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Take 2

A different spin on sports by The Seattle Times staff and readers.

May 28, 2014 at 7:02 AM

Robert Swift: Why his sad story had to be told by The Seattle Times

Robert Swift, shown in 2007, saw his career end because of injuries but his story remains compelling.   Rod Mar / Seattle Times staff, 2007

Robert Swift, shown in 2007, saw his career end because of injuries, but his story remains compelling.
Rod Mar / Seattle Times staff, 2007

Our story published Sunday on former Sonic Robert Swift has received a lot of attention and reaction from readers, a lot of it negative.

If you haven’t read the story, (“Flameout: Young Sonic phenom Robert Swift falls hard”) by Seattle Times sports reporter Jayson Jenks, you can read it here. I’m guessing many of you have already read it, though, judging by the way the Swift story climbed our “most read” lists and by the number of comments and emails about it.

It’s essentially a case study of a young athlete losing everything after signing for millions. Swift, a 7-foot-1 center who was the No. 12 overall pick in the 2004 NBA Draft by the Sonics at the age of 18, hit the lottery, both literally (in the draft) and figuratively (he made about $10 million). But knee injuries, lack of maturity and, some say, lack of parental guidance ruined his basketball career. At 28, he is out of the league.

We never found Swift, but Jenks’ excellent story wove interviews with more than 20 people close to him to paint a portrait of his problems. Many of the comments on the story asked why we published the story at all.

“What the hell was the purpose of this story?” asked one reader. “Swift is no longer front page news for his basketball prowess.”

“Awful, awful, awful decision by Jenks to write this trash and by “editors” to print it,” said another reader.

I’ve received several emails from readers as well, questioning our decision to print this story. A few people, even a friend of mine, couldn’t understand why it was printed on A1 of The Seattle Times’ Sunday edition.

“How dare you print such a humiliating story about someone no longer in the public eye nor wanting to be,” read one email. “He’s not a criminal who needs to be found or exposed. … Leave him alone.”

Obviously, every reader is entitled to his or her opinion. My answer is that Swift’s story is an important one because he is no longer newsworthy. His fall was a long one, but by no means is he the only young athlete who has had problems, financial and otherwise. The story wasn’t written to single out Swift and use him as “a punching  bag for local media,” as one reader suggested. In many ways, Swift is a lesson on what can go wrong to young athletes who make too much money too quickly without a strong support system. I also contend that parts of the story paint Swift in a sympathetic light.

When media reports surfaced that a house Swift was living in had been foreclosed on, a house that had been trashed, it was shocking. TV and other media reports showed bullet holes in the walls, beer cans littering the property and maggots in the sink. We wanted to go back not to sensationalize Swift’s fall,  but to explain how he reached that point. Everyone makes mistakes, especially 18-year-olds with a bunch of money in their pocket.

We didn’t publish Swift’s story for Web traffic, but obviously it has struck a chord with readers. It has been our most-read story since Sunday. Swift’s story isn’t pretty but it is compelling. And simply because it paints someone in a less-than-positive light doesn’t mean The Seattle Times shouldn’t publish it. We publish plenty of positive stories, too – Larry Stone’s column today about Mariners players visiting local elementary students is a good example – but it’s our obligation as journalists to write stories like the one about Robert Swift.

If you haven’t expressed your opinion on this story, feel free to comment on it here or to email me directly.

Want to be a reader contributor to The Seattle Times’ Take 2 blog? Email your original, previously unpublished work or proposal to Sports Editor Don Shelton at dshelton@seattletimes.com or sports@seattletimes.com. Not all submissions can be published. Opinions expressed are those of authors, and The Times reserves the right to edit and publish any submissions online and/or in print.

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