A Symbolic Equivalence
Imagine for a moment that a man named Jovan Belcher was a colleague at your office. Imagine that he was the driver for your child’s bus route. Perhaps he might have been a doctor or a cashier or a lawyer or anything besides a football player.
He murders his girlfriend, drives to your place of work and shoots himself in front of your supervisors after thanking them for all their support. He leaves behind a three-month-old child, whose future seems to hang in a dark cloud.
What would occur under the circumstances?
Your office would have been cordoned off as a crime scene. Work would have been suspended for a time. Certainly no one would try and rally around the dead, attempting to push forward, because it’s a workday and “that’s what you do.”
Would we criticize an office or a school or a business for closing during a time of mourning, contemplation, anger and grief? Would we think less of those involved if they chose to seek solace in the company of family and friends?
Wouldn’t we think something was amiss if they simply decided to resume their daily lives as quickly as possible? Get back to the grind. Work through the pain.
The tragedy involving Jovan Belcher, Kasandra Perkins and their daughter, Zoey, highlights the fundamental contradiction on which the NFL rests in modern America. When we hear of the cold realities of NFL life, of teams firing coaches and shipping out players, of the importance of respecting the bottom line and “getting it done," that the league’s acronym means “Not For Long," we say with a kind of untenable stoicism, “It’s a business. You move on.”
And yet, when the NFL is beset by criticism and tragedy, by misdeeds and crimes, we tell ourselves, “It’s not like other industries.” When Curt Menefee, one of Fox’s NFL sportscasters, noted that “real life had interjected itself into football” this past weekend, he failed to acknowledge the plain truth that football is a part of the fabric of our reality, and that all the league’s circus-like fanfare doesn’t make it a fantasy (via USA Today).
We suffer from the illusion that football is somehow distinct from the world in which we live and operate, that the people involved in the sport function on some other plane that divorces them from pain or hurt or trouble. You could see it today as the league’s many-faced television crews slowly lurched into an uncomfortable motion, discussing the day’s games, jabbering about coaching changes in the coming year, hocking the wares of its many sponsors. All after having led with the story of a now-deceased linebacker from West Babylon, N.Y.
In the wake of a murder-suicide involving a teammate, the Kansas City Chiefs and the league opted to push forward and play their regularly scheduled game. It was, perhaps, not an abdication of moral responsibility to do so. If I had been a friend or colleague of Belcher’s, I am not certain what I would have done.
Perhaps it was best to hold the game as scheduled for a brief moment of respite. We chose to have the game because it provides us normalcy, and allows us, however briefly, to be naïve and hopeful. But this was also the easiest route, in terms of cold logistics, in terms of emotional management and most certainly in terms of skirting the underlying problem.
What would have been hard, what would have been just and right, would have been cancelling the game and learning about the young man involved, about his wife, about his child. How best can we address the twin damnation of suicide and domestic violence?
That is the right fight. The mere fact of being present, the grieving, the acknowledgement that something of importance has happened beyond the bounds of a lousy game: Those are the battles in which we need to engage.
In any other field, would anyone be praising Jovan Belcher’s passion for his profession? Would news reports show footage of his colleagues reflecting on his past and, in that nostalgia, seeking the wherewithal to push forward?
Of course not. And yet, in seeking to unify and motivate his team, that is what Kansas City Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel did. It was a strange thing to behold, this lionizing of the dead, in the name of an arbitrary contest of yardage and point accumulation.
The NFL and all of its primary shareholders—players, coaches, officials and viewers—have a vested interest in studiously avoiding the fact of mental health problems in the sport. Whether it be the issue of concussions and brain damage or the emotional strain of playing on an NFL team, we seem unable to formulate the proper language to describe these issues.
But in the background of it all, if we choose to remember, is a powerful history of human suffering. It was not long ago that Junior Seau took his own life after finishing a long, storied career. It was not long ago that Dez Bryant was arraigned on charges of having beaten his own mother in an argument. It is the specter of our own fragility waiting in the wings.
Players talked about “fighting through the pain” and having a sense of pride in being strong. We talk about sticking together as a team and playing against the odds. But this is all an illusion. The challenge is the fact of terrible death, which, no matter how we distract ourselves, there is no avoiding.
Playing the game meant maintaining a standard in which football is paramount to all else. We excuse teams for hiring and defending players who are known criminals. We support a league that has always supported its own best interests above all else, the welfare of football above the welfare of its players, especially.
And it is a system in which we share complicity.
I do not know what the solution would have been for the Chiefs or the NFL. Hold the game on Monday or Thursday or whenever. The league can afford the revenue loss. Pay condolences to the families. Make sure the child is looked after. Start a fund that supports and seeks out those who have mental health issues.
Face the reality of the situation.
We might have had a mental health professional on some of the channels to discuss depression among athletes or domestic violence. After an entire month of pink-bedecked NFL paraphernalia in support of breast cancer survivors, the league could have brought on someone to talk about these issues.
There are so many problems to address and so many easy ways to start.
But instead, we focus on the game.