The Luke Heimlich redemption tour carried on this week, cresting with the full Sports Illustrated feature treatment. There are thousands of words, a serious-faced cover photo, an alliterative headline, randomly capitalized words (“the era of Too Much Information” comes up twice), and all the fancy online bells and whistles expected nowadays to signal to you, dear reader, that this is a very important story about a very important issue that you must take seriously.
The story will, if you’ve followed Heimlich’s career, not tell you much that you didn’t already know. In 2012, Heimlich, then 15 years old, pleaded guilty to molesting a six-year-old family member. Oregon State hasn’t given clear answers on what the team did or did not know when recruiting Heimlich, but the Oregonian’s John Canzano reported that head coach Pat Casey told him that he doesn’t know how to run a background check. Heimlich says, and people around him agree, that is he innocent and has always maintained his innocence, and that he signed the plea simply because of bad legal advice (his lawyer from the time did not speak to SI). The mother of the child, on the other hand, told the magazine, “There’s just no doubt in my mind that he did what she said he did.” The child’s father, one of Heimlich’s brothers, is said to have barely spoken with him since.
If you were searching for a new piece of information about how you should feel about Heimlich, this has nothing new except a handful of experts with some good insights about how such cases go, how this part of our legal system works, and why there aren’t any simple solutions for what to do in such a case.
But if you’re wondering why sports teams keep picking up people with easy-to-find criminal records and then saying they had no idea, you can find much more here. Buried deep in the SI story is this tidbit on how the Oregonian found out that Heimlich was a registered sex offender:
On May 18, 26-year-old Danny Moran, the Oregon State beat writer for The Oregonian, sat in his Portland apartment and typed “Luke Heimlich” into an Oregon public records database. The newsroom has long stressed background checks on feature subjects, and not only because the ice cream vendor in a 1993 puffball piece ended up being a former sex offender. Editors call it the “no surprises” rule. Moran hit enter.
It was supposed to be a standard player profile, a lead-up to Oregon State’s postseason via its ace. A page opened. There, in a box on the right side of the screen, four key words popped: failure report sex offender.
From there, Moran did what journalists do—he reported it out, and anyone who has reported out such a story in sports won’t be surprised by what happened next for Moran and the Oregonian: People said the newspaper was out to destroy a good kid, throngs of sports fans suddenly became very concerned about the underpinnings of the juvenile justice system, and Moran got death threats.
But the part I can’t get over is how, as with new Lions coach Matt Patricia, sports teams are finding out news from reporters who take a minute to run a background check. So much of the power of sports teams comes from the feeling of identity they give to fans and the image they sell of themselves as mighty, unimpeachable, and all knowing. But these alleged leaders with their million-dollar contracts and billion-dollar facilities can’t even take five minutes to go, Hey, there’s all this easy-to-access information about this person we are bringing on, let’s check it so we don’t look like clueless idiots when it comes up. It’s not hard to do, and this isn’t super-secret information only certain magical creatures can access. The only requirement is an internet connection and, maybe, access to a database like Nexis—but plenty of searches can be run without that tool. Hell, I ran a background check on my husband before our first date.
The SI feature hems and haws for thousands of words, most of which are little more than the expected bloated language from a sports man realizing that life is complicated. There’s what sure sounds like a swipe at the #MeToo movement. (“This is an age of Too Much Information, sure, but that complaint is less about quantity than it is about kind. We absorb the once appalling with an ease once unimaginable; ‘normal’ changes by the day.”) There’s an anonymous baseball coach saying “What’s the kid supposed to do now? Kill himself?” because, I guess, nobody told the coach that there is no constitutional or even statutory right to play baseball and Heimlich, last I checked, is allowed to do things other than play baseball. There’s the bizarre declaration that “this may be the worst sports story ever told,” a bad idea of a sentence made worse by dropping the feature on the same day as the announcement of a $500 million settlement between Michigan State and the hundreds of women, mostly athletes, who say Larry Nassar sexually abused them under the guise of medical treatment.
It’s hard to escape how in this redemption feature, like in most sports redemption features, much of the frustration is about the audacity of the real world spilling into sports. S.L. Price shows his hand when he says that the reason Heimlich’s case is worse than Jerry Sandusky’s and Nassar’s is because the latter two “never had to be placed in an athletic context again.” See, in those cases, the real world made it easy—they took out the bad men so sports could get back to being fun! But most American sports fans aren’t going to read that and then take the next step of, say, lobbying for juvenile-justice reform. Enough studies have shown that sex-offender registries don’t make anyone safer and the stigmatization from such lists encourages recidivism. People already knew this, it just wasn’t interrupting their baseball games.
I doubt that criminal-justice and juvenile-justice reform will be the takeaways from this SI story for any significant number of people. Nobody will be lobbying for the young men and women who can’t throw a 96-mph fastball to get a second chance. The piece says that “the OSU Foundation is on track to surpass last year’s donation total of $132 million.” Meanwhile, sports reporters across the country are probably running all their players and coaches through Nexis.