Would your local media have chased this one?

This morning, my hat’s off to The Seattle Times. A story I read on that newspaper’s Web site last evening was still very much on my mind as I drove in this morning’s rush hour traffic in Tucson.

I never expected the story to grab my attention in the fashion it ultimately did. You see, last night as I went to bed, I reached for my cell phone simply to set the alarm. Then I decided to hit the web button on my Treo and surfed over to one of my hometown’s newspapers, The Seattle Times.

That’s when I saw the headline: Key UW linebacker played entire season after his bloody print was tied to shooting

Before I knew it, I was reeled-in, clicking through all of the 23 pages it took to read the entire article on my phone.

You don’t have to like sports to appreciate this article. This is a story about a shooting, a high-profile athlete at a city’s beloved university, and the reasons why the compelling evidence connecting the athlete to the violent crime long remained invisible to nearly everyone.

The football player’s name is Jeremiah Pharms. And while the University of Washington cranked-out a season-long public relations portrait of a family man, the real person beneath the helmet appears to have had a greater loyalty to pitbulls and drugs than he did for wife and children. Well, according to The Seattle Times story, Pharms wasn’t always loyal to his dogs, either.

The Seattle Times has exposed some uncomfortable truths for police, prosecutors, former UW coach Rick Neuheisel and that UW PR Machine (I’m tempted to call it “Animal Pharm,” but that may not be quite fair).

And here’s what really gnawed away at the reporter in me. Documents were sealed in this case. Now, I spent half of my decade in Albuquerque working the court beat. Went to at least one court most every day. I’ve read countless criminal complaints, search warrant affidavits, inventory returns and grand jury indictments. And yes, there were times when documents were sealed. I can still see the staples all ’round the edges of the manilla files that held those court papers.

You know what? Although I was often frustrated, I understood and appreciated the need to seal stuff, at times.

But what were the motivations for sealing documents in the Pharms case? And had the papers not been sealed, what would have been the result of the unavoidable media attention? Perhaps it would have had Pharms walking a straighter line. Surely, it seems the Cleveland Browns would have been less determined in the team’s desire to draft Pharms.

I highly recommend that anyone interested in roll-up your sleeves, get deep in research and digging, damn any public sentiment or pressures reporting read The Seattle Times article. Its caliber is worthy of the awards that will, no doubt, come.

It would have been so easy for the paper to have turned its back on this story. I can hear what I fear so many decision-makers might have said in some newsrooms across the country: It happened eight years ago. No one was killed. We don’t want to upset the University. The UW spends a lot of money on advertising.

The Seattle Times seems to rest in the comfort of knowing that it will still be around long after the Pharms story fades away. I returned to the paper’s Web site this morning and discovered another story about a player on that 2000 Husky team, the late Curtis Williams. It’s a name I know. For, in the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that while I did not attend the University of Washington, I have been a life-long fan of the team since the early 1970s and the days of Sonny Sixkiller.

The story of Curtis Williams has long been one that has moved people to tears. But the proverbial “rest of the story” now emerges in today’s edition of The Seattle Times.

It turns out the newspaper is running a series of reports focussed on that 2000 Husky team, all under the banner: Victory and Ruins, the disturbing story behind the last great great UW team–and how its legacy still casts a shadow on the Huskies.

More than ever, my hat is off to The Seattle Times and its reporters. And, in the long run, I believe this series will be good for the University of Washington’s football program. If there’s dirt, let it be exposed in the full scrutiny of the media’s light and evaluated in public debate. As that dirt is obliterated, the healing begins. Powers-that-be are, hopefully, more inclined to properly protect the integrity of their program.

What do you think? Would your local media have printed or aired a similar story if it had unfolded in your hometown?

Also, Rick Neuheisel is now the new head coach at his alma mater, UCLA. Neuheisel is no stranger to controversy. Should The Seattle Times series, Victory and Ruins, raise any concerns for UCLA and its fans?

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