“Artists use lies to tell the truth. Yes, I created a lie. But because you believed it, you found something true about yourself.”
― Alan Moore, V for Vendetta
Mary Rogers worked in a cigar shop in New York City. Brown-eyed and brunette, her beauty was considered legendary. Patrons would spend all afternoon in the cigar shop, stealing glances and, importantly, smoking cigars. Another admirer even went so far as to publish a poem in the New York Herald, extoling her “heaven-like smile” and “star-like eyes.” Rogers was engaged to an alcoholic cork cutter named Daniel Payne. One morning in July of 1841, she told Payne and her mother she was going to visit her aunt. Rogers’ body was found floating in the Hudson River three days later. Public suspicion fell largely on Payne until a tavern owner named Frederica Loss “confessed” that Rogers had died during a botched abortion in Loss’ Hoboken tavern. This account almost certainly wasn’t true – the coroner reported that Rogers had been raped repeatedly and then strangled, and found no evidence of a pregnancy. Pesky little things like facts hardly matter in the maelstrom of public opinion: abortion in New York was legal in 1841; by 1845, this had changed.
In major crime stories, truth plays second fiddle to narrative. (That may be an exaggeration. It’s probably more accurate to say that truth was denied an audition due to its uncomely appearance.) Currents of storytelling, emotional themes, these are what resonate with the public at large. It is the narrative – distilled and dehydrated for mass shipping, like concentrated orange juice – that determines our emotional involvement in these issues. And this is fine for water cooler conversations and Facebook rants. But the Mary Rogers case isn’t an isolated incident: public understanding (or misunderstanding) of a major crime leads to legislative changes. School shootings pressure lawmakers to limit the types of cosmetic features the average citizen can purchase on their guns. This is an entirely superficial law: it shouldn’t make you feel any safer knowing your attacker’s shotgun doesn’t have a pistol grip. The Trayvon Martin shooting has led to a Change.org petition – with over 400,000 signatures – demanding an end to Stand Your Ground laws. The problem? Stand Your Ground had no bearing on the Trayvon Martin shooting, was not a component George Zimmerman’s defense, and had those laws never existed, Trayvon Martin would still be dead and George Zimmerman would still have been acquitted.
Last Thursday, former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe published a scathing piece on Deadspin, claiming his contract was terminated by the Vikings due to his political activism. In it, he alleges that his position coach Mike Priefer made homophobic and bigoted remarks to mock Kluwe’s support for gay marriage. And already, before any facts have come out to confirm or disconfirm Kluwe’s statements, people are taking sides and signing petitions. (It probably doesn’t help matters that this came so fast on the heels of the Jonathan Martin and Phil Robertson debacles.) Let’s review what is actually known at this point.
1) Kluwe claims that Priefer made several homophobic remarks. Disgruntled ex-employees have been known to exaggerate.
2) Priefer denies saying these things. Accused persons, both guilty and not guilty, have been known to make denials.
3) Vikings kicker Blair Walsh, someone who would absolutely have been witness to Priefer’s remarks denies that they happened. Current employees often have the sense to not bite the hand that feeds them.
4) After being cut by the Vikings, Kluwe was unable to find further work in the NFL. Aging specialists with declining statistics are often replaced by younger, cheaper players.
All this is to say, we know very little about this case. Everyone who has made a statement thus far has a clear motive to say exactly he said.
It is unclear what will happen to Priefer from here. The Vikings have hired investigators, though that has the feel of a PR move. There will probably be a lawsuit or two. It seems likely that the NFL will make some rule changes about hazing and harassment. Since the NFL is influential, many of these changes will trickle down into college and high school organizations. Maybe those changes will make it possible for harassed players to protest their treatment without the fear of losing their jobs or future opportunities. Those would be good things. But the fact of the matter is, the facts here don’t really matter. It doesn’t matter if Priefer said what Kluwe claims. It makes for an emotionally-compelling story. And storytelling, not facts, drive change.