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Easy targets

Sean Taylor's tragic death raises a difficult question

Posted: Wednesday November 28, 2007 12:24PM; Updated: Wednesday November 28, 2007 4:05PM
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His past and lifestyle aside, Sean Taylor's status as a wealthy African-American athlete may well have had fatal consequences.
His past and lifestyle aside, Sean Taylor's status as a wealthy African-American athlete may well have had fatal consequences.
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Once again, an athlete is gone too soon, the victim of another senseless killing -- as if there is any other kind -- and it does not make you a cold-hearted person if a touch of suspicion is mixed with your sympathy.

We know very little so far about the motivation for the break-in that ended with the fatal shooting of Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor, but it is not blaming the victim to note Taylor had a history of keeping company with characters he probably didn't meet in Bible study. That may have had nothing to do with the tragedy that occurred Sunday night at his house, but the lesson for athletes -- for all of us, really -- remains the same: The reputation you build, the choices you make about your actions and associations, can follow you forever, even to the grave.

Before we go any further, this is not about race. Given Taylor's past, the same questions about his death would be asked if he had not been African-American, or if this had happened to a white sports figure with a similarly checkered history, like Pete Rose or Tim Donaghy, whose involvement with gamblers will forever taint our perception of them. It is only natural to wonder if the way Taylor lived had anything to do with the way he died.

But it is true that a troubling number of black athletes have been the victims of violent crime of late, a subset of the larger epidemic of young black men who die every day the same way Sean Taylor did, but whose names never make the headlines. While we wonder and wait for answers about Taylor's death, that issue is worth pondering as well. Why is it that black athletes seem to be such targets?

Why is it that Denver Broncos defensive back Darrent Williams was shot and killed in a limousine on New Year's Eve, NBA players Eddy Curry and Antoine Walker were robbed at gunpoint in their homes last summer, and Denver Nuggets guard Julius Hodge was shot while driving on the interstate two years ago? These are just a few examples.

It has happened too often to chalk up to chance, and it can't be as simple as athletes always consorting with the wrong element. It may be that rich, black professional athletes make targets of themselves whether they are trying to or not. In general, they make up a very exclusive group -- young men who, even more than their white counterparts, suddenly went from economic disadvantage to great wealth, seemingly overnight. Add to that the pressure many of them feel to keep it real by going back to the neighborhood they came from, or one just like it, and you have young men flaunting their wealth in the places where it is most likely to be envied. In that environment, it's no wonder they sometimes attract people who want to take some of those riches by force.

In light of that, it is also no wonder that those athletes go to great measures to protect themselves, measures the rest of us might consider extreme. The next time a player gets caught with a handgun and says he had it for protection, it might not seem quite so foolish to us in light of what happened to Taylor. They are targets, and they know they are targets, and like Taylor, they are used to handling conflict on their own, no assistance necessary.

It is often said that professional athletes consider themselves invulnerable. Perhaps that is true on the field or on the court, but in real life, many of them are all too aware of their vulnerability. That's why many of them travel with their own bodyguards or with a weapon strapped to them. The danger is real. Even if you distance yourself from your past, it doesn't always mean that your past will keep its distance.

Regardless of the details of Taylor's shooting, he undoubtedly dealt with some of those issues in his life. In time, if the police unravel this mystery, we will know more about his death, and thereby his life. But we shouldn't expect to get all the answers, especially with regard to this larger question. When a man dies young, we never do.