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Brandon Roy Shooting Story Exposes Sad Side of News Cycle

How much do we really need to know when tragedy hits a public figure?

Portland Trail Blazers v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

As most of our readers will know by now, former Portland Trail Blazers All-Star Brandon Roy was involved in a shooting incident last weekend, news of which broke on Tuesday evening and continues to create ripples today. The story has been extended over several news cycles not just because of the severity of the incident, but because the media has been left in the dark, scrambling to fill in details that are slow in coming to light. Here’s a non-comprehensive look at the path this story has run since its initial incarnation:

  • Steve Bunin of King 5 Seattle breaks the news that Roy was involved in a shooting incident, terming him an “innocent bystander” and the event “possibly gang-related”. Bunin reports that Roy is recovering in Washington.
  • Two high schoolers of Roy’s acquaintance tweet that the story is false, a case of mistaken identity.
  • KIRO News 7 in Seattle backs up the story, adding details that Roy was shot in a car and hit in the leg.
  • Sam Amick of USA Today reports that Roy was shielding children outside his grandmother’s house.
  • The high-school acquaintances begin to backtrack their tweets, protecting accounts and deleting material.
  • KCBS in Los Angeles adds Roy was at a family barbecue, in the street, and that he was actually shot in the hamstring and butt.
  • TMZ claims that law-enforcement officers confirm that an ex-NBA player was shot in Compton over the weekend.
  • The LA Times puts the number of wounded at four, quotes the Sheriff’s Department saying all were men and were gathered for an indeterminate reason
  • KING 5 updates with the news that a different Sheriff’s Department representative and family members confirm that Roy was shielding one of his nieces
  • The Seattle Times resurrects the possibility that Roy was not involved at all, citing another high-schooler who had talked to Roy
  • That story extends to Portland radio, with another Sheriff’s Department rep saying that the “Brandon Roy” who was shot has not called them back so they could not confirm 100% that he was the NBA player but circumstantially it appeared to be him.

As you can see, information has drizzled out from multiple sources, lending an air of confusion, exposing a presumed need—if not desperation—for the media to report and the public to know the exact details of the situation.

As I’ve followed, a single question has arisen in my mind: Why?

Not why was Roy shot...why do we feel such a compulsive need to know all this?

Certain things we do need to know. Who was shot? Is he recovering and is the prognosis good? These are basic, human questions we’d ask about anybody we’ve come into contact with who experienced something like this. We want to know how someone is doing. We need to know whether to wish well or mourn. These things are part of being a community.

But where a bullet hit, who the perpetrators were, what company the victim was keeping...I suppose these are interesting facts, maybe pertinent, but how much do they change the basic, human story? We may need to know them as a matter of curiosity, but do we really need to know them NOW? Do they belong in the same, “breaking news” banner as, “Here’s what happened, he’s doing fine now”?

A few weeks ago I happened to be listening to talk radio when news of an international tragedy broke, one of those unfortunate events in which people lost their lives. Before the report was complete—as facts were drizzling in—people were already calling in convinced that they knew the characteristics and motive of the perpetrators. They were ready to frame the event, explaining both its meaning and the proper response on-site and half a world away.

While this was going on, it struck me that the real event didn’t matter much. The whole thing was simply a piece of people’s narrative. Consume enough facts to find some greater purpose in it, find someone to blame, shout it out to the world, then box up the whole thing and move on. I could not help thinking that somewhere, family members of the victims were still in shock, trying to process a tangible, immediate loss that would alter the course of their lives forever. Real people had died in their world. On my radio those people didn’t matter except as objects...bit players in a great, internal monologue. The people on the airwaves and the media frantically delivering the details didn’t harm the victims in the way the perpetrator had, but that doesn’t mean that the victims got to be human either.

Sports themselves are a narrative. People bouncing an orange ball doesn’t mean much on its own. We create stories and significance around sporting events, erecting heroes and fabricating villains. Athletes become larger than life. Communities gather around them; today’s 30-point game becoming tomorrow’s legend.

