Last Sunday evening, New Orleans police officers found themselves investigating the lifeless body of a man lying face up with multiple bullet wounds in a grass patch beneath a highway overpass in the city's 7th Ward, home to the famous Jazz and Heritage Festival. They did discover he was 31.
The Thursday before, the New Orleans Coroner's Office identified a 23-year-old man found shot to death on March 31 — and reported to be good friends with a 30-year-old man found shot dead earlier in March in another neighborhood — in a car also in the 7th Ward.
But the nation didn't hear of those shooting deaths in the city for which so much of America professes adoration. Instead, it heard only of the shooting death of a 34-year-old man in New Orleans that came in between. Road rage triggered it, the first reports stated. The nation heard about it all, in great detail and with grainy security camera video clips, on the national news and via sports outlets.
For what distinguished this death of Will Smith, who Saturday became New Orleans murder victim No. 31 this year, from that of the still-unidentified man beneath the overpass — and Norman Lyons and Shedric Morgan in March — was fame as an athlete. Smith starred several seasons as a defensive end for the Saints, including the year they won the Super Bowl. He signed his last contract with the Saints, who drafted him, in 2008.
Smith stood 6 feet 3, weighed 282 pounds and was the 18th player selected in the 2004 NFL draft. He made first-team All-America at Ohio State and helped lead the Buckeyes to the national championship.
Other than that, Smith was like almost all of the other homicide victims in New Orleans — young, male and black. It is our country's demographic with, for whatever myriad reasons, the highest mortality rate because of gun violence. No other group is even close. And it doesn't seem like most of us pay much attention until it is someone like Smith.
This is the other reason we need the social-media hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. It's not just about the extra-judicial killings of young black men. Almost half of all homicide victims in the latest FBI data in 2014 were, again, black males. And for black males between the ages of 15 and 34, or right where Smith and the other recent New Orleans victims were newly buried, the No. 1 cause of death was homicide. The vast majority got dropped, like Smith, by guns, particularly handguns.
What just unfolded and shocked so many of us was not new. It became epidemic years ago. The outrage was little more than a memorable refrain.
My damn city is sick!!! So sad to hear about Will Smith's passing. This is getting ridiculous. It's a fricking car ACCIDENT! RIP big homie! Ryan Clark tweeted.
To kill someone. I ain't a coward, and I can understand how precious life is.... It's the only one we got! Why would i steal that from a man? wrote Tyrann Mathieu.
Clark and Mathieu grew up in New Orleans. Clark just survived the demographic. He recently retired in 2015 from a 13-year NFL career at 35. Mathieu could turn 24 next month.
The analytics suggest he could use a little more luck on his side than black males anywhere else. Indeed, Emily Lane at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans crunched numbers from the annual Violence Policy Center report in January 2015 and concluded: "A black person in Louisiana was five times more likely to be killed in a homicide than a person of any race in any state in the country."
Unfortunately, such chilling statistics go ignored until they befall someone we're familiar with as a fellow human being, like Smith. Smith just became one of upward of 5,000 black homicide victims in the country who will be killed this year by guns. He appeared an outlier as a pro athlete. Most others will lay where they were found, or expire en route to or in a hospital, in virtual anonymity.
How epidemic this has become? Neither wealth, education nor apparent maturity was a prophylactic in Smith's demise. Smith's last contract with the Saints paid him $70 million over six years, of which $26 million was guaranteed. Smith was so conscientious about being a student that after turning pro he returned to Ohio State to complete his degree work. He graduated in 2005 with a bachelor's in criminology. Ironically (or maybe coincidentally), police investigating the crime scene at which Smith was shot revealed Tuesday that they uncovered a loaded 9mm in Smith's SUV.
It's like Sean Taylor, who was shot and killed in November 2007 in his gated Miami-area home by an intruder, all over again. The details — road rage or home invasion — really don't matter. It's the same result.
Where the victims come from doesn't matter. What they do for a living, or if they have a living, doesn't factor in. Went to college? Dropped out of high school? So what? Lived in a tough part of town or the toniest? Whatever.
One of the victims in New Orleans the past month was facing cases for firearms charges, resisting arrest and cocaine possession, and nine years ago pled guilty to attempted armed robbery, for which he caught a five-year prison sentence. No matter. Smith and he wound up caught by the same pathology, the same statistical cesspool.
The site where Smith was downed was turned into the familiar memorial site. Flowers. Candles. Stuffed animals. Saints paraphernalia. The team announced it would hold a public celebration of Smith's life before Smith's family memorializes him next weekend. Fans were told they could donate to Smith's foundation, Where There's a Will There's a Way.
If there is a way, hopefully it will be that more of us, especially in the media, get as exorcised for the yet-unidentified black gun-murder victims, and otherwise not-famous black males killed by guns, as we do the Smiths and Taylors who tragically dot murder maps everywhere we live. And that we stop wringing our hands over solutions to the carnage but find the courage to demand them.
— Washington Post
Kevin B. Blackistone is an ESPN panelist and visiting professor of journalism at the University of Maryland.