Friday, April 21, 2006

We Report, We Decide

I may regret writing this column, but I’ve been so wrapped up in this topic it’ll be cathartic. I’m going to keep Peter Gabriel going on the iPod as a safety measure; it’s awfully difficult to rant and rave with In Your Eyes stuck in your head. By the way, this’ll be a long one, so you may want to highlight the text and print it out to avoid getting a computer monitor-induced headache.

What’s had me so fired up? The Duke Lacrosse Scandal that’s managed to somehow make the birth of Tom and Katie’s Scientologic Love Child second page material. Some things I want to throw out before going one character further:
-I believe a forcible rape and assault took place, and that the accuser is a victim. I believe that there are few crimes that could possibly be as reprehensible.
-I believe the Duke Lax squad earned its reported reputation as hard partiers that had difficulty staying within the lines.
-I could not possibly say with confidence that members of the team did or did not sexually assault the victim.

Those three statements out of the way, what has worked me into a lather is the unprofessionalism of the Raleigh News & Observer in its coverage of this incident. Let me provide a timeline, which can obviously be no more than what I have followed through various media outlets:
  1. The event in question took place (March 13th beginning close to midnight) with a medical examination providing strong evidence that a rape had occurred.

  2. The N&O reports that the Lax team was ordered to submit to DNA testing following a police search of the house (Mar. 24)

  3. The N&O runs a 1,000 word interview article with the unidentified accuser, listing the address, general location and a picture of the Lacrosse team house, touching off local protests and vigils there (Mar. 25)

  4. Ruth Sheehan (a previous victim of rape) of the N&O pens an editorial calling for the team to be shut down, openly certain that the players committed or were complicit in the alledged rape, that the players were racist, and that Durham police “shouldn't have to wait for 46 DNA samples to be returned.” (Mar. 27)

  5. The N&O reports that 15 of the players had prior arrests (all petty misdemeanors) (Mar. 28)

  6. Duke forfeits a home game. (Mar. 28)

  7. Duke suspends the lacrosse season pending the outcome of the investigation (Mar. 29)

  8. Defense lawyers accuse the prosecution of trying to convict the team members in public without charges and predict that DNA evidence will clear the players (Mar. 30)

  9. Police disclose that two 911 calls connected to the case were made in the early AM of Mar. 13: a 12:55 am call from a woman alleging racial harassment as she and a friend walked by the Lacrosse House and a second from the accuser at approximately 1:25 AM. It is later revealed that the accuser’s companion made the initial call and that the accuser did not make the second; a security guard made the call because she was intoxicated at a grocery store and refused to leave. (Mar. 31)

  10. DA Mike Nifong states that if the DNA evidence did not result in matches it would not exonerate the players and is admonished by defense attorneys for speaking about the case in the press without disclosing evidence. (Apr. 01)

  11. Ted Vaden of the N&O writes an opinion piece questioning the fairness of the N&O’s coverage of the scandal. (Apr. 02)

  12. Ruth Sheehan writes a second editorial on the subject, accusing the Lacrosse house of being an out-of-control frat house and Duke University of turning a blind eye to it. She calls for the resignation of the team coach. (Apr. 03)

  13. N&O devotes a Ruth Sheehan blog to the scandal, largely biased in nature (as blogs are by nature) and featuring numerous picked reader responses. (Apr. 03)

  14. Duke opens a committee to probe student behavior (Apr. 05)

  15. N&O details a prior arrest of Collin H. Finnerty, the first time a team member is cited by name and pictured (Apr. 06)

  16. Reporting his full name and picturing him, N&O prints out the complete email that Ryan McFadyen wrote approximately two hours after the incident on Mar. 13. The typo-laden email spoke of having dancers come to the house again but that he would kill them. The report also names team member Daniel Flannery. After the report it became known that the email was one of many between team members but was the only one released to the media. (Apr. 06)

  17. Duke announces the resignation of the lacrosse coach and the official cancelation of the lacrosse season.

  18. Defense lawyers bring forth the team’s side of the incident for the first time, alledging “two dancers arrived at the house about 30 minutes apart and did not perform adequately. "They actually danced for three minutes and decided they were going to leave. They took a tremendous amount of money and just left.” (Apr. 07)

