Through The Past, Darkly

Ken Hamlin has suffered several assaults over the past week. There are those in which the injuries are known and the suspects are at large. Then there are those more insidious assaults, the sort that allow those who actually name their damage to walk free. The long-term ramifications here are less obvious.

“Outside the street's on fire in a real death waltz
Between flesh and what's fantasy and the poets down here
Don't write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be
And in the quick of a knife they reach for their moment
And try to make an honest stand but they wind up wounded, not even dead
Tonight in Jungleland” –
Bruce Springsteen, “Jungleland”, 1975

“Talk about dumb and dumber -- Ken Hamlin and the Minnesota Vikings. If pressed, I'd take a box of rocks and lay the points. Hamlin is the Seahawks safety who was allegedly ahead on every judge's card in a Sunday night/Monday morning bar fight until he got KO'd by someone with a magnetic street sign. Here's what I don't get -- why is the sign magnetic? So construction workers can put up drawings from their kids? And would it have made any difference if Hamlin had been smacked by a non-magnetic street sign? Are those softer?”
– Jim Moore, “Hamlin, Vikings Make Bad Calls”, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 20, 2005

Ken Hamlin wasn’t the only one “KO'd” on the morning of Monday, October 17, in Seattle's Pioneer Square. Another demolition was brewing.

My tolerance with, and respect for, several arms of the local media was shredded in the days following Hamlin’s assault. I was hoping that I would be informed. In my most wistful and wishful meanderings, I aspired to be enlightened. At the very least, I hoped to get more than an avalanche of sociopolitical backwash with no basis in fact.

Clearly, I was barking up the wrong tree.

But before I delve into my own eroding trust in what certain zones of Seattle's accredited football media tells me, let’s digress to what we now know about one Ken Hamlin:

Hamlin suffered a fractured skull and a small subdural hematoma (a blood clot brought about by blunt head trauma) on the left side of his head and a fractured right hand in an altercation at Larry’s nightclub in Seattle's Pioneer Square in the early morning of Monday, October 17. After the incident (and mere hours after the Seahawks’ 42-10 triumph over the Houston Texans on national television), Hamlin was placed in the intensive care unit at Harborview Medical Center. He stayed there, in serious but stable condition, until Thursday the 20th, when his condition was upgraded to satisfactory and he was moved out of the ICU to a private room. He has been visited by teammates and coaches, and his mother is now with him. He can sit up, he can speak, he appears coherent. There’s no timetable for his recovery from a sheer human and physical perspective, never mind the football concerns. He may be out for this year, he may never play again.

THAT we don’t know.

We know that a (still unidentified) assailant or assailants attacked Hamlin. Police are reportedly looking for two suspects, one of whom may or may not be the same individual who was found murdered hours later in Seattle's Seward Park. We have been told by the police report and several eyewitnesses that Hamlin was hit more than once with a magnetic street sign. We have been told that Hamlin remembers nothing of the incident, or least he remembered nothing of it at last report. We have been told that Hamlin’s brother, Keith, was somehow involved and may have been hurt at some point during the events in question. Fortunately, we know that Mike Holmgren has informed the media that Hamlin’s condition has improved to the point that he may check out of the hospital as early as this weekend.

Now…here is what we DON’T know (among other things):

  1. Who first knocked Hamlin unconscious, and who caused his injuries?
  2. What enraged Hamlin enough to break away from security?
  3. Where were the police when this was happening? Isn’t Pioneer Square an area under extra watch during high-traffic times, such as the hours following home Seahawks games?
  4. When did the situation escalate beyond all reason?
  5. Why didn’t Hamlin just walk away? This, of course, is the million-dollar question.

What Seahawks.NET reported on Monday was as follows:

According to the police report (first made available to the public by Mike Sando of the Tacoma News Tribune), Hamlin and a female companion (identified as his girlfriend) were leaving a congested area (later identified as “Larry’s Nightclub” by local television news reporters) on First Avenue S. and S. Main Street in Seattle. Hamlin was walking ahead of his companion, leading her through the crowd, when Hamlin placed his hand on the back of one of the two suspects and said, “Excuse me”, asking the suspect to move. The suspect replied with a remark to the effect that he was “not one of Hamlin’s girls”, and to “stop pushing (him)”. Hamlin and the suspect began shoving each other, and Hamlin struck the suspect in the face. At that time, the second suspect approached the scene and began fighting with other people at the scene.

