The curious case of Jordan Johnson

During my years at the University of Montana, I was a bit of a nut while watching football and basketball games.

Even though I grew up a Montana State fan, I pretty much lived and died with the Grizzlies during my college years.

Since I graduated in 1997, though, I’ve been working in a profession where I’m supposed to remain neutral, so that fire for the Grizzlies hasn’t been there other than to cheer for the occasional local product playing for the team.

Next football season, though, that flame will burn again. I’ll be rooting more than ever for the Griz to bounce back from a rough season and regain their status as one of the nation’s elite.

The reason for this rebirth of zealous for the Grizzlies is the plight of quarterback Jordan Johnson, who was acquitted of rape 11 days ago and reinstated to the team last week.

He was accused of the crime more than a year ago, and what the Grizzly players had to endure over that time has forced me to rally behind my alma mater with renewed vigor.

Like a lot of Montanans — and people around the country thanks to former congressman Pat Williams’ ill-advised comments to the New York Times — I followed the Johnson trial with bated breath. I hung on every tweet sent from the courtroom as the drama unfolded.

I was happy when the news broke that the jury found the quarterback not guilty of such a heinous crime, and not because I didn’t think Johnson committed the crime.

In this classic he said, she said scenario only two people know what happened that night. Had Johnson been sent to prison or the National Football League after he finishes his career in Missoula, we would never know for sure if either outcome was just.

What we should know, though, is that Johnson should have never been charged with the crime in the first place.

The Missoula County Attorney’s office should be ashamed and embarrassed of its actions in this case. It was an obvious case of trying to make up previous dereliction of duty.

The University of Montana and Missoula were under fire for their handling of sexual assault claims on and off campus. With activists calling for your head, what better way to prove that you are serious about such crimes and save face — and your job — than bringing down the starting quarterback in a town where Griz football is king?

Suddenly, the attention was off the County Attorney’s office and on Johnson and his accuser, both of whom went through hell the past year.

In a case in which even the accused didn’t seem convinced the defendant did anything wrong, Johnson found himself in the middle of a perfect storm that almost cost him his career, education and freedom.

Making matters worse was what I consider biased coverage of the local newspaper reporter, who, as one person on Twitter said, seemingly lost her first case as a prosecutor.

In the Missoulian’s “breaking news” story about the verdict, the reporter skipped right over the part where the jury said “not guilty” to rehash the accusations against Johnson stronger than ever.

The paper said it didn’t put the university or the football team on trial in the case, yet had to be shamed out of hashtaging every tweet with a #umrape.

It is hard to believe that educated people in the newsroom couldn’t see that the hashtag presumed guilt while attaching the entire school to the charge levied against one student. That wasn’t fair to Johnson, his teammates or a non-football-watching pre-pharmacy student.

As a writer for the school paper and in my years at newspapers since, I have seen many reporters — even ones I called friends — who have had a mentality where they wanted to bring down the athletic program at all cost.

Whether it was jealousy that they weren’t the cool kid in high school or their desire to be the next Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the athletic departments have often been the focus of journalists looking for the next Watergate.

Sometimes those searches were founded, while most were not. For instance, during my years at the university, a fight at a fraternity party — which was a weekly event in those days — involved a handful of Grizzly football players one Saturday night.

Sure, the fight probably deserved a story and questions to the football coach and athletic department. The school paper turned it into the Iran-Contra Affair, and the football team and fraternity system were drug through the mud for the better part of a semester.

This latest case as a similar feel, although the stakes were much, much higher.

Again, I don’t know if Jordan Johnson committed the crime he was found not guilty of committing. Neither do you. Neither does the reporter.

If he did it, I hope karma jumps up and bites Johnson in the butt and he pays dearly.

First, though, I hope he tosses about 45 touchdown passes while leading the Grizzlies to the 2013 national championship.

— Sportswriter Bill Foley, who is always in search of the next Watergate, writes a column that appears on ButteSports.com on Tuesdays. Email him at foley@buttesports.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74.

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