Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group The Oakland Raiders General manager Reggie McKenzie, left, looks on after presenting Ohio State cornerback Gareon Conley as their 24th overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft at the Oakland Raiders headquarters in Alameda, Calif., on Friday, April 28, 2017. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
Gareon Conley looks you in the eye when he answers your question about what he’s learned over the last few weeks.
“To keep the faith,” he says. “Have a tight support system. And never lose faith.”
And that is all. Conley, after arriving at Raiders headquarters for the first time on Friday, utters no more words about the April 9 incident that shook up his NFL draft prospects. A woman has accused him of raping her at a Cleveland hotel that night. An investigation is still proceeding by the authorities. The Raiders decided to draft Conley anyway with the 24th overall pick of the first round because at Ohio State, he was a great cornerback who helped the Buckeyes win a national championship and a bunch of other games. Reggie McKenzie, the Raiders’ general manager, says the team has done its own research and inquiry into the hotel episode and is comfortable that Conley will be cleared.
“We addressed the issue last night,” McKenzie tells reporters at Conley’s first media availability as a Raider. “Let’s just talk football with Garreon, all right?”
McKenzie certainly had the right to make that request. It didn’t mean reporters had to comply. Because one of us–okay, me–wanted to ask Conley that question, the one about what Conley had taken away from the past month’s events off the field. Would he fall back on McKenzie’s words and decline to comment? No. Conley gave the direct-eye answer about faith and his support system.
So that provides a little insight. Not much. But some. Conley realizes that April 9 will be part of his resume until it is not. And until it is not, he will definitely have to answer these questions.
But so will the Raiders, if they turn out to be wrong about the police investigation. In 2015, owner Mark Davis announced “an organizational effort to prevent domestic violence and sexual assault” by forging a partnership with the Fred Biletnikoff Foundation. The Raiders’ Hall of Fame receiver adopted that cause after his daughter, Tracey, was murdered by a stalker and sexual predator.
That loud and firm stand by Mark Davis is why Conley’s selection raised so many eyebrows. It’s unclear if Conley knows the whole back story. But he’s going to learn that soon enough, too. And the Raiders? They will hold their breaths and hope they’re right. McKenzie seems to imply that the matter will be settled as soon as next week, with Conley facing no charges.
(A further aside: A team that intends to be playing in Las Vegas by 2020 must have also pondered taking a player who ended up getting in trouble by hanging out at a hotel in the middle of the night. Because after all, there are no hotels in Las Vegas that are open all night, right?)
“We were very confident in all the information we had,” McKenzie said after selecting Conley. ” I don’t want to get into all the details about who we talked to, all of that stuff. But the bottom line is we’ve done miles and miles of research to make sure we were totally comfortable with our decision, which we were.”
But you know what would be really great? If, some year, an entire first round of the NFL draft could be held without one team having to make a hold-your-breath-and-hope-you’re-right pick. Instead, college players who sit through “education sessions” about treating women with respect and staying out of trouble . . . still make teams think twice and hold their breaths.
In the case of Conley, anyone can check the police report and decide what to think. The Cleveland cops say that Conley met a 23-year-old woman at approximately 3 a.m. while riding in an elevator at the downtown Westin Hotel. She then decided to leave her friends and follow Conley to a suite in the hotel. On that point, all agree. After that, versions of the story diverge.
The woman told police that when she and Conley arrived at the hotel suite, Conley asked the woman if she wished to have sex with another couple that was already in the bathroom. The woman told Conley she only wanted to watch and not have sex with anyone, including him. The report then says she and Conley walked into the bathroom before he assaulted her sexually and asked her to leave the room. Police also say they interviewed two witnesses who were in the suite–presumably, the bathroom couple–disagreed with the woman’s description of events. One of the witnesses said Conley “never touched” the woman. The other witness said the woman and Conley were “on the bed together, but nothing happened.”
Well, even if nothing happened, something happened. Here’s what happened: Conley, knowing that he was just days away from being in position to make millions of dollars as a projected first round pick, decided to get off an elevator at 3 a.m. with a woman he didn’t know and accompany her to his hotel room. Conley did this, knowing that warning flags usually fly in that situation for all concerned.
“Like I said in my statement, I could have made way better judgment,” Conley said Thursday in his conference call after being drafted, reference a statement he had issued about the situation. “I mean, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into — but I definitely could have made a better decision.”
Whatever turns out to be true, you’d think the fact that Conley made such a bad decision would be enough to give the Raiders pause. But they decided to take the chance. Teams in the NFL have money to hire investigators and have contacts in law enforcement everywhere. So it’s not inconceivable that the Raiders do have information that the rest of us don’t.
It is true that cases like this can melt away. Remember how, in 2014, Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers was under scrutiny for a Miami hotel incident when a woman accused him of taking advantage of her in his room? Police looked into it and said there was no evidence to back her up, so filed no charges. But the hunch is, after that incident, Kaepernick was much more careful about his off-field life. If Conley is not, shame on him.
And of course, the situation is still in flux. This could get a lot worse if the Raiders are wrong and if Conley indeed faces prosecution. What would the Raiders do then? It is why, in the year 2017, the most valuable person in a NFL organization before the draft is the man in charge of that hold-your-breath-and-hope-you’re-right component.
The 49ers are in the same situation, on a lesser scale, with one of their own first round picks, linebacker Reuben Foster of Alabama. He was sent home from the scouting combine for bad behavior and then put on notice because of a diluted drug testing sample that raised suspicions. Thursday, a reporter noted that Foster’s draft-night party in Miami had been sponsored by a company that makes vaporizers for tobacco and marijuana, then asked him why.
“This is a new leaf and I’m not answering that,” Foster replied. “I’m not answering that. I’m sorry. Next question.”
Someone needs to tell him that in the NFL, the sport which commands America’s largest spotlight, the questions are just beginning.