At some point, one of the suspects was seen hitting Hamlin at least once (possibly twice) with a magnetic street sign. At that time (the police report lists the time of incident as 2:04 a.m.), police arrived and began dispersing the crowd. One officer approached Hamlin, who was surrounded by various individuals who were trying to render aid. Hamlin was lying on the ground, and was not able to remember what had happened. He complained of severe pain in his head, neck and chest areas.

Police have apparently not apprehended either suspect at this time, although a redacted version of the police report would seem to imply that some witnesses knew the names of the suspects.

That’s basically where we left it for the next 24 hours, under the assumption that all local news agencies would wait for facts to become evident, as we would and did, before reporting and rushing to judgment. Our message boards were rife with speculation as to whose “fault” the incident was, but that’s what message boards are for, at least in part – a place where fans can converge and converse without the responsibility of accreditation and the restraints of professionalism. Message boards are sports bars, not newsrooms.

But elsewhere, those lines were first blurring, then disappearing.

In retrospect, the “X-Factor” in the Hamlin Media Fiasco was undoubtedly Larry Culp, the owner of the club. Culp made himself available with a quickness once Hamlin had been hospitalized – one local reporter made an acidic comment about Culp “needing his own agent”. To be sure, it’s no surprise when a heretofore unknown and undistinguished individual comes forth and clocks in for his fifteen minutes of fame…and now, it should be unsurprising to anyone when the media takes the positions of people with obvious agendas at face value and reports them as fact. In Culp’s case, it took a while for him to admit that he wasn’t actually at the scene when the assault happened. He was basing his multimedia spectacle on hearsay from his security guards and repeated viewings of the surveillance video taken outside of the club which, in Culp’s mind, showed Hamlin to be the obvious aggressor.

Of course, if you’re Larry Culp, it’s best for you if Hamlin was at fault.

What I found amazing and distressing was the speed with which our local media ran with this angle to the exclusion of any other, and the extent to which Hamlin himself was painted as a villain. Steve Kelley of the Seattle Times had a very interesting go-round with this concept - first, in his October 18th column, Kelley preached a measure of restraint and provided a fairly balanced version of the facts as we knew them (“His coaches don't consider Hamlin a knucklehead. Far from it. Already, at 24, he has become a defensive leader. He is popular with his teammates. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, surrounded by the wrong people. These incidents happen too frequently in professional sports. Late at night, testosterone mixes dangerously with alcohol. Athletes are challenged by wannabes looking for trouble, tempers erupt violently, and people get hurt.”)

Fair enough, although his “testosterone mixes with alcohol” comment may lead the reader to assume that Hamlin was intoxicated, when all accounts, including Culp’s, have him sober at the scene. However, the next day’s column brought forth a different viewpoint. Kelley then seemed intent on not only overdramatizing the extent to which Hamlin had “let his fans down”, but also placing this incident in the same bag with the Vikings’ recent aquatic peccadilloes and other assorted misbehaviors in a sketchy attempt to piece together a global view of the NFL’s current anarchy.

The fundamental issue with such slapdash hypothesis? It tends to be self-perpetuating. Within the next few days, seemingly every paid, accredited sports opinion-monger in the greater Seattle area was offering up his own tenuous take on Hamlin’s sense of responsibility, his intelligence…and most disturbingly, his past. One pictures this group of “opinionators” co-existing in a SuperFriends-style bunker, taking turns writing pieces for the entire group and shooting editorials out six at a time.

Greg Johns, in his October 19th story for the King County Journal, encountered a common problem with said premise – with so little knowledge of what actually happened at the scene, it’s impossible to make such judgments and reach a reasonable conclusion. Not that Johns didn’t give it the old college try, first asserting that "I veer sharply from the notion that Hamlin was just in the ‘wrong place at the wrong time,’ as some of his teammates suggest,” Johns wrote. “And where I'm not buying the description of Hamlin as a ‘victim’ of assault, as Seahawks management asserted. While the Seahawks safety deserves our sympathy after having his skull broken in a fight, it seems clear Hamlin was a victim of his own hot-headed anger in putting himself in a bad situation. Hamlin had one huge final choice that made the ultimate difference. No matter what happened prior, the third-year Seahawk had a chance to walk away from his troubles on the sidewalk of Seattle.

That’s a road you can travel if you were there and you know what happened, and what may or may not have provoked Hamlin. But as Johns later admits, he doesn’t.

