The NFL has a long and shameful history in handling tragedy. The league played as planned on the Sunday after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. They were going to play the Sunday after 9/11 until the New York Jets rebelled and Major League Baseball cancelled its own schedule forcing the NFL to follow suit. Now we have another example of a sport absent of perspective.
On Saturday morning, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed the mother of his three-month-old child, 22-year-old Kasandra Perkins. Then he drove to the Chiefs facility and took his own life in front of head coach Romeo Crennel, defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs and general manager Scott Pioli. By Saturday afternoon, it had been announced that the Chiefs would play Sunday at home against the Carolina Panthers as planned. CBS Sports had even, stunningly, factored Belcher’s suicide into whether he was a wise pick-up for fantasy football players. There would be no postponement, no mourning, and no space for his teammates to come to grips with what happened. On the highest possible cultural platform, the NFL told the world that the death of a 22-year-old woman, the suicide of a player and the mental state of his teammates is secondary to the schedule.
The pretense of both the NFL and Chiefs owner Clark Hunt for playing as planned was that the team captains and Coach Crennel wanted to take the field. Even if we accept this at face value, and we shouldn’t in a league as tightly controlled as the NFL, it’s difficult to understand why this was their decision and not the decision of the league in conjunction with mental health professionals. The Chiefs and the NFL are also taking pains to say that professional grief counselors would be present at the game. I have not been unable to unearth who these people actually are and what their credentials might be, but how serious can they be about their presumed oath to “do no harm” if they are sending Chiefs players into harm’s way under relative states of shock? I have interviewed a great many NFL players and they always say that the playing field is most dangerous when you are distracted. It’s difficult to not see the NFL’s insistence that this is the decision of the Chiefs organization alone as an exercise in public relations as well as a shield against their own liability.
There is so much we don’t know about why Jovan Belcher did what he did. There are things we do know, however. We know that this is the NFL’s fourth suicide involving current and former players in the last year. We know that violence against women and alienation from loving relationships is a proven product of playing this violent game. We also know that concussions and head injuries have been linked to domestic violence, mental illness, and suicide. This subject is so on the mind of NFL owners that Gary Hunt, unprompted, made a point to say to reporters that Belcher was “a player who had not had a long concussion history.” Despite Hunt’s words, a friend of Belcher e-mailed the website Deadspin to say otherwise.
We will learn more about the aggravating factors in Belcher’s actions in the days and weeks to come. For now, we should remember that there are things more important than football, like a three-month-old child that will now be without parents, a 22-year-old woman whose life is finished and a 25-year-old man with a bright future who in a fit of anger and despair took two lives. That’s the message that the NFL is choosing not to send.
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn, in the immediate aftermath of this tragedy, said something we can only hope the players will hear and take to heart.
“It’s hard mostly because I keep thinking about what I could have done to stop this. I think everyone is wondering whether we would have done something to prevent this from happening…. As players and teammates, we need to do a better job of reaching out to people and trying to be more involved and more invested in their lives. You never really know what’s going on in someone life, what they’re struggling with or what they’re battling through.”
Players do need to be more “involved and invested” in one another’s lives. It’s hard to see who else in the power structure of the NFL will look out for them if they aren’t looking out for one another.
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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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