  19. It is revealed that the accuser had multiple prior convictions (DWI, stealing a car, resisting arrest, and assaulting a government official). (Apr. 07)

  20. The N&O runs a second article detailing prior arrests involving Duke players, this article examining incidents as early as 1999. The article asserts that while the individual offenses are minor, they are indicative of a “swaggering sense of entitlement and privilege.” (Apr. 09)

  21. Defense attorneys release time-stamped photos revealing the accuser to be intoxicated to the point of being unable to stand at the party where she was hired to dance. The pictures also show pre-exisiting injuries that the prosecution alleges occurred during the rape. The pictures reveal that the exotic dancers performed for less than 5 minutes. The defense declines to provide the N&O with copies. (Apr. 10)

  22. DNA evidence results fail to connect any of the Duke team members. (Apr. 11)

  23. The N&O runs two articles that question whether a lack of DNA evidence exonerates the Duke lacrosse players. (Apr. 11)

  24. The N&O runs a third article casting doubt over the import of the lack of DNA evidence, though its citations mostly center on cases in which DNA samples could not be found on the victim, which is not the situation in this case. (Apr. 12)

  25. At a tense and vocal public forum at North Carolina Central University, Mike Nifong declares that he will press on with the case and that the accuser had recently identified one of her assailants. Defense attorneys hotly question the timing of the identification, in particular that media outlets had been naming and picturing numerous players in the month since the incident. (Apr. 12)

  26. Ruth Sheehan writes a piece centered on Tawana Brawley and the damage that can come from a false rape claim. (Apr. 13)

  27. Police records surface describing the accuser as “passed out drunk” and “not in distress” when found the night of the incident. (Apr. 14)

  28. Ted Vaden writes an article for the N&O defending coverage of the scandal, while admitting that he found much of it questionable. (Apr. 16)

  29. Jesse Jackson offers the victim a full college scholarship. (Apr. 16)

  30. The N&O prints a 2,000 word write up on the accuser, including a section detailing her troubled past. (Apr. 16)

  31. Durham mayor Bill Bell, and the presidents of NC Central and Duke universities make a public plea to the community to allow the investigation to be kept within the police and the court systems. (Apr. 17)

  32. A grand jury indicts two members of the lacrosse team. (Apr. 17)

  33. The N&O runs a second article on Finnerty’s prior arrest in the wake of his indictment. (Apr. 18)

  34. The N&O runs a statement provided by DA Mike Nifong, indicating that he is seeking a third arrest. (Apr. 18)

  35. The N&O runs three background pieces on Finnerty and Seligmann, largely concerned with their home wealth, including tax records of home value, and asserting a background of privilege. (Apr. 19)

  36. It is reported that a second round of DNA tests was requested by DA Mike Nifong. (Apr. 19)

  37. Duke suspends the indicted students. (Apr. 19)

  38. Cell phone, ATM, and entry card records combine with a cab driver’s testimony to strongly support Seligmann’s claim that he was not present at the lacrosse house at the alleged time of the assualt. (Apr. 20)

One heck of a read, I know. Before I proceed, I’d like to repeat what I put down before:
-I believe a forcible rape and assault took place, and that the accuser is a victim. I believe that there are few crimes that could possibly be as reprehensible.
-I believe the Duke Lax squad earned its reported reputation as hard partiers that had difficulty staying within the lines.
-I could not possibly say with confidence that members of the team did or did not sexually assault the victim.

So, with all of that out of the way, let me formalize what got me so upset (hey Batfans, have you figured out the Riddler’s clues yet?). It is my perception that the News & Observer staff, Samiha Khanna and Ruth Sheehan in particular, convicted the entire Lacrosse team almost as soon as the story broke and proceeded to call for their heads through their offices. They dug up dirt at a level not seen since the Kobe Bryant trial and John Kerry’s presidential bid, and the N&O toed the line of yellow journalism as if they graduated with degrees from the Rupert Murdoch School of Modern Media. Article after article painting one picture of the team and using a completely different palette for the accuser. Researching like Team Matlock on the players but sticking to sob story interviews with the victim, giving the boys priors front page headlines while burying her past convictions in a back page paragraph.

