Being a reporter means maintaining a sense of balance and objectivity whenever possible. Aaron Wilson, who covered the Houston Texans beat for the Houston Chronicle since 2015, doesn’t appear to have maintained that threshold, and the paper has fired him following an appearance on Boston sports radio network WEEI where he compared the multiple women currently suing Deshaun Watson to terrorists, amongst other things. Diana Moskovitz and Kalyn Kahler of Defector were the first to report the news.
Wilson appeared on WEEI’s The Greg Hill Show on March 19 to discuss the civil suits piling up against Watson, who is accused by various women of inappropriate contact, sexual assault, rape, and other crimes. At the time of the radio interview, there were 12 suits against Watson. There are currently 22 suits against him. Watson has so far admitted that “consensual encounters” did occur in some cases but that the allegations against him are untrue.
— Aaron Wilson (@AaronWilson_NFL) April 8, 2021
In the appearance, Wilson was asked if these lawsuits were a “money grab” and he agreed with that sentiment, even going as far as to call the whole thing “ambulance chasing” on the part of the initial accuser’s lawyer.
“There are no charges,” said Watson. “Yeah, it’s a money grab. It started out that way. And then once the lawyer put it out after [Watson’s camp] didn’t want to acquiesce and pay the money demands, then they put out a call for more, and that’s what he’s trying to do…[Tony Buzbee’s] trying to attract more cases. It’s ambulance chasing.”
“Deshaun Watson is a guy that is highly respected. I’ve known him for four years and, you know, been around him, not just at the stadium, but at charity events and social settings…”
Attorney Rusty Hardin says 18 massage therapists had no problems with Deshaun Watson, who's facing 21 civil lawsuits, was completely professional in their interactions: https://t.co/SijoFXmG3i via @houstonchron
— Aaron Wilson (@AaronWilson_NFL) March 31, 2021
When asked to clarify that he does not believe the accusers, Wilson said he was skeptical of their claims, while also trotting out the classic “if they’re telling the truth, why don’t they make their names known”defense often used in these situations (most of the accusers have since been required by judges to do so if they want their suits to continue). He also strangely started making defenses of Watson as if he was a representative of the quarterback’s camp.
“I’m skeptical,” said Wilson. “Let’s put it like that…I wanna be careful. I’m not dismissing that it could be true, in that, I wasn’t there. The people that know what happened are him and those alleged women, who haven’t put their name on it. It’s all Jane Doe…There’s no way to vet it. There’s no way to really look into it…just because someone is accused of something that doesn’t mean they did it.”
When pushed on the assumption that it sounds like he is pro-Watson, Wilson made it clear that he is.
“I’m not saying I’m not. I’m telling you…I don’t know them, I know him,” said Wilson. “I’m not gonna throw this guy under the bus before I have some proof. I don’t feel like I have the proof. They’re allegations.”
Wilson, who mentioned that he had spoken to Watson’s lawyer the night before, really just seemed to be passing along his legal strategy and talking points, eventually pairing the idea of paying the accusers to negotiate with “terrorists.”
“In his case, you know, it’s kind of like you don’t, you know, you don’t negotiate with terrorists,” Wilson said, attempting to explain the notion that players with impeccable reputations are more likely to pay to make allegations like this go away. “You know, people are demanding money, they’re asking for money. The…it kept escalating, it kept going up and up and up. And you start talking about more and more funds, I’m not gonna say how much it got to. But my understanding is, you know, that there was an admission that, it was, you know, something, you know, just that this was, you know, just a money grab.”
If you’d tuned in late and didn’t know who was speaking, you probably would have assumed Watson’s lawyer was the one doing the interview, not a reporter who covers Watson and the Texans for a major newspaper.
Listening to another interview that Wilson did two weeks ago with Rich Eisen, you can hear a lot of the same slanted talking points. The line between referring to Watson objectively and attempting to tip the sentimental scale towards the quarterback certainly feels like it’s being crossed.
That’s what the Chronicle sure thought because the sports staff called a meeting on Friday, per Defector, in which editor Reid Laymance told everyone that Wilson was no longer working for the paper. Defector also got their hands on a memo that Chronicle executive editor Steve Riley sent to the entire newsroom, explaining the situation.
“The sexual assault allegations against Deshaun Watson bring those standards front and center,” Riley wrote, per Defector. “This note serves as a reminder that as we report, analyze and describe those allegations, those who bring them, and the person they are brought against, we must approach the story with fairness and care toward all involved. Given the frequency of content we are creating, on a growing number of print and digital channels, our editors must also be more vigilant with our oversight of coverage on all platforms…Facts are good. Analysis is OK. Opinion, speculation, or baseless assertions are not. We won’t tolerate that sort of commentary.”
The memo also noted that all Chronicle staff were required to receive permission from their supervisor before making a media appearance, which implies that Wilson may have appeared on WEEI without getting such permission.
The whole episode is a great reminder of the thin line that exists between beat reporters and the athletes they cover. Wilson’s fawning descriptions of Watson, coupled with his clear belief that the accusers are liars and money-grabbers showed just how far over that line he had gone. It also seems to imply that the was no way Wilson would have been able to cover Watson objectively moving forward, so the firing makes a lot of sense.
While the internet and blogging have blurred those lines a bit in recent years, and sports franchises probably love having local beat reporters like Wilson who defend their players like this, it’s not good business for a newspaper trying to instill a sense of fairness, objectivity, and distance. Watson deserves his day in court but, until then, reporters in Wilson’s position have a duty to stick to the facts as much as possible.