How Can They Play? Murder, Suicide and the National Football League

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.

16 Reader Comments | Add a comment

Just Curious

I do wonder if they polled NFL players to play or not to play, what would be the result?

How can we play

Thank you for the well written new article. I wish all of the new stations comments were relevant. The article is right on. I think it opened my eyes to more than just the game.


Sport and society

I plan to share your new column, which is spot-on, with others readers. What would the NFL and the corporations that it does business with have lost with a cancelled game on Sunday?

Professional Sports

Thank you for writng this article and carefully choosing your thoughts and words about our nations youth who believe that murdering a loved one is an answer to one's own personal issues. The NFL will NOT do anything differently to address the many different reasons why these senseless acts of violence are becoming the norm, on and off the field, and not the exception.

I am not surprised

Both of these teams were not playoff potential. Therefore, the game could have been moved to Monday! But you are looking at too much money at stake, including the world of gambling... I was a college teammate of Andre Waters, and I am curious to see if Belcher had any concussions... But well written article, Dave.

Posting This Article Everywhere

This is what I wrote as I spread this important piece by Dave Zirin:

"As the morons in the mainstream sports media embrace the NFL's decision to play on Sunday after the tragic suicide and killing of Kasandra Perkins by Jovan Belcher, Dave Zirin (as always) raises the necessary questions and frames the issue of violence in the NFL perfectly."

Thank you

I thought I was the only one out there who thought the game should have been cancelled or postponed. The NFL is so, so, so messed up in regard to its priorities.

Should they have played

I was on the 2001 NY Jets team and I can say that there were a number of us who wanted to play and it was put to a vote in the team meeting and the majority won. I don't know what the Chiefs did but we were told when i was at the jets that it was up to us. Afterwards, many players wished we would have played to not have given so much attention to the horrible act of 9/11. This event, as tragic as it is, I hope was decided by the players. If that was the case, then all we can do is support it. However, it doesn't dismiss the lack of support and effort the NFL fails to deliver with helping and counseling players how to manage the stage they are on and when the lights no longer shine for them.

Corporate Greed

This is another classic example of the greed and money hungry 1%. The most violent and vicious country in the world. I would expect nothing less than the game must go on, tickets have been sold, hot dogs have been made, beer to be purchased and TV revenue (Millions) to be made. Capitalism at it's best!!!!!
We then wonder why the world is so off balance. Why people's basic humanity is out of sorts.

glad I didn't

thanks for writing the article, DZ. when I heard they were going to play the game, I suddenly couldn't watch any of it (I usually turn it on if one of my former teammates or friends are playing).

so glad I turned down that booster that offered to give me money to play college football.

the only thing I was thinking, at the time, was that I didn't want someone making money from my talents, but now I'm glad that my body and mental health were spared.

More please

Dave, what still perplexes me is the grey area I've seen where folks are reluctant to talk about Belcher's act as, well, wrong. I keep seeing, "what he did wasn't right but...". Where is the justice for Kasandra Perkins? Because Belcher committed suicide, does this mean there is no outrage for what he did to Perkins and her family?

Much attention is paid to the welfare of the child but Perkins' life seems not to be worth noting. There is a sense of the expendable nature of this woman, referred to as his "lover" or "girlfriend" but not as a woman in her own right, entitled to a life without violence and murder.

I was hoping you'd touch on this in this week's column as no-one else seems interested.


When it was reported that the Carolina Panthers were flying to Kansas for last Sunday's game, I couldn't believe it was business as usual in the NFL. It only goes to show that the NFL is fast becoming a non-human enterprise.

Thank you, M

Your comment has been very much on my mind. I do think Dave touches on it, in providing the links on domestic violence and the links to concussion, but still, this was a murder first, and a suicide second. Many of the early headlines, at least, almost completely glossed over this.

Article is retarded

What everyone here seems to be forgetting is that the NFL is a business. 35 Billion all together Stop and think about that for a moment. Something needs to be said about getting back in the swing of things as soon as possible. The world still spins with or without this tragedy Exactly wtf do people expect ? a moment of silence maybe? At MOST. This equates in my mind to the violinists from titanic. Its a sense of calm/normalcy and also solidarity to continue to do wtf it is you do no matter what happens.

Its not just the pros

Check out how serious this high school takes the game.

Covering up a gang rape?

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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
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