"None of us know exactly what was said or done outside the nightclub in the early hours of Monday morning, or what preceded the incident inside,” he wrote. “It’s worth noting that two U.S. military members were beaten up outside the same nightclub in July. Police said that quarrel evolved from a stranger groping one of the women in the servicemen's group. That is the sort of situation that could draw any of us into a fight. Things happen. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong jerks making trouble. Surely the majority of these type of incidents can be avoided merely by staying away from areas where alcohol and the general public are mixed in volatile combinations.”

In the wake of this incident, some have put forth the proposition that Hamlin was protecting his girlfriend, or his brother, or was somehow “forced” to tangle with his assailants. And that’s an attractive idea – certainly Seahawks fans would prefer it if Hamlin had no choice. It would be great if the information required to paint Hamlin as not only a victim, but a hero, could be unearthed.

But we don’t know if that information exists. And given the little that we do know, it seems that the most ironclad way to paint Hamlin in an unsympathetic light is to bring up the DUI arrests he faced in college. In a column supposedly written to provide balanced perspective on the “Seahawks Fiasco”, John Levesque of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer mentioned that “Yes, Hamlin has a history of making poor decisions after being around alcohol.” As former NFL linebacker Bill Romanowski recently said in a slippery attempt to excuse his violent actions against both teammates and opponents, “There’s the truth and there’s the facts.” Of course, Romanowski’s history is well-documented, with reams of facts, eyewitness testimony, and televised coverage.

The facts surrounding Hamlin involve two DUI arrests – the first in July of 2001 and the second in May of 2002 – when he was attending the University of Arkansas. Levesque’s glib and transparent attempt to attach these incidents to each other is either ill-informed or just plain lazy. Again, there is no evidence whatsoever proving that Hamlin drank any alcohol on the night in question. And any inference to the contrary, no matter how slight, should be accompanied by absolute proof.

The truth about Hamlin’s college DUIs was perhaps best represented by Jeff Reynolds of Pro Football Weekly in a column published in September of 2003, Hamlin’s rookie season.

Individual scouts, defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes, head coach Mike Holmgren and other representatives from the organization spent time with Hamlin one-on-one. Slowly but surely, the word “disobedient” disappeared from the Seahawks’ scouting report on Hamlin.

In fact, the more Seattle got to know Hamlin, the fewer concerns they had about Hamlin maintaining the straight and narrow on his own in an NFL environment. Intense background searches led investigators from arresting officers to companions to witnesses. The brass tacks of the probe, as interpreted by Holmgren’s staff, were this: More than anything in life, Hamlin feared losing football. He had been scared straight. After a second arrest last year, Arkansas coaches told Hamlin he would never play football again if he crossed another legal or social barrier.

Hamlin ran to voluntary Alcoholics Anonymous counseling. He met with social advisors — still does — and made philanthropy priority No. 2 (nothing ever comes before football).

“He was mature to see he had to change,” said Will Lewis, Seahawks director of pro personnel. “He was mature to see that and give it more than lip service. You like that about his character.”

Until the morning of October 17, 2005, Hamlin’s name was never again associated with the crossing of any legal or social barriers. And until reporters and writers do the sort of thorough research required of the personnel men who scouted Ken Hamlin, who are they to say what was in Hamlin’s mind or his heart? Who are they to say what may or may not have goaded him to such violence?

Perhaps it’s the truth I don’t want to believe – that Ken Hamlin squandered his season, and quite possibly his career, on one foolish macho whim. And if that’s the case, I suppose that those who rail at him from on high will have every reason to do so, assuming that the repercussions aren’t punishment enough for them.

But at this time, the only thoughtless actions I see in this case – the only ones I can prove – are the ones taken by those who we entrust to tell us what really happened. I can’t say how I will be affected the next time I read columns written by these individuals.

I do know that my respect for Mike Sando of the Tacoma News Tribune has grown exponentially. Throughout the week, Sando was the only scribe constantly advising against the sort of rash hyperbole which inundated the Emerald City. He presented the facts in an even-handed, professional manner at all times in his articles and on his outstanding blog, and he never wavered from the idea that you’d best have your facts straight before you run out into the street, or onto the internet, or into the pages of a local newspaper, with an opinion. Sando seems to understand that saying “I don’t know” isn’t a crime – sometimes it’s an absolute requirement. It’s the only way people can trust you when you DO know.

The facts in the case of Ken Hamlin vs. the Great Unknown may never be completely revealed, locked away as they are in Hamlin’s own memory, a criminal investigation and several differing views of the night in question.

Somehow, I suspect that those who have been laboring at their computers, building a baseless tapestry of speculation, fervently hope that the truth never comes out.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at Top Stories