Sean Taylor's Death - Lessons for the Press
December 3, 2007 4:05 PM
Just got back from a week of skiing in Utah, and had the opportunity to witness a lot of television while the kids were sleeping. As such, I wanted to take the time to address the media coverage of Redskin safety Sean Taylor’s death last week.
Sean, who was laid to rest today in Miami, was shot in his home a week ago by would-be thieves. He ended up dying of blood loss while trying to protect his daughter, wife and property. The Miami police department acted quickly to apprehend the perpetrators.
But in the hours before the arrests were made, many media personalities jumped to the conclusion that Sean’s death was unsurprising, citing his brief history of run ins with the law.
Particularly guilty of jumping to conclusions, aka profiling, were figures at ESPN, “Pardon the Interruption” co-host Michael Wilbon and ESPN radio personality Colin Cowherd, who each proclaimed that Sean’s history made his death expected or even justified.
Michael Wilbon’s quote has already run the gamut in the online sports community but here it is again, taken from his online chat through the Washington Post, posted hours after Sean’s death…
“I know how I feel about Taylor, and this latest news isn't surprising in the least, not to me. Whether this incident is or isn't random, Taylor grew up in a violent world, embraced it, claimed it, loved to run in it and refused to divorce himself from it. He ain't the first and won't be the last. We have no idea what happened, or if what we know now will be revised later. It's sad, yes, but hardly surprising.”
Colin, who I normally like, dug himself into an even deeper hole with these types of judgments before it was revealed that the burglars had nothing to do with Sean’s past.
Colin also included the following on his radio program:
“Sean Taylor, great player, has a history of really really bad judgment. Really really bad judgment. Cops, assault, spitting, DUI. I'm supposed to believe his judgment got significantly better in two years, from horrible to fantastic? 'But Colin he cleaned up his act.' Well yeah, just because you clean the rug doesn't mean you got everything out. Sometimes you've got stains, stuff so deep it never ever leaves.”
I don’t know about you, but I have never met anyone who wouldn’t be surprised to find multiple men breaking into their homes and firing a gun. Sean Taylor, by all accounts from family and friends, had settled down since the birth of his daughter two years ago.
It’s unsettling that some in the sports journalism community promoted and flaunted Sean’s associations with a “violent world,” focusing more on that than the fact that Sean had a father who was a police chief or that he attended an elite prep school.
Wilbon and Cowherd are both paid to give commentary in order to drive ratings, but by placing a label on a victim of a crime before any details were known, and knowing that millions are listening, is a poor exercise of judgment for any media personality.
In the post-shooting analysis, was his past a reasonable part of the story to explore? Possibly, but to assume that past was part of the present was sloppy work from successful men.
On the other hand, of all the newscasts I was able to access in my hotel room, both general interest and sports-oriented, I found CNN to have the best coverage of the details following Sean’s shooting. CNNSI.com properly placed the Pro Bowler’s passing ahead of BCS speculation. MSNBC brought a solid performance as well.
In addition, kudos to the “NFL Today” crowd for wearing buttons with Sean’s number, 21, on their lapels on Sunday in his memory. In fact, of the whole media situation I think “NFL Today’s” James Brown, who is one of the best frontmen I’ve ever seen for the pregame shows, said it best…
“An awful lot has been written and said about Sean Taylor over the past week. A young man who, without a doubt, made mistakes, some foolish, some egregious and immature. And in no way am I looking to trivialize his transgressions or excuse them, but are those reasons enough for some to be so insensitive, so quick, and I think so inaccurate, in stereotyping Sean Taylor as a bad apple, or that the end he met with was not a surprise. A group of burglars break into his house and are surprised to find him there, end his life. By all accounts, as we've heard from the people who actually knew him well, Taylor did an awful lot of maturing over the last year-and-a-half. For those who have been mature a lot longer than that, exercising restraint in passing such callous and harmful judgment would seem to be in order.”
A postscript to this cautionary tale for the media: At Sean’s funeral today, the mayor of the town where his father serves on the police force received a standing ovation when he urged the media learn a small lesson in humility from Sean’s death and its aftermath.