Ruth Sheehan apparently watched too much Charles Barkley and adopted the “you can’t handle my truth” persona to wage her holy war against the college kids she instantly convicted, but wouldn’t offer up a retraction as mounting evidence seemed to exonerate much of the team. How much did her own personal experiences as a rape victim affect her evaluation of the events? The N&O allowed itself to become Mike Nifong’s mouthpiece, rather than be a neutral observer. By quickly publishing details about where the students could be found, their pictures, and their names, the N&O has left itself open to suspicions that they knowingly invited locals to harass the players (none of whom had been indicted). Just honestly ask yourself: out of the above rundown, which items were you previously aware of? Which were news to you? This isn’t just the News&Observer, it’s all the major media outlets.

The News & Observer professes that it was simply being thorough in its reporting. I feel they set themselves up as the judge of a public court. How many of those players who had nothing to do with what might have happened in that house have seen their personal lives wrecked by this coverage? How many are facing unwarranted persecution? How many won’t graduate from Duke when the dust settles? You might say that they put themselves in a bad situation, a la Kobe, but did they really? They hired strippers for a party, which isn’t illegal.

Everyone forms an opinion. Everyone has made up their mind about Barry Bonds, OJ Simpson, Ken Lay, and Brangelina, one way or the other. In this case, I fully believe the victim was raped, though I believe there could be an alternative story that’s not being examined. What if she was assaulted and intoxicated prior to arriving at the house, she and her fellow dancer quit performing for whatever reason shortly after beginning, were chased out of the house by drunk and belligerent preppies, and chose to lie about the attack after being examined at the hospital? Remember, the accuser did not call 911, nor was she examined after coming forward. She was examined because police were called in to find her “passed-out drunk.” After the examination, the police probably asked her who committed the assault, not the other way around. I’m not saying that’s what happened. I don’t know. If it hits the news tomorrow that damning evidence against a yet-unnamed lacrosse player has been found, I wouldn’t be stunned. My point is it’s one thing to speculate with buddies. It’s grossly irresponsible and dangerous for a media outlet to report on stories such as this through colored glasses. Whether or not these guys are innocent, I would be happy to see Khanna reprimanded for her obviously loose personal standards of journalistic integrity and Ruth Sheehan fired for her attempts to rally all of Carolina’s torches and pitchforks. The editorial staff should publically apologize if not resign.

To finish off, I understand that everyone’s biased to some degree. I can put up with Jon Stewart’s jadedness, even if he is choking the life out of what was once the funniest show on television. No one should ever fully buy into local coverage of their favorite sports teams, unless they’re just that fond of Kool-Aid. But it absolutely galls me when a newspaper feels that it has the right to condemn 46 college students without needing anything more than a first impression.

NBA Playoffs

As Friday’s freedom beckons, here’s a brief take on how I suspect the NBA postseason will shake out:

Eastern Conference
-First Round-Detroit Pistons 4-0 over Milwaukee Bucks
Miami Heat 4-1 over Chicago Bulls
New Jersey Nets 4-2 over Indiana Pacers
Cleveland Cavaliers 4-3 over Washington Wizards

-Second Round-
Pistons 4-0 over Cavs
Nets lose 4-1 to Heat

Pistons 4-2 over Heat

Western Conference

-First Round-
San Antonio Spurs 4-2 over Sacramento Kings
Phoenix Suns 4-1 over Los Angeles Lakers
Denver Nuggets lose 4-3 to Los Angeles Clippers
Dallas Mavericks 4-2 over Memphis Grizzlies

