Nickel and Dime Coverage

by Etan Thomas and Dave Zirin

As a video screen behind his casket flashed highlights from a career cut devastatingly short, thousands of people filled an arena in Miami on Monday for the funeral of Washington Redskins star Sean Taylor. Speakers expressed their suffering at the loss of a loved one, friend and colleague. It may sound like a cliche and maybe even quite corny, but while sports can be a ruthless business, a pro team is like any family — you may not get along with everyone but the bonds are deep and real.

We saw this demonstrated as the entire Redskins organization, including players, coaches and team officials, traveled to Miami for the funeral, where they were merely a handful among 4,000 mourners. They were all there because Sean Taylor paid the ultimate price to ensure that his girlfriend and their daughter, hiding under the covers in fear for their lives, were protected.

The entire story would have been heartbreaking to anyone actually with a heart. Sadness today is mixed with outrage as much of the media used Taylor’s death to advance a script that couldn’t have been more breathtakingly callous. Within hours of his shooting, while Taylor was still in a coma, more than a few columnists were writing off the shooting as the “unsurprising” results of a “thug-life” gone awry.

Take Leonardo Shapiro, sports columnist for the Washington Post. On Tuesday, November 27, Shapiro wrote

Still, could anyone honestly say they never saw this coming? You’d have to be blind not to consider Taylor’s checkered past. It was only a few months after he was drafted, when we got something of an inkling of what sort of young man the Redskins were selecting out of the University of Miami with the fifth overall selection in 2004…

In the wake of his shooting, we are now hearing about a so-called new Sean Taylor, a guy who seemed to be getting his life back in order, perhaps because of the birth of his child. Maybe a light bulb finally went off in his head.

Unfortunately, this type of coverage was not an aberration. Even the coverage on “SportsCenter” was mired in negativity. Jason Whitlock unsurprisingly blamed “hip-hop,” which for some reason — no idea why — takes the blame for everything.

ESPN Radio’s Colin Cowherd was especially callous and downright hateful. This is the actual venom that he spewed over the airwaves…

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 … My gut feeling with this story, and we said yesterday, yesterday was not really a day to go out, yesterday was sort of a day, you know, grieving, but we’re past the memorial part. It’s grown-up time, ask yourself realistic questions … Just because somebody cleans the rugs doesn’t mean there aren’t stains. No matter what those commercials, OxiClean, tell you on cable TV, some stains you can’t get out. And if you have bad judgment for 23 years of your life, even if you clean it up, your judgment doesn’t get great over night.

It’s hard to imagine how Cowherd still has a job. First of all, the DUI arrest was thrown out. No charges filed. Spitting in game, while extremely disrespectful, should not have even been mentioned as a reason for this tragic event to have occurred. Terrible sportsmanship, but it happens far more than it’s picked up by cameras.

As far as guns, conspicuous in the conflict in Taylor’s home was that he didn’t have one.

This isn’t to argue we should all be armed to the teeth, but it’s hard to point fingers about gun ownership when the U.S. of A. is a sidearm Shangri-La where buying a gun in most states is easier than renting a carpet shampooer. There are 96 guns for every 100 people in this country. The Washington Redskins do joint events with the NRA. Apologies certainly are owed to the Taylor family and everyone of his heartbroken fans.

Sportswriter Mike Freeman said it best when he wrote

The media coverage of Taylor’s tragic murder, as well as the message board postings by morons and amateur criminologists across the Internet, show a disturbing trend. The coverage of Taylor has portrayed him almost as the thug, the criminal, instead of a victim murdered in his own home … What the Taylor case demonstrates is the significant weakness of today’s instant media world. Taylor has yet to be buried, but a significant number of writers and broadcasters are not only casting him as the bad guy but even insinuating that he was destined to die a violent death … There are pets and dead petunias shown more respect in their demise than Taylor has been shown in his by some in the media and the general public.

Perhaps now we can look honestly at Taylor’s death as part of a disturbing trend of athletes as targets for violent crime. In the last year, NBA players Antoine Walker and Eddy Curry, and NFL players Dunta Robinson and Phillip Buchanon have all been robbed in their homes at gunpoint. Other athletes have seen their homes broken into when — as is made clear in the morning paper and on the web — they are out of town. For far too many athletes, the current sports landscape feels like a nation of enemies, a place where bodyguards, gated communities or even guns are the only way many feel at peace.

Taylor’s former teammate, All-Pro Chris Samuels, told Peter King

“I was always scared of guns growing up. But this situation has told me I need one. I’d rather be prepared than to be like Sean was, and not have a gun in his house when he really needed it. I’m going to go through all the proper procedures, get a license, get training for it and have it in my house, where I lay my head at night.

“I wish a lot of people thought like I did, that violence is bad. But unfortunately that’s not the way the world is. Sometimes the world is not a nice place. It’s sad I have to get a gun.”

An African proverb comes to mind: It does the antelope no good to rule against eating meat unless the lion agrees.

Here’s a question worth answering: If Sean Taylor had a gun, would we have seen a different outcome? A shootout between Sean Taylor and the thieves could have resulted in the sparing of his own life, or it could have resulted in the harm of his family.

Now, the theory of most right wing conservatives is guns for everyone. But the fact is many people, like Dick Cheney, don’t need to have guns. Not only can they make a situation worse, but there are just too many stories of accidents in the house, especially if there are children in the home.

But it does raise a very interesting issue. How would it have been reported if Taylor shot and killed the people breaking into his family home. Would he have been described as a hero for saving and protecting his family or a villain who embraced a thug life mentality?

Times have certainly changed since the days when a young Muhammad Ali walked the streets of Harlem without a bodyguard in sight, saying, “I’m an easy target. I’m everywhere; everybody knows me. I walk the streets daily, and nobody’s guarding me. I have no guns, no police. So if someone’s gonna get me, tell them to come on and get it over with — if they can get past God, because God is controlling the bullet.”

What has changed since the days of Ali cannot be quantified simply by dollars and cents. Ali saw himself as part of a broader community — and that community saw Ali as one of their own, as someone who didn’t live on a pedestal.

We need to figure out how to rebuild and repair the bridge between athlete and fan, between celebrity and community, and between teams and the cities where they ply their trade. These questions deserve serious discussion.

It’s a discussion the media should try to take part in, instead going for the cheap headline.

Etan Thomas plays for the Washington Wizards and is the author of the book More than an Athlete. Dave Zirin is a columnist for SLAM magazine and is the author of Welcome to the Terrordome.