The Buffalo Bills released rookie punter Matt Araiza on Saturday night. At worst, the allegation contained in a civil lawsuit filed Thursday that Araiza, a former San Diego State star, participated in the gang rape of a 17-year-old last October is proven true and there will be many questions about how the university, the San Diego police and those who are supposed to vet players in the NFL let Araiza go unscathed for 10 months. At best, Araiza was the cliché every team hopes to avoid as the season is about to start: a devastating distraction. The Bills could not afford to put up with even the best-case scenario.
There is almost certainly much more to be learned about the Bills’ response to Araiza — about what they knew of the alleged incident, about how deeply they pursued answers, about whom they relied on for their information and investigation. NFL franchises are not investigative bodies — as Buffalo general manager Brandon Beane noted during a news conference Saturday announcing the move, teams don’t have the means to pull all the facts together — but past cases tell us that teams often seek answers from people who will tell them what they want to hear.
Maybe the Bills tried harder than that. By their own account, they first learned of the allegation in “late July” — about a month ago — when the alleged victim’s attorney spoke to one of the team’s lawyers. The Bills say they began the process of looking into the situation then and tried not to rush to judgment. They initially made no move to distance themselves from Araiza; he practiced and played in the first two preseason games, earning widespread acclaim for an 82-yard punt in Buffalo’s preseason opener and becoming the team’s starting punter after the release of veteran Matt Haack on Monday. Then the allegation hit the headlines on Thursday, when the lawsuit was filed and the Los Angeles Times wrote about it. Araiza traveled with the team to Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, for Buffalo’s preseason finale against the Panthers on Friday night but ultimately did not play in the game, with Bills coach Sean McDermott saying in his postgame news conference that it was his decision: “At the end of the day, I didn’t feel it was right to do that.” On Saturday, Beane said Araiza’s version of events was different than the one the Bills received from the accuser’s attorney, adding that the team still had not pieced everything together.
Still, whether it was new information or public outrage that informed their decision, the Bills did the right thing in releasing Araiza. That alone, given the offseason of Deshaun Watson, is a nice change of pace. It was also the easy decision. Araiza certainly has the right to defend himself, and the Bills have the right to protect their franchise from a disturbing accusation. But boil this down to football math, which is ultimately the most cynical but also most important calculus in the NFL: Araiza is a punter — and while he is very good at punting, he is also a rookie, a sixth-round draft pick, with no track record of NFL success and without an enormous contract the Bills will have to pay.
The Cleveland Browns deserve all the scorn they’ve received for their embrace of Watson. As a strictly football matter, though, having a franchise quarterback with a lot of moral baggage is still — to the Browns, at least — having a franchise quarterback, which is most definitely not the same as having a punter. It’s nothing to celebrate, but like it or not, pro sports teams — like all businesses — regularly contort themselves to accommodate their most vital employees.
The Bills are strong Super Bowl contenders this season. To invite the tumult and distraction Araiza would have brought to Buffalo as this lawsuit plays out would have been ludicrous. One look at Beane and McDermott in the last two days tells you how much of their emotional and intellectual energy was exhausted on Araiza’s situation. That is not where a team wants its leadership spending its time with the season about to begin.
The bottom line on Araiza is that even the best punter is not vital enough for a team to hope everyone will eventually forget a hideous allegation. He is, simply put, replaceable.
Beane said Saturday night that the Bills’ culture is more important than winning games. That might very well be true. And the scales might tip more dramatically toward culture because punters rarely directly win games anyway.
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