-Second Round-
Spurs 4-2 over Mavs
Suns lose 4-3 to Clips

Spurs 4-3 over Clips


Pistons 4-2 over Spurs

I don't believe in running donut teams come Spring. Always put your money on dominating frontlines. Spurs don't seem to be even 80% healthy this year. The Bulls went on a terrific run to finish the season, but they simply do not have the real go-to guy that every team must have in order to win in the postseason. Reggie Miller called out the Pacers in Nov, saying he couldn’t believe in them being privy to their locker room and chemistry. This riled up his ex-teammates, but proved to be dead on the money. They look like their heart was torn out a long time ago, and Peja is notoriously ineffective when the bright lights are on. The Clips could scare the living daylights out of the West, so could the Kings. Detroit is the only elite team that looks like they have everything in place, including intangibles.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Last Plea for Help! (MS150)

I swear this will be the last I write about this, and I will keep it brief.  First, a very sincere thank you to those who were kind and generous in helping me with my MS150 pledge.  Second, I could still use some help from anyone else, again looking only for $10 or $20 pocket change from those who wouldn’t mind.  No pressure, no obligation.  If you’d like though, you could think of this as paying in advance to read the high comedy recap of my biking into Austin without feeling in my wrists, back, or feet.  
Paypal to:
Or (enter Evan Johnson,

Wrapping It Up

Easter is past, which means the NBA regular season  is winding to a close.  For me, it’ll be a welcome relief from the most discouraging Rockets season since the Francis & Mobley And-1 tour got out of Rudy T’s control.   It’s best if I don’t start dwelling on that, so quickly moving along to my award handouts for the regular season, which are as biased as I choose them to be:

All-NBA First team:  Billups, Kobe, LeBron, Dirk, Yao
I pick this list on based on real positions (point, SG, SF, 4, center), which is always extremely fuzzy in the real voting.  Billups executed the league’s best offensive and defensive halfcourt sets, period, and I’m sick of people completely discounting him because of Detroit’s starting 5 while turning a blind eye to Nash’s weakness on D and how he becomes hampered in halfcourt situations.  Kobe’s obvious.  LeBron is almost on all cylinders and is a full level above Melo, Marion, and Pierce among SFs at this point.  Duncan was barely 70% all season, Big Ticket is looking like he might be the next Barry Sanders, and Bosh and Brand aren’t quite at a level where they beat teams on their own; therefore, Dirk gets the crown at 4.  
Yao (22 and 10) is the year’s best center almost by default.  If you don’t believe Shaq is tumbling down the hill faster than Jack (career lows in points and minutes, and the first time in his career to have single digit rebounds), you should stick with watching the PGA.  The media’s brief love affair with Chris Kaman was a pretty silly fad, and he got absolutely torched by Ming each and every time they met this year (7 and 6 vs Yao’s 23 and 13).  Would Yao have made this based on his season a few years ago?  No way.  The entire center position is the worst it’s been since the 80s, if not the early 60s.  The complete de-emphasis on post play by the league and younger players alike has killed the 5 spot.  Many media analysts (Kerr, S.A. Smith, etc) have been fairly transparent in their reluctance to accept this obvious fact, but Yao Ming is now the best center on the planet.

All-NBA Second Team:  Nash, Wade, Marion, Brand, Bosh
Honorable Mention (i.e., screwed over): Iverson, Melo, VC, Arenas
I feel terrible bumping Iverson out of the pack.  This a former MVP who is #3 all time in scoring average and just set a new career high in scoring for a season as well as nearly a new high in assists.  Unfortunately, I can’t fathom putting him above Billups, Nash, Kobe, or Wade.  Wade comes closest, but he led his team to over 50 wins, while AI couldn’t get his to 0.500.  Even the Los Angeles Kobes managed a winning season.  Nash makes the 2nd team based on leading the league in tangibles, and Wade gets there for becoming one of the top do-everything players in the league (26-6-7-2 stat line).  Marion didn’t make my first team by a hair.  Brand is a pseudo-MVP candidate, and Bosh is now seeing virtually all of his time at the center position.

Most Unappreciated Player:
Billups and Marion aside, it’s a split between Jason Richardson and Dwight Howard.  Richardson is just plain spooky, upping his average for the 5th straight year despite having to pry the ball from Puffy the point guard, and managed three 40+ games in March (not coincidentally, Puffy tallied a combined 50 minutes in those 3 games).  Howard is morphing into a man-beast even faster now that he’s no longer being blackballed by Steve Francis.  For the season, he’s put up nearly 16 and 13, and it’s not a crazy notion that he might be an All-Star next year as Orlando’s main attraction.  

