NEW ORLEANS -- Writers don't write headlines, but I want to write this one: "Michael Crabtree: Completely innocent of rape allegation"
I hope it fits. It better fit. The headline damn sure fit two weeks ago when this story had an uglier angle to it:
That was the headline on Jan. 18. That was the story. And given that the San Francisco 49ers' appearance in the NFC Championship Game was two days away, that was a major concern. In some corners, I imagine, it was an outrage:
How can this guy play in that game?
Well, the story fizzled. Crabtree didn't lawyer up and hide from authorities, as was his legal right. He cooperated with police, met with them on Jan. 18, two days before the biggest game of his life. Distraction? Meeting with police wasn't a distraction to Crabtree. Not meeting with police, letting this thing drag on and on, would have been the distraction. So he met with police, and soon the SFPD was sending signals that the charges wouldn't stick.
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A few days later Crabtree was cleared. It was incremental, his path to innocence, and that probably muted its impact. At our website, for example, after that first shocking story about Michael Crabtree -- one of the best receivers in the NFL, accused of sexual assault in the hours after a playoff victory against Green Bay -- we reported the incremental stuff in smaller detail, in the links I've already provided. First he cooperated with police. Then police sent those signals that the charges wouldn't stick.
When Crabtree was officially cleared, a story came across the wires and we ran it -- but we didn't write anything special, as we had written something special earlier in the process.
That's how this business works. Allegations get major headlines. An athlete being cleared of allegations? Smaller headlines.
And so here I am today, writing about a story that has been out of the headlines for almost a week, and not to dredge up something ugly. I'm not here to hurt Michael Crabtree, but to help him. To drive home the point that the charges against him were garbage. You saw the earlier stuff, I'm sure, the stuff accusing him of assaulting a woman. Did you see the follow-up? That Crabtree was cleared? That accusation didn't just go away because police had other things to worry about. The SFPD worried hard about this one, assigning the case to its Special Victims Unit, and that unit cleared Crabtree.
Maybe you're wondering why I care so much. Maybe I'll tell you: I met Michael Crabtree this week, at the Super Bowl, and I liked the guy. I mean, a lot. OK, so we didn't actually "meet." It was at Media Day on Tuesday, and I was in the crowd asking questions. He was alone on the podium, giving answers.
I went there expecting not to like him, though for what reason I can't say. I had forgotten about his record holdout that cost him five games from his rookie season with the 49ers in 2009, so it wasn't that. The assault allegations already had been thoroughly debunked, so it wasn't that, either. Maybe it was just my general cynicism. Whatever the case, I walked over to Crabtree's interview area with low expectations.
He blew those expectations away. He was soft-spoken, he was humble, he was honest. He didn't get exasperated or agitated when asked, repeatedly, about the assault allegation. I asked him what it was like, facing that accusation, knowing there would be people out there who remember the initial headline more than any that followed.
"It shouldn't follow me," he said. "I hope it doesn't follow me. I was disappointed with what happened, but what can I do? Just cooperate and try to put it behind me, which I've done. But I was disappointed by the whole thing."
This one disappointed a lot of people. It disappointed another sportswriter here at the Super Bowl, Jen Floyd Engel, a columnist for FOXSports.com. Engel also spent time at Crabtree's podium on Tuesday. She wanted to hear what he had to say about the allegations, allegations she knew were bogus. I asked Engel what she thought of this whole episode.
"I'm [ticked] at the woman who accused him," she said. "The next woman who's sexually assaulted will have a higher threshold of truth to jump over because people will wonder if it's that Crabtree thing all over again."
Years from now Michael Crabtree will retire, and there will be people -- more than a few -- who remember him as that great receiver for the 49ers who had a special career and ... hey, wasn't he accused of something awful? Yeah, he was. Nothing came of it, but it was bad. I remember that. Typical story. Star gets away with it. Don't they always?
Sometimes they do, sure. And sometimes they're the victim. Sad to say, I'm sticking up for Crabtree here only because I spent time around him Tuesday and liked what I saw. What if I hadn't gone to his podium at Media Day? There were tons of options. I didn't listen to everybody, or even close. If I hadn't listened to Michael Crabtree on Tuesday, you wouldn't be reading this today. That's a fact, and that's a shame. Because as I reflect back on the 900 or so words I've written here, there are only 10 or 15 that matter, and those 10 or 15 haven't been written nearly enough:
Michael Crabtree was unfairly accused of something awful. He's not guilty, and more. He's innocent.