On Tuesday, the Cincinnati Bengals made potential left starting player Jackson Carman available to the press during the team’s open locker room session. That was a big deal because Carman hadn’t spoken to the media since Defector reported in April that he’d been accused of rape by a teenage girl while he was a Clemson player. And yet none of the NFL reporters gathered around Carman Tuesday bothered to ask even a cursory question about the rape allegations. On Wednesday, The Athletic Bengals beat writers Jay Morrison and Paul Dehner spent almost 10 minutes of their podcast with Call Listen to this podcast Growlintried to explain that it was actually reasonable and no big deal that Morrison and the rest of the Bengals beat writers ignored the elephant in the room.
In 2020, as Defector reported in April, a 17-year-old girl went to the Clemson Police Department to report that Carman had raped her. The incident in which she said Carman took her to his Clemson dorm and “imposed himself” on her occurred in May 2018 when she was 15 and Carman was 18.
“He didn’t want to stop,” she told police in her first interview. “And I said no. I thought please don’t do this and he did it anyway.”
In September 2020, the district attorney decided not to charge Carman. The Bengals have so far declined to comment on Defector’s coverage; In the April draft, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor repeatedly refused to address the allegation or discuss what the team knew about Carman and the allegation before he was drafted. The team did not make Carman available for comment before Tuesday, and he has never publicly addressed the allegation.
So it was strange when reporters whose job it is to ask questions in the public interest refused to do their job, even and precisely when they suspect they will not get satisfactory answers. Instead, the reporters asked ingratiating questions about how much Carman is “excited to go out there and win the job as left guard” and whether he’s “enjoying” the challenge. His answers: a lot and yes.
It’s embarrassing that not a single reporter cared enough about the rape allegation to do the necessary work and ask about it. But it got even more embarrassing when Morrison and Dehner took to their podcast and offered tortured justifications for why they avoided the topic altogether. It’s a master class in uttering flimsy and often contradictory excuses with full confidence and at great length. If you choose to listen, the conversation begins at the 33:40 mark.
It starts with Dehner saying reporters didn’t even expect to see Carman during training camp, that he assumed “at any given moment there would be an open locker room where he would be gone or hiding, whatever.” the word is”. He concedes that people want to know why no one asked about the rape allegation, then blames it on Morrison for a meltdown. Morrison says that because he first spoke to other players in the dressing room, it took him a moment to realize Carman was speaking to members of the media. He said he got the hustle after the interview started and assumed the topic of the rape allegation was considered taboo by the team flacks or that someone else had already asked about it. He said:
It was an assumption on my part and we all know what happens when you assume that, but because I was late I assumed there were ground rules which were, ‘Hey, he’s only going to talk about football. He won’t talk about the other things.” Or the other things were taken, tackled early, and then it was on to football. And so I just jumped into the football talk and took it that way and didn’t realize it hadn’t been addressed at all. And it’s not. I know some people say you’re afraid to ask the question. You’re not so afraid of that. What you don’t want to do there is a nuance where when a guy is talking and you’re getting what you need, you don’t want to ask something that will close it for everyone else. And especially if you missed the first part – hate that when you’re giving an interview and someone is late and starts asking questions that have already been answered, already asked. So I was at a bit of a disadvantage there because I was late.
I’m not an expert on dressing room decoration. I went into a pro locker room exactly once five years ago, qualifying for a Mets game so I could ask players about the big dildo mystery of 2017. (Due to some dubious flack logic, however, I was only allowed into the press box and not the actual dressing room, and so the only Met I could ask about the dildo was then-manager Terry Collins, who laughed at me, and then threw me an unidentified communicator gives a death glare.) So while I don’t have extensive dressing room experience, I have a few close friends and co-workers who do. They tell me the excuses offered above are pretty weak!
Questions get repeated all the time and it’s not a big deal. When a reporter really wants to make sure they’re getting an answer to an important question, they ask the question. And while the team’s public relations department may try to set little rules for reporters, it’s reporters’ job to ignore those rules. Also, if a reporter is close and considerate of their fellow beat writers (and Morrison goes out of their way to say they’re a “very friendly” bunch), then that reporter is probably kind enough to give a fellow beat writer a to join the group and quietly ask, “Hey, did someone ask about the rape allegation?” If the answer is yes, the reporter is off the hook. If no, he asks about it.