Coach of the Year: Avery Johnson
Dallas wasn’t supposed to be better without Nash and Finley, but here they are looking more legit than any of the Maverick teams in the past decade.  AJ has expunged Nelly’s defensive excuse-making and injected his more steely personality into the team.  This team still does not have a true point guard or a defensive stopper, but they’re somehow executing sharply and slowing down opposing offenses.  

Everyone’s Favorite Executive of the Year: Isiah Thomas
Let’s take a journey back in time and revisit what he did just this past summer for the team: signed Jerome James (3 and 1 this year) to a 3-yr, $20 million deal, traded warhorse Kurt Thomas for Q Richardson (5-yr, $40 mill uninsurable contract due to his degenerative back, 8 and 3), brought in Larry “Miracle Worker” Brown who just might be sabotaging the entire team in order to purge the roster and Isiah in order to take full control of the franchise, and wasn’t there something else?  Oh yeah!  Traded what will be a top-3 pick (LaMarcus Aldridge?) and will likely have to swap picks next year with the Bulls in order to pick up phony franchise center Eddy “Happy Meal” Curry (14 and 6).  All eyes are on him in anticipation of this summer’s wheeling and dealing.

Most Valuable Player:
Last year, it was a tough pick because there wasn’t a good candidate.  Shaq and Nash fought it out with intangibles alone in their corner; neither one had production remotely close to an MVP level.  This year, there are too many candidates, and almost all have holes in their resumes.  To keep things short, I’ll only talk about those who made my first-team list.  Right off the bat, Yao’s out because he’s simply not on par with the others in terms of carrying his team (Rockets were 27-30 with him this year).  
I’m not very good at disguising my love for Billups and his play this year.  Again, he’s running the most efficient (not prolific) offense in the league and is most responsible for the Pistons’ apparent harmony.  Only Tayshun Prince is capable of scoring without being set up by CB3.  Unlike any of the league’s other upper tier PGs, Chauncey can play solid defense as well.  What hurts his case is that you could replace him with other guys at his position (Kidd, Chris Paul, Andre Miller, Captain Kirk) and the Pistons would still be a serious title contender.
LeBron is chewing teams up and even made the media swallow their clipboards after the mini-LeBron-chokes-late wave crashed.  He’s there with Kobe and Iverson as 30+ PPG scorers this season and is officially unstoppable, but he seems to have slipped a touch in the “makes teammates better” category.  He entered the league looking more like Magic than Jordan, but now seems to feel obligated to score at the expense of creating.  If he fuses both aspects into his game, he’ll kill the league.  For now, both he and the Cavs are just shy of creme de la crème status.
Therapist #8 has got the league buzzing this year with what is easily the most spectacular individual season since 80’s Jordan (averaged 36 a game between 86-88).  When Jordan got his first MVP in ’88, he had led the Bulls to their first 50-win season in his career.  The previous year, he led the league with a walloping 37 per game, but they won only 40 games, so no MVP (went to Magic).  I’m going to apply that historical precedent here: unbelievable production without team success does not get my MVP vote.  I expect him to win it from the media, but I wouldn’t give him more than a 2nd place vote on my ballot.  Legendary scorers/showmen Elgin Baylor and Dominique Wilkins never got an MVP either, and their teams were playoff locks most years.  
This year’s MVP, in my mind, is Dirk Nowitzki.  60-win team, despite a supporting cast whose collective All-Star appearances total at 1 (the now washed up Stackhouse).  Quite simply, no one has done more with less.  Diggler has developed an intense edge in the two seasons apart from Nash and has stopped treating the game like one.  He’s the lone guy that fits my personal MVP criteria: leads a title contender, is one of the league’s top producers, and was consistent all season.  I suppose I should go back and see what my formula says about all this, but I don’t feel a need.  Kobe’s phenomenal scoring is blinding, but Dirk’s season perfectly fits the MVP mold.  Too bad he won’t even come close in the actual voting.