Content warning: this story contains details of rape and sexual violence.
Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott left the field against the Carolina Panthers and headed toward the locker room. Thad Brown, a reporter from WROC in Rochester, asked the first question about punter Matt Araiza before he even got off the field. When he hit the postgame presser in the media room, not a single word was spoken that wasn’t about the team’s punter, who was publicly accused on Thursday of gang-raping a then-17-year-old high school senior while Araiza was a member of the San Diego State University football team.
In that 10-minute postgame presser embedded below, McDermott gave a statement, then fielded questions from a multitude of reporters, led by Jay Skurski of The Buffalo News. He was emotional, paused for an extended break several times, and repeated himself frequently in a way we have not seen from the leader of the Bills in his six seasons.
“I understand there was a game just played, but I want to talk about something that is more important, which is what we have going on with one of the members of our team right now in Matt Araiza. It’s a situation that’s extremely serious and just hard to go through. It’s not a situation that we or I take lightly whatsoever,” said McDermott, punctuating several of his decisions with long breaks between words and appearing dazed in his facial expressions. “It’s very serious. I understand the sensitivity of the situation. It’s clear we have work to do to continue to figure this thing out here. And we’re gonna do that.”
Following that introductory statement, McDermott and the rest of the press corps immediately dispensed with questions about the upcoming cuts to 53 players or the game that was just played. The entire 10 minutes was about Araiza, and it was fast-paced for the majority of the question and answer from the get-go.
“When exactly were you made aware of these allegations against him?” asked Skurski.
“Jay, I’m not going to get into details right now if you can appreciate that. I respect your question. I know we made the statement we did last night and I’ll leave it at that,” said McDermott.
“I certainly can appreciate that, but given the severity of this situation, what in that rather generic statement says to you that that’s an adequate response from this organization?” retorted Skurski.
“Again, Jay, I’m not gonna get into details right now,” said McDermott.
“Well, what makes him a great kid, which you said earlier this week about him?” asked Skurski, referencing a recent media hit by McDermott, where he used that phrase to describe Araiza.
“Again, I’m not gonna get into who Matt is and his character and all this other stuff. I don’t think that’s right right now,” answered McDermott, halting for a moment. “I can tell you it’s my heart that thoughts and prayers go out to people involved. That includes Matt, that includes both sides here, and the victim, and anyone involved. Our prayers go out to them.”
“Are you satisfied with the organizational response to this point?” continued Skurski.
“We have work to do,” admitted McDermott, repeating himself immediately afterward, “We have work to do”.
“Why did he not play tonight?” continued Skurski.
“My decision,” said McDermott. “At the end of the day I didn’t feel it was right,” said McDermott.
Finally, another voice jumped in. Normally one to pump up coach with a hello and a smile, Muki Hawkins of WUFO hit him hard on his turn.
“How much does this dampen the spirit of this locker room?” asked Hawkins.
“Where do you want to start?” asked McDermott after a long pause, visibly shaken. “I mean, Muki, it’s... it is something that we and I take very seriously and... that’s where we are at.”
After the back-and-forth with Skurski, the question from Hawkins seemed to break the logjam and more questions from more reporters rolled in.
McDermott said he made the decision not to play Araiza during the day on Friday.
“It felt like the right thing to do and that’s what I’m after, is doing the right thing,” said McDermott.
The decision apparently came as fans and the media reacted to the civil lawsuit, blasting Buffalo’s response to the ordeal after receiving the information at least six weeks ago. Araiza traveled with the team on Thursday. By Friday it was too late to sign a new player to take his spot. The team released Matt Haack on Monday and he since signed with the Indianapolis Colts.
Instead, the Bills had Araiza come to the stadium in street clothes while the rest of the team wore Bills sweatpants, took his name off his locker, and didn’t let him onto the sideline. McDermott wouldn’t answer if Araiza would be on the roster once the 53-man roster was set.
Then Skurski came back.
