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Saunders: Let’s Show Some Grace in Reporting on Death

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Dwayne Haskins Steelers QB

About 99 days out of 100, I absolutely love my job.  I get to go to interesting places, watch grown men and women play kids games, and then talk about those games endlessly. It’s a lot of fun. 

But like every job, there are some parts of it that aren’t so fun. For one, I hate writing obituaries.

They come with both the combination of the obviously tragic subject matter, but also a tremendous amount of pressure to get the story right, to capture the essence of a person and do justice to their memory. 

It’s incredibly nerve-wracking to think about the tragedy that has just unfolded and then the thought of a friend or family member who is already suffering through the loss of a loved one to be further upset because you got something wrong.

It seemed that in the aftermath of the news of the death of Steelers quarterback Dwayne Haskins on Saturday, some of my colleagues lost track of that feeling.

ESPN NFL reporter Adam Schefter, in breaking the news of Haskins’ death, wrote “Haskins, a standout at Ohio State before struggling to catch on with Washington and Pittsburgh in the NFL, died this morning …”

His struggles as an NFL quarterback were somehow deemed more newsworthy than his untimely death at age 24. Schefter later deleted the tweet and replaced it with one with more appropriately worded language. 

Gil Brandt, a Sirius XM NFL contributor and longtime NFL general manager was even worse, responding to an innocent question about Haskins with a diatribe that stared about him leaving Ohio State a year early, and ended with him irresponsibly hypothesizing about what caused Haskins’ death.

“I hate any time anybody is killed or anybody dies, but he was a guy that was living to be dead, so to speak,” Brandt said. “They told him, don’t under any circumstances, don’t leave school early. You just don’t have the work habits, you don’t have this, you don’t have that. What did he do? He left school early. …

“Anytime anybody dies, it’s tragic, especially when you’re 24 years old and you’ve got your whole life ahead of you. But maybe if he’d stayed in school a year, he wouldn’t do silly things. I don’t know why he was jogging on a highway, on a road like that. That leaves it open. A guy has two drinks and he’s just a little bit to the right side of the road, and gets hit and killed. It’s easy to happen.”

That’s not to say that we should whitewash the deeds of someone just because they are recently deceased. Haskins did not pan out the way Washington hoped when they took him with the 15th overall pick and he did not make an impact on the field in his one season with the Steelers. Those are facts. Perhaps Haskins would have been better off returning to Ohio State in 2018. That’s less than certain, but given the way things worked out at least seems reasonable.

But those items need to be presented with care and grace. When a 24-year-old man, with his entire future ahead of him, is senselessly and tragically killed, how is the first thing to your mind his struggles as an NFL quarterback or whether he made the right decision to come out of college when he did?

Think about the person, their friends, their family and their teammates that have just been traumatized by the events that just occurred. 

That lack of empathy was seen around social media on Saturday, and while that behavior is no less abhorrent when employed by the masses, the professionals in the room need to know better. Brandt is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Schefter breaks half the league’s major news stories.

They should have taken the time to compose their thoughts in a sensitive manner, or kept them to themselves. Brandt later apologized for his remarks.

“This morning while learning of Dwayne Haskins’ passing, I reacted carelessly and insensitively on a radio interview,” he said. “I want to apologize to Mr. Haskins’ family and anyone who heard my poor choice of words. I truly apologize. My heart goes out to his family at this difficult time.”

Schefter probably should, too. Better yet would be to take the care to not be in the situation where an apology is required.

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