A Round of Tragedy

Frank Stallone scoured the country last year looking for boxers for The Contender, the upcoming NBC reality show produced by his brother, Sylvester Stallone. Najai Turpin impressed him at the tryouts in Philadelphia because Turpin was “tough, strong and he came to fight,” says the veteran musician and actor.

Then came the news last week that the 23-year-old Turpin, one of 16 contestants on the show, had committed suicide.

His death shocked and mystified both his longtime friends in Philadelphia and the television professionals who worked with him in Los Angeles this fall.

“I just said, 'Oh, Jesus, oh man, this is terrible,” Stallone recalls.

The nature of suicide is such that the motivation behind it can never be truly known. The Contender will premiere as scheduled on March 7, but Turpin's death has raised questions about the reality-TV business. How much liability do these shows bear for possible psychological damage that contestants carry away from them? And could a reality series be held responsible if it caused mental anguish that appears to play a role in a suicide?

“Mental anguish is usually named with other specified insured perils, like bodily injury,” says Brian Kingman, senior vice president for television insurance specialist Aon/Albert G. Ruben, Los Angeles. In other words, in the event of a lawsuit, reality shows would be protected by the umbrella liability protection that producers almost reflexively sign up for before filming.

Mental Fitness

If an insurance claim proceeded to court, according to legal experts, survivors of a reality-TV contestant who committed suicide would need to prove both the negligence of producers and “causality,” or a direct link between the person's experience on the show and the contestant's death. Series produced by Contender executive producer Mark Burnett such as Survivor and The Apprentice, according to one lawyer familiar with the genre's legal issues, are known for requiring extensive waivers of responsibility from contestants and for thorough psychological testing of participants' mental fitness. (Turpin's is not the first suicide associated with reality TV. On the original Survivor, a Swedish show not produced by Burnett, a participant committed suicide after being voted out.)

In addition to the psychological vetting, it is now commonplace for reality shows to offer counseling to contestants, according to Suzanne Zachary, a clinical psychologist who has consulted on more than 30 unscripted series, including Big Brother and Average Joe. “Aftercare is always made available,” as well, says Zachary. Having worked with more than 1000 contestants, she notes, “only one or two” have ever availed themselves of counseling after the shows have completed production— and in those cases, the contestants wanted to discuss personal problems unrelated to their TV experience.

Najai Turpin certainly had several possible sources of pressure or unhappiness in his life. His mother died when he was 18, and in the absence of his father, caring for his younger brother and sister, as well as a niece and nephew, fell to him. He also had a 2-year-old daughter with his girlfriend.

When the Contender production wrapped in November, everything had been filmed except the live championship bout that would play out in Las Vegas on May 24.

Turpin returned home to Philadelphia (NBC will not disclose how far he got in the competition), where he was being paid $1,500 weekly by the show as part of an agreement that prevented the boxers from going into the ring before the series aired.

an unlikely candidate

Turpin's manager, Percy “Buster” Custus, who had known him since childhood, says he has no idea what could have prompted Turpin to take his own life. “He was the one guy I never had to worry about,” says Custus. He dismisses the possibility that Turpin's experience on The Contender had any impact on his emotional stability, but Custus did note a change in Turpin's behavior after he returned from Los Angeles. He seemed to chafe at the prohibition on boxing, says Custus, who wonders if Turpin knew how to handle the frustration. “He was going out to clubs, doing stuff he never used to do. I'd have to go in there and say, 'What are you doing in a bar?'”

Stallone says Turpin's personality made him an unlikely candidate for reality-TV stardom. “He was unusually quiet. Kind of a hard guy to read, and kind of a suspicious person. People from certain neighborhoods, you've got to get to know them and they've got to get to know you.”

Stallone says he would have liked one more conversation with Turpin. “You almost wish you could shake him and go, 'Wait a second, pal. You only had to wait 2½ more weeks” until the show's debut. “Win or lose, the publicity—the machine—would've been awesome,” Stallone says. “I would've said, 'It could change your life. Just hold on. Things can't be that bad.'”