McDermott finished a comment with “It’s clear we have work to do here figuring this thing out.”
“What does that work involve?” peppered Skurski immediately. “The team statement said that you did a thorough investigation.”
“There’s more work to be done,” repeated McDermott.
“How thorough was the investigation?” asked Skurski directly.
“I’m not going to go into details on that,” said McDermott, halting. “We’ve got more work to do.”
The questions then turned to his message to the women in the Bills Mafia fanbase. He didn’t address them directly as he struggled to answer the question.
“I’m hurt. I understand they’re hurt. It’s emotional. It’s not easy to hear about some of the things that I’ve heard about over the last... several hours, say. I haven’t slept a lot to be honest with you. This is a game, but there are other things that are more important than this.”
After not discussing Araiza’s first public statement, which was put out during the game, the conversation turned again to the Bills’ statement from Thursday, saying they completed a thorough examination of the details of the case. With McDermott saying they have more work to do, it’s pretty contradictory.
“It’s a matter of trying to find the truth at the end of the day,” said McDermott. “Find the truth and do the right thing. That’s what I keep coming back to in my mind and in my heart. Find out the truth, to the best of my ability, and do the right thing.”
McDermott declined to say if there would be a time when he would share what the team knew and when. Then the focus shifted toward the other players on the roster.
“They know,” said McDermott, when asked what he said to the team, pausing before continuing. “...this was going on here and all the stuff that’s out there. We talked about the seriousness of the situation and the sensitivity of the situation. That’s real.”
Then, 6:25 into the press conference, there was a break. McDermott took in a deep wave of air for the first time since reaching the podium as the Q&A took a breath as well. It felt like the bell had rung in a boxing match to end the round, at least for half a second.
After addressing the fan reaction to the situation in generalized terms, Alaina Getzenberg of ESPN asked point-blank if Araiza lied to McDermott. In one of his most labored answers, he faltered toward the right words to give in the moment.
“I’m not gonna get into that, again, respectfully Alaina,” said McDermott, stumbling over his words. “I’m just working on finding that truth and that’s where we’re at with it.”
“Do you have a timeline on when that process will take place?” jumped in Jay Skurski again.
“I don’t. Obviously I hope sooner rather than later,” McDermott immediately responded. “I’ve been working on it, we’ve been working on it. It hasn’t been easy. And again, I want to get to that answer as soon as we can but you know how things sometimes work with these situations. There’s things on both sides with legal and attorneys and everything like that so, again, just trying to put this all together and do what’s right.”
While McDermott wouldn’t say that he’s been lied to during the process by people on either side, he did say he learned things over the last 24 hours he didn’t know previously. That could indicate that Araiza shared partial details, but not the entirety, of the severity of the situation with his coach. It also gives McDermott a way to address the timeline of releasing Matt Haack earlier this week despite being briefed on the Araiza situation previously.
“There’s been some [new things learned over the last 24 hours] and I’m not going to deny that. That’s why I have more work to do on this,” admitted McDermott, though he didn’t want to assign blame for that yet. “I’m more solution-oriented right now and that’s where I’m headed and where we need to be headed.”
With that, he thanked the media and left the podium.
I don’t know if McDermott has ever been what I’d call comfortable in front of the media, but he was noticeably uncomfortable tonight. He added several pauses, along with “um” and “and” extenders to his speech patterns. His facial expressions were also somber, but in a way we haven’t seen before, even when he was discussing the loss of Dawson Knox’s brother last week or Bills’ owner Kim Pegula’s hospitalization last month. McDermott didn’t make eye contact with the questioner or other media members during some of his answers. Often while the reporters were asking questions, McDermott was already shaking his head back and forth to indicate no. He wasn’t himself.
I’m not saying any of this to let McDermott or the Bills off the hook. They could have handled this better. As details continue emerging and the timeline becomes more clear, these comments will continue to be dissected.
Here is the entire video: