Washington DC; “You can’t be scared of death,” Redskins starting safety Sean Taylor told a D.C. radio station this September in his last known interview. “When that time comes, it comes.â€ That time has come for Taylor who died from injuries he sustained during an armed assault in his Miami area home early on the morning of November 27. He was 24 years old, had an 18 month old baby and was just beginning what had promised to be a brilliant NFL career. Taylor’s death, which is the subject of an ongoing and far-reaching homicide investigation by the Miami Dade police department has left his team-mates and family stricken with grief.
Around 1:00am, someone entered Taylor’s house, busted down his bedroom door and fired two shots at him, hitting him once in the upper leg. Eight days before that attack, the same house had been broken into by unknown intruders. There was nothing missing from the house in that previous break in so it appears that robbery was not a motive. But in an ominous twist, a large kitchen knife was left on Taylor’s bed. On the night of the shooting, Taylor had a machete under his bed, which leads one to believe that he might have had something to fear in spite of the flimsy explanation by his father that he used it for â€œgardeningâ€. And one other thing â€“ the phone line to the house had been cut.
Speculation has surfaced that this weeks attack may have been related to an incident in 2005 when Taylor was arrested for pointing a gun at three men whom he thought stole a couple of ATV’s from him and then punching one of them. Later, Taylor was the target of a drive by shooting, ostensibly by the same group of men, who pumped 15 bullets into his car. Taylor escaped any injury at that time, and although he was arrested for assault the trial was postponed and the charges ultimately dropped as part of a plea bargain that included community service.
The death of Taylor has fueled a heated nationwide debate between critics who level charges of racism at some depictions of Taylor’s past by certain sectors of the public and the media, and the target of that criticism – those who cite the complex issues associated with young black men coming from economically deprived inner city environments and rocketing to fame and fortune in professional sports. In particular, the latter was exampled this week by the opinions of Richard â€œDocâ€ Walker and John Thompson, hosts of a program at a local Washington sports radio station called Sportstalk 980, WTEM.
The treatment of the subject by these radio personalities has provided a stark contrast to the description of Taylor by those that knew him and portrayed him simply as a man who was happily enjoying the good fortune his talents had brought him and who was a doting father to his infant daughter. “People keep saying it’s not about race,” says Walker, who is black and used to play tight end for the Redskins. “But it is a racial thing. We grew up differently. I have people in my life who were murdered, who are addicted.â€
Violence in the lives of NFL players has become an all too common occurrence in recent years, and some institutions like the University of Miami where Taylor’s football career first took off have become known for the violent behavior of a disproportionately high number of their students and alumni. It seems that these hyper-competitive environments can sometimes breed a psychology that takes on a life of it’s own as players in the system try to live up â€“ or down â€“ to the tough reputations of the athletes who preceded them. “Miami’s problems are hardly isolated among large college football programs, but unfortunately these incidents do seem a reflection of the legacy,” according to Richard Lapchick, a social studies scholar from the University of Central Florida. “It’s a reminder that their goal now has to be to build a new legacy.”
It might surprise some to learn that Taylor came from an upper middle class background rather than the gun and drug ridden haven of some disadvantaged criminal element and that he went to Gulliver, an elite college prep school in Pinecrest Florida. Or to hear that his father is the chief of police in the nearby community of Florida City. In taking a step back and a relatively objective view of the current events we realize that perhaps the discussion about athletes who survive a childhood marked by deprivation and scenes of gang warfare and who rise to a measure of wealth and priveledge that most youngsters in the urban jungle can scarcely imagine might be a bit premature.
And yet, the fact that many of us initially respond to news stories such as Taylor’s murder by assuming that black sports stars have come from a culture of violence which quite inexorably follows them for the rest of their lives says a lot about our feelings on the difference between the races and our preconceptions about the reality of black society in this country. Somewhere deep in the psyche of white America lurks the idea that however highly esteemed a black football player becomes it’s never a surprise to find out that he was gunned down.
It’s clear then that we ought to be on guard against prejudice in our reactions to such news, but while we need not be so naive as to believe that the media is color blind in it’s reporting about black athletes that’s still not a reason ignore the facts in this case. Football is a violent sport which naturally attracts those with aggressive tendencies, and to dismiss the possibility that in some players this aggression is finding an outlet beyond the playing field would simply be a denial of the truth.