Is Now Really the Time to Have THAT Conversation About Adreian Payne?
Former Michigan State basketball star Adreian Payne was shot and killed early Monday in Orlando, Florida.
As media outlets began reporting the tragic news, some fans wondered aloud why coverage of Payne's untimely death didn't include mention of sexual assault allegations made against him in 2010. Here at the radio station, we received multiple messages asking us that very question.
Payne's body was barely cold before those conversations started, and some publications — including ESPN — obliged their critics.
But is now really the time for that?
It's a genuine question, and there may not be a right answer. Sexual assault allegations are serious, and they've taken on added gravity in the media since the Me Too movement. As a person who loves someone who is a sexual assault survivor, I'm inclined to believe women. But there are many who would remind you that in America you're still innocent until proven guilty. How do you reconcile those two things? Is it even possible?
I don't know how to answer those questions. But what I do know is that there used to be a different threshold in journalism. As a former reporter — one who spent considerable time on the police and courts beat — I can remember when it was standard operating procedure that media simply didn't report on cases where there were no official charges. All rules have exceptions, of course, and ESPN found one in the case of Payne.
In the wake of the Dr. Larry Nassar scandal at Michigan State in 2018, ESPN published its much-criticized Outside The Lines 2018 expose on Michigan State. Sensationally titled "Spartan Secrets," the report is best known for a now-infamous graphic that included Nassar, who used his position with MSU gymnastics and Team USA gymnastics to sexually assault hundreds of women and girls, along with images of MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo and then-football coach Mark Dantonio, both of whom had no involvement in the Nassar scandal whatsoever.
The report detailed a culture of sexual assault that permeated MSU's campus. In building that case, ESPN reported on sexual assault allegations an MSU student made against Payne and then-fellow MSU basketball player Keith Appling in 2010. Campus police investigated the case, but the Ingham County Prosecutor's Office opted against filing charges in the matter.
It was the first time a major media outlet had reported on that case. Back when the allegations were made, no reporter published the story. And that's because charges were never filed.
If you were a member of the media covering Michigan State back in 2010 or in the immediate years thereafter, you knew about these allegations against Payne and Appling. As a reporter it's your job to know these things. But being a journalist doesn't mean you report on everything. And again, when it comes to criminal cases, the general precedent was that media did not publish allegations made against someone without criminal charges being filed.
I was part of the media contingent covering MSU during that time frame. I knew about this case. I also know that all the major media outlets that covered Michigan State on a day-to-day basis at that time knew about this case. I can't say for sure but I'm confident that ESPN knew about this case back then, too. They didn't report on it then, but they did in 2018 when Payne's and Appling's accuser went on the record with her allegations as part of the Outside The Lines story. If ESPN hadn't run that story we wouldn't be having this discussion right now; those allegations would never have gone public.
Whether or not ESPN's decision was the right thing to do from a journalistic perspective is still hotly debated. One of the best editors I ever had in my newspaper days had a simple rule for whether certain details belonged in print: "Is it relevant to the story?" As good as that barometer is, it's also subjective. When applying that to the matter at hand with Payne, different people will arrive at different conclusions. Further compounding this case is Payne's status as a public figure: Some would argue that being a star for a big-time college basketball program makes any aspect of your life newsworthy, while others would argue that that status should guarantee you more careful handling by the media.
All I can do is wonder. And that's the same way I feel about the matter of revisiting the 2010 sexual assault allegations and whether it's a necessary component of Payne's obit story.
My instinct is to look at similar cases. The first that comes to mind is that of Kobe Bryant. I can remember a similar string of events unfolding when he suddenly and unexpectedly died in a helicopter crash in 2020. Some media outlets included rape allegations made against Bryant in 2003 in their obit stories. Some didn't. There was a lot of discussion about that, though, and whether that case was part of Bryant's legacy. A crucial differentiating factor here is that, unlike Payne and Appling, Bryant was formally charged with sexual assault. Those charges were ultimately dismissed by the court when Bryant's accuser declined to testify.
I wonder what the news stories would look like today if Mike Tyson had suddenly passed away. Tyson has enjoyed favorable media attention in recent years, including movie appearances and his own Adult Swim cartoon show. He's even become a captain of industry in the emerging cannabis business.
But would his obit story include details on his nearly three-year prison stay following a rape conviction in 1992? And whether it would or wouldn't, should it? It's hard to say. I'm really not sure whether there's a right answer, and if there is I'm not qualified to divine it.
So do the people who are demanding that coverage of Payne's death include mention of the 2010 sexual assault allegations made against him have a point? It's a matter of opinion.
Are the people who advocate for the inclusion of those details in his obit story acting in bad faith? Are they concern-trolling Michigan fans? One of our station's listeners messaged us Monday saying that our omission of the sexual assault allegations in the Payne coverage was negligent, adding that what happened to Payne was "carma (sic)" and that the 2010 allegations are why his daughters "won't be going to Michigan Rape University." Is that same listener also forbidding his daughters from matriculating at the University of Michigan, which: just months ago settled a lawsuit with victims of the school's former football team doctor and university physician Dr. Robert Anderson, who sexually assaulted more than 1,000 people over the course of several decades in Ann Arbor; recently fired President Mark Schlissel for an inappropriate workplace relationship; last year saw retired music professor Stephen Shipps plead guilty to transporting a minor across state lines with intent to engage in sexual conduct (authorities allege Shipps used his status in the university's music department to sexually exploit a child); in 2020 paid a $9.25 million settlement to eight women who had been sexually harassed by former provost Martin Philbert; and in 2020 fired music professor David Daniels amid multiple allegations of sexual misconduct with students?
Does any of that matter?
That's a good question, too, and another one that I can't answer. Times have certainly changed, but that's also the nature of things.
Still, the media plays a significant role here. The media has immeasurable power when it comes to narratives — how they're shaped, where they go — and, accordingly, influencing public opinion. When it comes to deciding someone's legacy, the media wields considerable influence there, as well, especially posthumously. That's what makes this matter about Payne and the sexual assault allegations made against him so important.