On November 5th of 2016, a sportswriter alleged that Heath Nielsen, then Associate Athletic Director of Baylor, attacked him on the field after the Baylor/TCU game. According to reports, Nielsen choked the man for attempting to take a photo with a player and vulgarly threatened to do whatever necessary to undermine his career.
On November 8th, police arrested Nielsen.
The story was picked up by ESPN, Bleacher Report, USA Today, The New York Post, Yahoo, and pretty much every other media outlet who labeled this as yet another reason for Baylor to clean house in the football program. After all, in November of 2016, outcries against Baylor had reached a fever pitch. Now, according to The New York Post, “A Baylor football staffer ‘responsible for management of the public image of the program’ . . . has been arrested for allegedly choking a reporter. On the field. After a game. In front of everybody.”
Beneath Nielsen’s blown-up, fuzzy mugshot, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram titled their article “Baylor football official had ‘rage in his eyes’”.
Keyboard warriors around the nation panned Nielsen’s behavior, as expected. A single message board covering the story provided the following gems: “That creep AD should lose his job and I hope he is sued successfully.” “look at this a-holes eyes, blank …….. this guy is a menace…” “NUT JOB needs to be FIRED, ASAP.” “Its all on film and police have both the stadium cameras and the film taken by the victim. That Neilsen would even try to fight this is beyond logic.” “A sharp upper cut to Neilsen’s jaw could have resolved this.”
There’s only one problem.
Heath Nielsen is innocent.
Completely, utterly innocent.
Video evidence proved to a Waco grand jury that he did not, in fact, choke a sportswriter as had been alleged, and the charges were dropped. Nielsen had maintained his innocence all along, even if no one was listening. His attorney, Michelle Simpson Tuegel, said, “The jury returned a no bill, which means they refused to indict the case. The evidence was not consistent with what the complainant alleged. It did not show an assault as the accuser had claimed.”
A day after being vindicated, Heath Nielsen resigned from his job at Baylor. In a statement released on Twitter, Nielsen wrote, “I’m grateful for video evidence that exposed the truth. Suffice it to say I have a newfound respect for the presumption of innocence and how seriously damaging fictitious allegations can be.”
Friends and former coworkers have always vouched for his character. Todd Patulski, Deputy AD during Heath’s time at Baylor, wrote, “Heath…you’re a good man! As you know I saw the actual video of that event. Still saddens me to know that guy blatantly lied. The media ran with his story, and your career and life were affected. I wish I could have done more. Hope you and your family are doing well.”
Nielsen’s greatest achievement at Baylor was driving the social media and press campaign that contributed to Robert Griffin III winning the Heisman Trophy. He also drove campaigns that saw Corey Coleman, Bryce Petty, and dozens of other players win awards and earn national recognition. Under his watch, Baylor’s PR staff was honored as part of college football’s “Super 11” in 2012, and in 2015, the Twitter account @BUFootball was named the #2 college football account in the nation.
The question remains of how much damage was done to Nielsen while fending off internet outrage and presumed guilt. A google search still brings up a mugshot; something his children and parents and coworkers must know. The articles expressing outrage over his criminal assault far outweigh the revised articles announcing his innocence.
But isn’t this the new normal? Isn’t this what our culture demands?
Public allegations equal definitive guilt, guilt demands public outrage, and public outrage burns down everything you’ve built in your life. If you’re eventually found innocent, no one cares. Maybe family and close friends gain a sense of justice, but the ‘truth’ has already been cycled in and out of the headlines. Worst impressions stick. You’re left to rebuild everything from scratch. And those internet search results? They aren’t going away any time soon. On the internet, Heath Nielsen is still a guilty man, and plenty of people hiding behind message boards will never take the time to discover he has always been innocent. Ask Duke Lacrosse, David Copperfield, or the many men and women who have vociferously denied unfounded sexual assault allegations in the #metoo era about how their reputations have recovered. These cases aren’t limited to sex. This past week a Chicago Cubs fan was attacked for stealing a foul ball from a child. Except, he had already given the kid a foul ball, and already given two other kids foul balls, before grabbing one for his wife. But the clip that made rounds on the internet only showed the third incident.
Nielsen wrote about his experience in an article on medium, posted on July 25, 2018, nearly two years after being falsely accused.
Individuals at Baylor (and everywhere else) continue to fend off the mad blitz of presumed guilt. Here’s the thing. Maybe some individuals are guilty of serious coverups or crimes. But maybe they aren’t. If we stand on the side of truth and transparency, there’s no reason to rush to judgment.
Because if we do presume guilt, and we’re wrong, what does that make us?