Sports are also played by real human beings. They are compensated well for their time in the spotlight. They tacitly agree to adopt larger-than-life personas, bearers of hope or devastation. Some even grow to believe it.

When those two roles—legend and human—come into conflict, as happens when real-life tragedy intrudes on the sports world, which is more important? How far can the need for narrative reach before it becomes dehumanizing?

Narrative is certainly playing its part in the Roy story. The initial “gang-related” adjective implied a possibly shady environment...not implicating Roy directly, but where was he??? Could this encroach on our lives? Is the world getting worse? As details rolled out and the “protecting kids” element took the fore, Roy was hailed as a hero across swaths of social and traditional media. This became a story of good triumphing over bad. But wait! Was it really him? It’s a Perry Mason mystery too!

Somehow in this fog of story-crafting the next tiny detail of where Roy was shot—latitude/longitude and body location both—could make a critical difference. A car! A porch! A street! The leg! No, upper body! Wait...butt and hamstring! Lord only knows how critical the physical factor would have been deemed had Roy still been playing in the NBA. Can losing more games be balanced out by the headline, “All-Star Sacrifices Career to Save Niece”?

I do not want to take away one bit from Brandon Roy’s actions. I’m glad he protected his niece. I’m glad she wasn’t shot. I don’t know if this was an act of heroism, instinct, or something else entirely. I’m guessing this isn’t how he wanted to spend his day whether the bullets hit him from the front, behind, or anywhere else. I’m guessing in moments like these, it’s more important to respect, honor, and wish health to the human Brandon Roy than it is to create a narrative around his actions.

In my view, moments like this are exactly when such narratives fall apart. Roy was doing an admirable, yet human thing. He paid a cost in his own, human body for it. That should be enough. Yet we want more. We want to weave stories around it. We’re still keeping score. Does Brandon get extra Hero Points if the shooting was gang-related instead of random? Does his Hero Rating go down if he was defending a fellow grown man instead of a child? Does the heroic narrative disappear entirely if this was a different Brandon Roy, just a non-famous guy doing the same thing? Do we even care anymore at that point?

What about those high school acquaintances of Roy’s? Do they get to run through the gamut of emotions like normal high-schoolers would—confused, wondering if it’s real, hoping it’s not, expressing doubts, retracting same—or should they get swept up in the narrative too? How about Roy’s family, who still has to live in the exact place where this occurred and maybe see people involved on all sides? Do they have an obligation to go public to satiate our need to know? How about Roy himself? Does he need to field phone calls from media members to give a play-by-play of one of the worst events of his life to their audience, neither of which would have remembered that he even existed on a given Wednesday—let alone called to see how he was doing—had he not just been the victim of a horrifying crime?

How much do we really need to know? And what are we doing to people in our quest to craft that all-important story?

I’m good with almost anything when it comes to sports. Want a hundred reasons to hate the Lakers? I can write that post. Need minute details on Clyde Drexler’s Finals runs and why he led one of the greatest teams that ever existed? Two thousand words coming up. But the line has to be drawn somewhere.

For me, this is it.

I don’t need to know the details of this incident. I don’t need to know where the bullet entered, whether Brandon was in a car or on a porch, or what he was doing when it all happened. I don’t need to guess at his motive or mental state as he was curled around his niece. I don’t need to craft a story around those things.

Here’s what I know: a person my life has intersected with had something very bad happen to them. They’re apparently going to recover and I’m grateful for that. As one human being to another, I’m praying for their health and hoping the best for them in all ways. I’m sad that this happens to any human being, that people feel the need to threaten or take lives, and that real pain comes of it. I hope the moments of comfort and togetherness that follow for Brandon and his family will outweigh the fear that must come along with having something like this happen. Anything beyond that that he, or they, care to share is fine, but not necessary. He might want to tell, but that doesn’t mean we need to ask.

Famous human beings are still human beings. NBA players deserve to be treated as such, so do their families and everyone around them. Our “need to know” ends at the exact moment that stops happening. Too often we don’t realize that. Those are not our best moments.

—Dave / @Blazersedge / @DaveDeckard