'Contender' boxer Najai Turpin's suicide related to custody dispute, not reality TV demands
By Wade Paulsen, 03/03/2005
Both Philadelphia police and the family of boxer Najai 'Nitro' Turpin, 23, have concluded that his Valentines' Day suicide was unrelated to his appearance on NBC's upcoming The Contender reality-competition show.
Philadelphia police told the New York Daily News that Najai and his long-time girlfriend Angela Chapple had been arguing in his car over custody of their 2-year-old daughter Anyae Chapple in the early morning hours of February 14, 2005. At around 4 AM, Angela Chapple left the car, and Turpin fired the fatal shot into his own head.
When contacted by Access Hollywood, Chapple disputed the police description that she and Najai had had a dispute or altercation prior to his suicide. However, at least one of Najai's six siblings (five brothers and a sister) isn't so sure.
Appearing on Access Hollywood yesterday, Diediera Turpin, 29, said, "The one question that everyone wants to know, 'What did [Angela] say to him inside the car that day to make him just lose it?'" He acknowledged the uncertainty about the in-car conversation -- "We don't have no knowledge of what happened" -- but noted that Angela had not talked to any member of the Turpin family since she witnessed Najai's death. All Najai's brothers and sisters know is that "we don't have a brother no more, that he is gone."
For her part, Angela Chapple, who also appears on The Contender with Najai, issued a written statement the day after Najai's suicide that did not address the final minutes of his life: "[Najai] was mine for the last seven years of our lives. As in all relationships we had our issues, but in our bond we had more love than issues. What he did to himself was terrible and everyone who knew and loved him will miss him. Because of the kind of man that he was, the impact of his loss will affect everyone deeply."
In a previous interview with the Philadelphia Daily News, Najai's sister Launita, 20, said that Najai had been very pleased with his portrayal on TV. "He was so excited. He couldn't wait to see the expressions of people when they saw him on TV. He reached his goal. He got to TV. He was famous. He told me he could do anything. He was rich," she said.
In yesterday's interview, Diediera echoed that sentiment. "The show was never the problem, definitely. Boxing and all of that was never the problem. The focus, everything, just comes back to the relationship. Like I said, it was a personal problem."
If anything about the show may have been a factor in Najai's death, in Launita's view it may have been the $1,500/week stipend paid to the boxers to keep in shape while waiting for the show to air. She noted that "lately he wasn't training like he was. He just wanted to go partying. He was tired a lot. He'd go out a lot, then come home and sleep on the couch. He told me he was too tired to train."
On the day of Najai's death, he was slated to go back to the Poconos to resume training. In the finale of The Contender, a championship match will be fought between the final two fighters, of which Najai was not one, but undercard matches will feature boxers chosen by the public from the eliminated contestants. Might Najai have been one of them had he lived?
Executive producer Mark Burnett certainly felt he might be. Burnett told the NY Daily News that Najai "would have very, very likely been chosen to fight again" because "everybody loved Najai. Even though he was a ferocious fighter, he was a cuddly teddy bear."
Although the facts indicate that the suicide was not related to the show, several writers who dislike reality TV didn't hesitate before exploiting Najai's death to trash both The Contender and reality TV in general. Typical of that genre of article was Brian Lowry of Daily Variety, who leveled this broadside at reality TV:
Five years ago, the Chicken Littles among us were warning this would happen, that it was only a matter of time before somebody died in connection with one of these programs.... Maybe [Najai] was disturbed, maybe a background check didn't detect signs that he was suicidal, maybe he would have done this anyway, without becoming a "Contender."
Maybe, but I have my doubts, just as I doubt this latest black eye on the unscripted genre will yield any long-term changes, or that Burnett's image will be stained by his knee-jerk "the show must go on" (must it? really?) response.
Variety clearly has decided to not let the facts get in the way of a good story. At least Lowry expresses that his hostitlity is a product of only his "doubts," not the facts.
Later in the article, though, Lowry goes further. Through the use of an unidentified, anonymous source, he charges the producers of The Contender with "at the very least[,] negligence in the casting process -- either in conducting an insufficient background and psychological check or in overlooking red flags."
Perhaps Lowry is an expert in undisclosed psychiatric research, but we have never been aware that there was ANY test that would disclose "red flags" with regard to future personal and psychiatric problems that would be so accurate that the failure to heed them would rise to the level of "negligence" (a term with a well-defined legal meaning) . If Variety is aware of such tests, it should disclose them.
Equally willing to jump to condemnations is the entertainment website Zap2it.com. In an article reporting on a conference call about Najai by show producers, writer Daniel Fienberg slipped in this comment:
While pinning any direct blame for Turpin's death on the "Contender" crew may be harsh, there's little doubt that the show's unexpectedly lengthy delay did little to help the fragile fighter's condition.
"Little doubt" that the delay hurt Najai? In fact, based on the comments of Najai's sister Launita, Najai may have looked upon the continuation of the $1,500/week payments as a blessing. There simply does not seem to be any evidence that the delay harmed Najai in any way, except perhaps by giving him more time to get used to a weekly paycheck from the show's producers.
After several years, reality television viewers have come to grudgingly accept that -- as is their prerogative -- many entertainment writers regard reality TV as a blight on the small screen. Their readers also have their own prerogative however -- the right to wonder if those same highbrow journalists have done the public a significant disservice by allowing their clear anti-reality bias to result in the presentation of a factually-false picture of Najai's death.