But then Morrison gets to his real point. It’s not actually all that stuff I just kept going on and on abouthe says. It’s really about the fact that there were no charges and that Carman is good at football:
We’ve discussed this before, where there were never any charges. He has every right to play football and he’s such a – back to that top 5 story thing from training camp, I mean he’s right up there. That’s the big battle for positions, the big question, and I just came to terms with it. And stayed with the football part and more with the way the sausage is made for the audience. […] But that’s why the story didn’t address that at all and it kind of just focused on the football aspect and trying to land the starting job.
At this point, Dehner steps in again:
Yes, it’s a difficult point because you, I mean, you want “no comment” to come up. I mean you would have gotten that. I mean, it’s just too simple a thing that they have, the stance that they’ve taken that they’ve obviously spoken to Jackson about. The fact that he was there wasn’t a mistake. The fact that PR was there – they were obviously prepared for this potentially to happen. There would be a “No comment”. It’s not about not wanting to ask. These questions need to be asked and I hate that they weren’t asked yesterday. And it stinks to all of us that that didn’t happen.
It stinks. If only someone could have done something about it! In the lines above, Dehner pulls off a practical rhetorical flourish: stating in one breath that asking about the rape allegation is important, while completely dismissing the possibility that doing just that might have any value in the next. He continues:
But you know, you’re right, Jay. The other part of it is that even without that, you have this guy in large measure as a relevant aspect of football talk. And you know, that doesn’t make the story of what he’s doing a tearjerker, because it’s not a takedown.
Does anyone remember what a “takedown” is? Asking a basic question about a newsworthy topic and trying to formulate that answer as honestly and clearly as possible, regardless of what it is, is not a takedown.
This accusation counts. What Carman says about that is important. He might even want to talk about it on some level. But Morrison’s story completely ignored all of that in favor of a mild description of Carman’s competitive spirit and “his delight in making and eating cauliflower-crusted pizza with toppings like spinach, low-fat mozzarella, and plant-based sausage.” rivets.
It is a pity that this question was not answered. You know, this or that wasn’t asked and we didn’t get the no comment we were going to get. I wish that was more a part of it. But it would have been a little throwaway line in a bigger picture, you know, look at this team from a football perspective, you know, it’s still a very relevant story. I know it’s a delicate situation. It is difficult.
That Dehner admits that the rape allegation would only ever be a “throwaway line” in a larger story about football says it all. The horse is dead, but for some reason they keep beating. Dehner says:
These are questions he “cannot comment on” for the rest of his life. The Bengals do nothing, the Bengals stand by the cause without charge, they won’t comment. You know, next time I’m there I’ll make sure people ask about it. But sometimes, like you said […] sometimes it happens like that. It sucks. And I hate the way it works, but sometimes it happens.
Why is this happening? Isn’t this entirely within the control of the reporters? The pressure on beat authors to maintain access so they can get their work done is real, and that deserves recognition. But if maintaining those jobs means relying entirely on dressing room access, or if that access is so weak that it could be disrupted by asking a potential sophomore starting supervisor to talk about having him accused of raping a 15 year old when he was in college, then what’s the point? It’s depressingly familiar when people accept that what is always will be, even though they have the ability to do it differently.
At the end of the podcast discussion, Morrison assures there will be plenty of other opportunities to speak to Carman about the rape allegation and to dig deeper into what the Bengals knew about it when they drafted it.
“This is the open locker room two of endless,” he said. “As you said, there will be more opportunities to address him with something like that. And if you do it in a one-on-one session, you can get more from him than 567 recorders looking him in the face.”
I hope Morrison and Dehner get around to asking Carman some important questions. And if they don’t, maybe one of the many other reporters who spoke to Carman Tuesday and filed low-key stories about his competition for the left guard starting spot can step up to the plate.