The murder of professional football player Sean Taylor was shocking, but how the media initially reacted to the news was not. The twenty-four-year-old was punished for not playing ball.
Taylor, an All-Pro safety for the Washington Redskins, was murdered during a burglary last week in his hometown of Miami. Four young men are in custody and have been charged with first-degree felony murder and armed burglary. The fatal incident robbed a young child of her father, a young woman of the man she loved, and a family of its son and brother. Taylor’s teammates, current and former, were left reeling, and his fans were reduced to tears.
The news of Taylor’s murder unfolded within a span of twenty-four hours, the first reports trickling in on the morning of Monday, December 3rd. By that afternoon, it was confirmed that Taylor had been shot during an apparent break-in at his home and that he had undergone surgery for a serious gunshot wound. When the newspapers went to press that night, the news was grim, but there was hope that Taylor would live, if not play football again.
Tuesday, December 4th brought devastating news. Taylor had passed away in the wee hours of the morning. The details surrounding his murder were still sketchy, but this much was known: A young man had lost his life.
Virtually all of the initial coverage surrounding Taylor’s shooting and subsequent death rehashed troublesome events of Taylor’s young life off the field.
He was arrested for, though later acquitted of, driving under the influence. He skipped the National Football League’s mandatory rookie seminar and held out of training camp one year seeking a new contract, in the process disrespecting his Hall of Fame coach. Most troubling, Taylor was arrested for aggravated assault with a firearm, a felony, and misdemeanor battery in 2005. The charges were later dropped as part of a plea deal.
On the field, Taylor was known for making big plays and big hits. He was accused of spitting on a player during a game in his rookie season, and two years later he was ejected for spitting on a player in a playoff game. Taylor was also fined by the league more than a half-dozen times for late hits and a dress code violation.
These incidents were essentially what the public and the media knew of Taylor. One reason was that he chose not to speak to the media often. When he did sit down with reporters, he was standoffish.
That Taylor actually shied away from the media is not surprising. By the time of his death, he had already spent an inordinate portion of his life in the spotlight, and much of what was written and said about him in the media since he had become a professional football player was not very positive. Taylor brought on this negative media coverage himself, of course. However, where some in the media erred in their coverage of Taylor’s shooting and death was in listening not to the people who knew Taylor, but to the people who covered him.
More than one commentator said they were not surprised by what happened to Taylor. They reasoned that Taylor had not broken free of his “thug life” (his father, ironically, is a police chief) and still ran with a bad crowd. They based these assumptions on Taylor’s actions from two or more years ago, and on actions of other young athletes who have found themselves in trouble. Some columnists, black and white, seemed to suggest that a young black man could simply never escape the dangerous life in a city such as Miami.
What emerged, however, in interviews with people who actually knew Taylor was that he was a changed man. The birth of his daughter eighteen months ago had refocused Taylor’s life, according to his family, friends and teammates. He had grown up, and even the few interviews he had given since his daughter’s birth showed a more introspective young man. He had stayed out of trouble on and off the field, garnering increased respect from his peers along the way.
Despite this, some in the media did not care. Instead, they lazily vilified a young man and suggested that he brought on his own death. They relied on stereotypes and conjecture, ignoring the fact that a police investigation was underway and that the early evidence suggested Taylor’s murder was random. The suspects reportedly did target Taylor’s residence, but they did not expect him to be home and were simply trying to burglarize the house of a rich athlete. More so, there have been a number of armed robberies of athletes and other high-profile wealthy individuals over the past year, a fact that was ignored by many pontificators. (The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story about the issue just weeks before Taylor’s murder.)
One of the most interesting comments I heard from one of the commentators who essentially blamed Taylor for his own demise was that the commentator had never met Taylor. This individual literally said, on a national radio show, that everything he knew about Taylor came from the media. He went on to suggest that Taylor might have benefited by sitting down with the media and talking about how his life had changed. This begs the question of whether or not the media would have actually believed him.
While I followed the coverage of Taylor’s death, I thought back to my time as a journalist. Only once did I write about a public figure who had passed away, and he was a controversial figure. Though I knew this person, I did not feel comfortable adding any of my own thoughts to the column I wrote about him. Instead, I relied on what his friends, family and co-workers had to say, explaining to readers that I was not privy to the real man, just the man who had to deal with the media. I did not penalize this individual for not opening up to me. Unfortunately, others did so to Taylor.
Sean Taylor was a father and a young man who was loved by his family, friends and teammates. He was also an imperfect person who made plenty of mistakes in his life. Sadly, some in the media proved that one of his mistakes was not playing the public relations game. At least that’s what they want us to believe.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.