On Sean Keeler and Open Letters …

Jovan Belcher.

Jovan Belcher.

Back in the mid-1990s, when I was starting my career at The Tennessean, Nashville’s other daily newspaper (yes, the city used to have two functioning papers!), The Banner, hired a young sportswriter named Sean Keeler.

As soon as I read Sean’s stuff, I became jealous. He had a grasp of the English language I sorta lacked; he turned really smart and quick phrases; he was hyped by colleagues as a young up-and-comer who would inevitably do great things in the field. Being young and dumb and envious, I talked mucho smack about Sean. He was overrated, he was mediocre, he was … he was … he was …

Well, friggin’ awesome.

Two decades later, I still think Sean Keeler is an awesome writer. He’s worked in a bunch of different markets (Des Moines, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Arizona, San Francisco, Topeka), and whenever I stumble across his stuff it still has the same fastball zip of long ago. The guy can flat-out write. Period.

Hence, while the comments that ensue might seem critical—they come accompanied by the notation that I think Sean’s superb.

OK. Having just written a pretty gut-wrenching story on Jovan Belcher for Bleacher Report, I’ve been paying much attention to different pieces concerning the anniversary of his suicide. Some have been good, some have been lovely—yet the one that jumped off the screen was Sean’s column that appeared yesterday on Fox Sports. It was an open letter to Zoey Belcher, Jovan’s young daughter.

Again, I’m a big Sean Keeler guy. But as soon as I saw the words, “open letter,” I cringed. Generally, I don’t like journalists writing open letters on any occasion. But there’s something, well, wrong with writing an open letter to the 1-year-old daughter of dead parents. First off, an open letter isn’t truly an open letter—it’s a device … a way to convey a message to readers, via the somewhat insincere idea that it’s an open letter to the daughter. If someone truly wanted to write a letter to Zoey Belcher about her parents, well, he/she would almost certainly make it a closed letter—considering the seriousness of the subject matter.

Second off, who the hell is Sean Keeler to write a letter to Zoey Belcher? Who the hell is Andy Reid, or Jeff Pearlman, or Grand Master Flash, or Barack Obama, or Steve DeBerg, or James Taylor, or anyone, to write a letter to Zoey Belcher? This is a girl who is growing up without her parents. Whose mother was murdered by her father. Whose father held a gun to his brain and fired off a bullet. This is a girl whose name—Belcher—will forever be attached with the most awful moment in NFL history. She doesn’t need a letter from a stranger, and certainly doesn’t need an open letter from a sports columnist. It’s just … not cool.

My career (and especially my early career) is an ode to tasteless and poor moments. I’ve had 1,001 of them. I’m certainly not the guy to be pointing fingers. Sometimes, however, even the best writers need an editor to say, “Eh, not the way to go about this one …”

Such was the case here.

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