect this Araiza madness from the old renegade Oakland Raiders. Not here. To the Bills’ credit, this does appear to be a strong locker room with many high-character players. To McDermott’s credit, the head coach did a lot of work cleaning up the Rex Ryan Era and building a program other teams envy around the league.
The Bills didn’t only end a 17-year playoff drought. They’re the 2022 Super Bowl favorites.
Still, anybody harboring a Disney interpretation for how they’re building a winner is sadly mistaken. When jobs are on the line, teams tend to do unbelievably stupid things. Like get greedy with a punter. Like dismiss accusations for a player that’ll be asked to perform his task — punt a football 45 yards or so downfield — two, maybe three times per game.
I’d like to think the Bills would have cut ties with whoever was accused of such behavior be it a punter or a starting running back. But, who knows?
Robot mode backfired. It’s time for the Bills to take a hard look at their vetting process.
Bare minimum, the team can do us one solid. When the Bills are undefeated by Week 10 or 11 and the camera veers toward McDermott giving a locker room speech, can we please not hear any reference to the team “overcoming adversity” in August? This abysmal chapter in Bills history should not be repurposed as us-against-world motivation. It’s not complicated: This was a disaster of the team’s own creation.
From scouts not doing enough predraft digging… right on through July… to McDermott yucking it up on a podcast, they botched this in every way.
Own it. Eat it. And remember one thing.
What a team does in the darkness often comes to light.