On Wednesday, the Houston Chronicle published a story on its website under the headline “Statements from massage therapists in support of Deshaun Watson.” The story reproduced a press release issued by Watson’s attorney in which eighteen massage therapists claimed that they had worked with Watson as a client, and that the Texans’ quarterback—who has been accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault in 21 lawsuits filed by other massage therapists in recent weeks—had behaved in a professional manner during their encounters.
The decision to publish the release in full was curious. The post included virtually no original reporting, outside of a two-line introduction identifying Houston attorney Rusty Hardin, who represents Watson, as the source of the statements, and noting the existence of the lawsuits. (Another story published by the paper online included additional reporting and context.) One needn’t have firsthand information about what happened between Watson and the massage therapists who are suing him to recognize that it’s entirely possible that someone could behave professionally around some women, while acting in a predatory way toward others. That renders the release from Hardin of dubious utility—it doesn’t tell us anything about the allegations that were made to learn that there are women who are not making them. (The paper did not independently verify that Watson had been a client of the women whose statements it published in full, according to managing editor Maria Reeve.)
The post republishing Hardin’s press release wasn’t the only story about Watson from the paper that raised eyebrows in recent days. On Friday, the Chronicle ran a story by reporter Aaron Wilson under the headline “Who is the Real Deshaun Watson?” Wilson’s story quoted several anonymous sources who maintained their support of Watson. I asked Jessica Luther, a friend (and occasional reporting partner) of mine who’s written two books about the way sports media covers athletes who are accused of committing violence against women, what’s unusual about that.
“Anonymity is normally used to protect a source, and it is unclear what exactly someone would need protection from, in this case,” she said. “Someone not wanting to be embarrassed by their comments as a case continues to play out is not, in my opinion, a good reason to grant it. You might grant anonymity if a source refuses to go on the record who would add something to the reporting that can’t be obtained otherwise, but that’s not true in this case.”
The paper’s recent coverage of Watson has also generated consternation among its staff, with multiple reporters bringing concerns to upper management about the way the Chronicle has covered the allegations.
Reeve said that the decision not to identify sources in the story about Watson’s character was made because “those who expressed doubt and concern asked for anonymity and we granted it to be able to show a broader picture.” If the “doubt and concern” were about whether Watson may have done what he has been accused of, though, it didn’t necessarily come across in the quotes used by the paper. One described Watson as having “always been a gentleman” in interactions with women and expressed “disbelief” around the allegations, which the paper says “don’t ring true” to the unnamed friend. Another source told the paper that Watson was feeling “embarrassment, anger, sadness, and worry.” The resulting story places Watson firmly as its protagonist, with both named and unnamed sources expressing their conviction that the quarterback is a good person who’s going through a tough time.
Centering athletes as the heroes of every story has been part of sportswriting since the days of Grantland Rice, but the tendency to mythologize comes at a cost. Even after four years of #MeToo reporting has brought a national reckoning over whose voices we deem worthy of attention in these stories, the sports world, locally and nationally, has revealed that it still struggles to find different ways to talk about athletes like Watson.
Sportswriters—especially beat writers—require access to do their jobs. It’s hard to break a scoop that the Texans are shopping a player around to other teams if nobody inside the organization will talk to you, and the skills required to report on whether someone is going to play on Sunday are wildly different from those that apply to reporting allegations of sexual misconduct.
“Centering the experiences of players, coaches, staff, and the team and building stories around those people is the job,” Luther told me. “But stories about gendered violence are, by definition, not one-sided. Centering your story on their experience necessarily sidelines the person—or people—who reported their behavior.”
The issues with the Chronicle’s coverage are specific, but the problem of how sports journalism covers gendered violence goes well beyond one paper or what one player is accused of, and they stretch back through generations of sports media. A beat reporter or sports talk-show host can be fully qualified to discuss trade compensation or which player each team is considering targeting in the draft, but be overmatched when discussing issues where the implications go beyond the field.
Reeve told Texas Monthly that the Watson story isn’t assigned to the sports desk. “It has primarily been done from the metro desk, because it is a courts story which involves a sports figure,” she said. But that only makes the sports desk coverage built around quotes from people close to Watson—or the press release from his attorney—stand out more sharply. If the athlete is the de facto protagonist of your story, then what does that make the women who’ve accused him of sexual harassment and assault?
As long as the incentives of sports media remain tilted toward maintaining access and reaching fans whose primary interest is in their team’s success, there will be a risk of treating star athletes’ perspectives as more worthy of time, attention, and column inches than those of the people who allege the athletes mistreated them. That’s an unavoidable part of the history of sportswriting, and—until the media organizations that cover athletes face a reckoning over whose voices get the most space—it’ll be the future, too.