Mark Schlabach, an ESPN.com columnist and New York Times best-selling author, released a story last weekend stating that Sean Miller, head basketball coach at Arizona, had conversations with Christian Dawkins about a pay-for-play scheme to make sure Deandre Ayton, potential NBA lottery pick, signed with Arizona.
Rolling Stone being found guilty of libel and defamation in 2016 foreshadows what ESPN could be up against if Mark Schlabach's article about Sean Miller is wrong.
FBI wiretaps intercepted telephone conversations between Arizona coach Sean Miller and Christian Dawkins, a key figure in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption, in which Miller discussed paying $100,000 to ensure star freshman Deandre Ayton signed with the Wildcats, sources familiar with the government’s evidence told ESPN.
According to people with knowledge of the FBI investigation, Miller and Dawkins, a runner working for ASM Sports agent Andy Miller, had multiple conversations about Ayton. When Dawkins asked Sean Miller if he should work with assistant coach Emanuel “Book” Richardson to finalize their agreement, Miller told Dawkins he should deal directly with him when it came to money, the sources said.
Make no mistake, this is a damning story for Sean Miller.
The kind of story that could end his career.
They have already lost a commitment from Shareef O’Neal, the 5-star power forward who is ranked #33 in the country in the class of 2018, and, also, the son of Shaquille O’Neal.
At this time I’m am opening up my recruitment due to the current events with the UofA Bball team.I would like to thank all the coaches for recruiting me. At the time my family and I think it’s in my best interest to look at other options to assure my play in the NCAA next year.
— Shareef O’Neal (@SSJreef) February 24, 2018
From there, the University of Arizona did not allow Miller to coach in the Wildcats’ game at Oregon last Saturday.
ESPN talking heads all claimed that Miller’s career was over, and that they’d be surprised if he ever coached another game.
But then, some interesting things started coming out.
Gary Parrish, writer for CBSSports.com, started talking about how Dawkins was never “the guy” to do a deal for Ayton, along with several other things that were weird about the story.
One of the things we discussed on the podcast: Was Christian Dawkins even the guy you’d do a deal with if you were doing a deal for Deandre Ayton? Most recruiting people I know don’t think so. Which is interesting. https://t.co/OgJfPvia9Z
— Gary Parrish (@GaryParrishCBS) February 26, 2018
And then ESPN retracted the correction and went back to the original report.
Yesterday, Sean Miller and the University of Arizona held a press conference and completely denied the report, stating that “any reporting to the contrary is inaccurate, false and defamatory.”
“I have never paid a recruit or prospect or their family or representative to come to Arizona,” Miller said. “I never have and I never will. I have never arranged or directed payment or any improper benefits to a recruit or prospect or their family or representative, and I never will.”
“Let me be very, very clear: I have never discussed with Christian Dawkins paying Deandre Ayton to attend the University of Arizona,” Miller said. “In fact, I never even met or spoke to Christian Dawkins until after Deandre publicly announced that he was coming to our school. Any reporting to the contrary is inaccurate, false and defamatory. I’m outraged by the media statements that have been made and the acceptance by many that these statements were true. There was no such conversation.”
That’s about as direct a denial as you will ever get from someone. It’s incredibly public, and it goes directly against ESPN’s story.
ESPN then came out, after the press conference, and confirmed that they are standing by their reporting.
So what happens now?
In this current media climate, everyone rushes to make sure they break a story first, as opposed to reporting it correctly.
Social media made that happen. Twitter, Facebook, etc. Nobody waits for the 10pm news anymore, or Sportscenter. You can get everything you need on the internet as soon as it happens.
Nobody believes they will be held accountable if something they report is incorrect.
If it truly comes out that there was no tape, and Sean Miller is proven to be innocent, things could get incredibly ugly for ESPN.
Why do I think that?
In 2014, Rolling Stone released an article titled A Rape on Campus, written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, about the details surrounding an alleged rape at the University of Virginia.
In 2016, a jury in Chicago found Erdely was guilty of libel, and Rolling Stone and their publishers guilty of defamation, of an administrator at the school, because the reported details were incorrect.
It cost Rolling Stone $7.5M in that case alone. There were subsequent lawsuits as well that went even further into things that were incorrect in the article.
There’s no way Erdely was worth that to Rolling Stone.
So what is Mark Schlabach worth to ESPN, who is already dealing with declining viewership and their own financial crisis over the past several years?
ESPN is standing by Schlabach’s article. But what could it end up costing ESPN?
The caveat here is that Sean Miller could be considered a “public figure,” but when you’re dealing with somebody’s career, you can’t spread lies about them.
This is going to be incredible to watch, because, eventually, we will know whether or not that FBI wiretap exists.