A SUDDEN DEATH: LET US PAUSE, NOT RUSH

I didn’t know Sean Taylor. I can’t tell you why he died. I also can’t tell you what kind of man he was. And neither can most of us in the news media.

But that didn’t stop us from trying.

Taylor, a 24-year-old Washington Redskins defensive back, was killed last week, shot by an intruder in his home. On Saturday, four men were charged with unpremeditated murder. There were confessions. That, we know.

We also know this: Taylor had, at times, run with dangerous people, had an armed assault charge on his record and kept a machete by his bed.

And he rarely spoke to reporters.

So it was interesting to watch so many quickly canonize him as a man who was “turning his life around.” Countless writers and broadcasters repeated this claim in the immediate hours after his death, often citing a 1-year-old daughter as his enlightenment.

One ESPN panelist said, “He had a family, wife, small child and from all appearances he appeared to be turning his life around.” One Sporting News columnist wrote, “Becoming a parent had apparently given Taylor a new purpose and helped him mature.”

One Washington Post writer said of Taylor: “He once was lost, but now was found.”

A time to pass judgment

Now maybe some of these people, at best, spent a moment with a microphone or notepad in front of Taylor. I doubt many knew him. I doubt they ever went to his Miami home. Ate a meal with him. Or saw the machete in his bedroom.

So how could they know where his life was? Maybe Taylor had indeed gone from sinner to saint. But at the time, the story was so fresh, any scenario was possible, and such declarations ran the risk of conflicting with other facts: Did Taylor know the people who killed him? Were they – as a childhood friend suggested – out to get him? Taylor was the fourth current or former University of Miami football player slain in 15 years. Maybe that mattered? Maybe it didn’t?

But if this world has taught us anything about when sports mix with crime, it is to hold our tongues. Wait and see. Do not rush into tragic prose, idealized caricatures or familiar stereotypes – especially using comments from upset friends or relatives as facts. When the Duke lacrosse case broke, the quick consensus was that spoiled white kids raped a black single mother. It was a lie. When Len Bias died, there were instant experts lamenting his overworked heart – until we discovered cocaine killed him.

Who knew, at the time, what happened with Taylor? His house had been broken into eight days earlier, yet nothing was taken. Taylor left the team to deal with that. Then he left the team again – without telling his coach – to spend Sunday night in Miami. To many that seemed curious.

A need for more patience

But instead of pausing, we rushed right into a baby angle, believing a daughter was a cleansing rinse. The truth is, many people have children. Some it affects, some it doesn’t. You’d have to spend a lot of time with Taylor to know if it truly changed him from a guy who didn’t show up at a mini-camp or spat in a player’s face to the enlightened man we portrayed him as. You could easily have stated that Taylor wasn’t married to the mother of his daughter. Some people find that telling, too. It all depends how much attention you draw to it.

But from O.J. Simpson to Floyd Landis to Michael Vick, quick takes on athletes the minute controversy strikes – often based on teammates or friends – can leave us backtracking. Taylor was killed. Teammates liked him. Those are facts we knew.

But “once was lost, now was found”? That was some pretty strong assuming. To canonize someone too quickly should be as wrong as besmirching someone too quickly.

It now looks as if this was indeed a burglary that turned to homicide. But early last week, it could have been anything. Time will tell. And after time tells, then we can. In today’s rush to break news, to eulogize faster and better than anyone else, “wait” has become a four-letter word. But it’s a four-letter word that should be in our vocabulary.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. He will sign books at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 10 at Barnes & Noble in Rochester Hills.

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