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Remembering Joe McKnight

A man who deserved better than this death on hard asphalt

On Sunday, Buffalo Bills running back Reggie Bush wore cleats to honor his fellow USC Trojan Joe McKnight. They are red and gold, and Bush added this hashtag to the tweeted announcement: #FightOn.

McKnight’s murder was stunning for many in the NFL and beyond, and yet agonizingly familiar.

In 2010 I was covering the New York Jets when McKnight was drafted from USC in the fourth round. He arrived wiry and unfit, this running back with an elite pedigree who was struggling to make it through his first rookie minicamp.

That was the summer Hard Knocks came to Cortland, New York. McKnight got a scripted storyline that he couldn’t even watch on Tuesdays when each episode would play on televisions in the dorms where the players stayed. He started growing a beard and said he wouldn’t cut it until he got back into the coaches’ good graces.

Reggie Bush #22 of the Buffalo Bills wears special cleats in memory of former NFL player Joe McKnight prior to their NFL game against the Oakland Raiders at Oakland Alameda Coliseum on December 4, 2016 in Oakland, California. McKnight was shot and killed in Terrytown, Louisiana on Thursday.

Reggie Bush (No. 22) of the Buffalo Bills wears special cleats in memory of former NFL player Joe McKnight before their NFL game against the Oakland Raiders at Oakland Alameda Coliseum on Dec. 4 in Oakland, California. McKnight was shot and killed in Terrytown, Louisiana, on Dec. 1.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Training camp was upstate, near the Finger Lakes, and the sunsets would come yellow and pink late on a summer day. Grizzled special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff, who walked with a cane after battling cancer in his leg, called McKnight a “lost soul” when he arrived. Eventually, McKnight came to hold a special place in Westhoff’s heart and became an ace kick returner, but McKnight didn’t cut his beard until well after the team broke camp that summer.

McKnight really wanted to be great, there was just a lot in between where he was and where he wanted to go. But that endeared him to the people around him. He was funny and laid back, and it was easy to relate to his own frustration with not being just a little bit better every day. If he couldn’t be honest with you, he’d prefer not to talk at all. He’d hold a media blackout when he wasn’t playing well or believed that his words were taken out of context by one of the writers. I’d always ask if today was the day he’d talk, and he’d apologize and say it wasn’t.

McKnight was shot to death in the middle of the street, in broad daylight on Dec. 1 in front of several witnesses, apparently in a road dispute. He didn’t have a gun or any other weapon. Ronald Gasser admitted to killing McKnight. These facts are not in dispute. Yet, after questioning from Jefferson Parish sheriff’s officer, Gasser was released without charges.

There’s a video on Facebook that show’s McKnight’s lifeless body in the street as a police officer performs chest compressions until the ambulance arrives. “That man just got out and shot that man,” a woman’s voice says as CPR continues.

That’s how McKnight died in the street from three bullet wounds.

New York Jets running back Joe McKnight walks through the end zone during the half of an NFL football game against the Washington Redskins in Landover, Md., Sunday, Dec. 4, 2011.

New York Jets running back Joe McKnight walks through the end zone during the half of an NFL football game against the Washington Redskins in Landover, Maryland, on Dec. 4, 2011.

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

“We think a black man was lynched yesterday,” New Orleans NAACP director Morris Reed Sr. told NOLA.com.

McKnight’s death has immediate context and it’s impossible to ignore. Yet, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand said we need to wait for the facts to come out.

“Everyone wants to make this about race, this isn’t about race,” Normand said.

It’s clear the white sheriff doesn’t want this to be about race, a white man gunning down an unarmed black man. I want to believe that there are additional facts that will make sense of this all, that don’t just blame a dead man who can no longer give testimony on his own behalf.

I’m angry that McKnight was killed and his killer wasn’t charged. I’m not going to hide that. When you read this column, there is emotion behind it for the player I covered, a man who deserved better than this death on hard asphalt as people drove by.

It’s disturbing that a police department is weighing the idea of self-defense instead of a jury of McKnight’s peers. Peers such as former Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who tweeted, “You tell how can a man murder someone go get to sleep in his bed at night. But my brother can’t. What the hell am I to tell my nephew.”

Parents of black children have always had to have the talk about how to interact with police officers, but the idea that an unarmed black man can be legally shot and killed by any other citizen over a perceived threat is abhorrent. The memory of Trayvon Martin is still raw. That can’t be the new reality in this country.

Black men are assumed to be a threat where others aren’t, and their humanity is slowly erased after their deaths. That’s part of the reason San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick undertook his controversial protest during the national anthem this season.

New York Jets running back Joe McKnight (25) dives into the end zone for a touchdown as Houston Texans'

New York Jets running back Joe McKnight (No. 25) dives into the end zone for a touchdown as Houston Texans’ DeVier Posey (No. 11) and Troy Nolan (No. 33) trail during the second half of an NFL football game on Oct. 8, 2012, in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Kaepernick’s movement found support among other NFL players early on, but as the weeks wore on under criticism, there haven’t been as many fists in the air. Now that one of their own is tragically among the dead, is a pregame moment of silence enough to contain all the disappointment and sadness that comes with his murder?

I watched Normand’s Dec. 2 press conference. Whether Gasser will be arrested appears to hinge on the idea of self-defense.

“When [police officers] shoot and kill someone, it’s a homicide; the question is, is it justified or not,” Normand said, saying that a rush to judgment could hurt the case. “… The easiest thing for me would have been, ‘Book ’em, Danno.’ ”

And in fairness, the facts of an autopsy contradict some of the witness testimony reported by local media outlets. The coroner’s report refutes witness testimony that Gasser stood over McKnight and fired. All three casings were found in Gasser’s car, meaning he fired them from inside the vehicle. The sheriff said he couldn’t control social media, but he didn’t appreciate the second-guessing of his office.

“If we want to continue to be silly, that’s fine,” Normand said.

“Silly.” Normand spoke to the assembled press and possible protesters with the same tone you might use for naughty toddlers. He told protesters that if they blocked a road, they’d go to jail.

Unlike the man who shot McKnight.

Gasser was cited in another road rage incident at the same intersection in 2006. When asked about that during the press conference, Normand said he didn’t know all the details. It was odd, given the similarity in the cases, that Normand either wasn’t aware of them or chose not to share them with reporters. Here are two details – Gasser was arrested in that incident for punching the alleged victim, who was a white man. Charges were later dropped.

When someone tells you it’s not about race, you have to ask yourself, why is it so important to that person that this isn’t about race? We have white nationalists empowered by a new administration, hate crimes on the rise and the KKK planning a victory march and yet, we all have to allow for the possibility that unconscious bias isn’t killing people, that it isn’t what killed McKnight. The facts may tell us something new and unexpected.

In order to draw a full picture of what took place before the shooting, the police are looking to interview witnesses other than Gasser, who successfully spoke in his own defense.

And yet, there’s one witness who will remain silent.

Goodbye, Joe. May your family and teammates get answers to the questions about your senseless death, and have the justice they deserve.