By Ben Holcomb
A woman was murdered on Saturday December 1st, in Kansas City, Missouri. Her murderer fled to his place of work, the practice facility of a professional football team, before kneeling down next to a car and raising a gun to his own head. He lost his life that day. And yet, a little more than 24 hours later, they played on.
The Kansas City Chiefs and the Carolina Panthers engaged in a meaningless athletic competition beneath the immense shadow of a unimaginable tragedy. Both teams were safely out of the way of the oncoming playoffs, marred in an irrelevancy that made their game unnecessary even before Saturday’s events. Romeo Crennel was in the presence of Jovan Belcher, the troubled Chief’s linebacker, when he committed suicide. He saw it all. And yet there he was on Sunday with a headset on, trying to coach his team to victory. As if victories mattered.
But it’s what the city of Kansas City would’ve wanted, they said. It’s what they needed to heal. That’s the word we got on Saturday afternoon, after what we can only hope was some amount of deliberation. It’s a terrible statement on what sport has become in our culture today, and that is that of an idol. When the Twin Towers collapsed on 9/11, there was push back from the NFL about whether or not they’d cancel their games for that week. They ultimately did, but it wasn’t their original intention. After Saturday, we now know that almost nothing will stop the NFL train from continuing onwards. It is a money-printing business, and when you’ve got your hand on the button, you never stop the presses.
Not for murder. Not for suicide. Not for anything1.
As a society there were some of us who cried foul, who said that it was a bad idea to play a game at Arrowhead just 24 hours after a player committed murder and suicide. It wasn’t right. But we were few and far between. Sunday rolled around, and there were moments of silence, but the beer drinking, face painted screaming, and violent on-field collisions ensued. Life was back to normal. But it shouldn’t have been.
If the NFL didn’t worship money beyond all else, they’d have canceled that game. Two people were dead. A child was, and will forever continue to be, without parents. This was a tragedy that was hard to supersede in devastation. Throwing a pigskin around in the midst of that is acknowledgment of an organizational -and as fans- a national failure to understand. Sport is a wonderful thing in our world. It distracts us from the pain in our lives, it emboldens us to join together as a community under one common purpose, and it gives us hope. But there are times when sports lose all their meaning. Saturday, December 1st, was one of them. You can have hope in a team, but there is no hope to be gained from a football game played one day after a murder-suicide. None. There is hope to be gained from a community as they come together to mourn – but the NFL should not be that meeting place. It’s in times like this that football quickly dissolves into a frivolous game played by extremely muscular, grown men. It’s a game. It can do a lot for us, but we shouldn’t ever make it more than it is. Doing so means we’re deifying a game that doesn’t deserve our worship.
Jovan Belcher, as a person, was rightfully mourned on Sunday, but the Chiefs were also right not to single him out as the tragic martyr from Saturday’s events. He was a troubled soul, and clearly needed someone to be there for him and help him get his life in order. Depression or any other form of mental illness is a chemical imbalance in the brain, and there’s nothing people can do to change that once they have it. They can try to medicate and treat the problem, but they’ll never be fully healed. So blaming Belcher for that would be unfair, especially in light of his death. But he also had autonomy over his actions, and that included shooting the mother of his child multiple times, leaving her for dead. That’s an act that would’ve gotten him life in prison, had he not killed himself in the parking lot of the Chief’s practice facility. Because of his suicide, certain people and media outlets have tried to use his life as a tragic example of a good person gone too soon. It’s awful that he died. Just awful. But his girlfriend is also dead, and that is all the more tragic to me. Sports have an unfortunate way of turning people into heroes, no matter the factual nature of their lives. It’s important to step back and notice the difference between mourning a man’s death, and still understanding he selfishly took the life of another on the way out. His girlfriend Kasandra Perkins had a long life ahead of her, full of memories, highs and lows. She didn’t deserve the fate she got. It’s important that’s remembered.
We just can’t seem to look into our own hearts long enough to challenge our preconceptions and maybe, just maybe, admit that sometimes, sports mean nothing.
Finally, the issue of gun control seemed to work into the fray of the conversation by way of Bob Costas and Jason Whitlock, who used Belcher’s story to argue for the stricter policing of guns and ammunition in America. Costas took advantage of his essay time at halftime of Sunday Night Football to read from Whitlock’s2 article crying for more gun control. The outrage on twitter and in the news was almost instantaneous. Many found it inappropriate for Costas to politicize the events in Kansas City. It wasn’t his place. Guns kill people as much as spoons make people fat. Belcher’s issues went way beyond handling a gun. You can kill a person in more ways than one. All those arguments may have been valid – or at least worthy of hearing through – but they also all serve to perpetuate a bigger problem, which is that we as a society use our own fears and traditions to try to defend something that shouldn’t be defended. We hound those who mention gun control in the days after mass shootings or tragic events, saying it wasn’t the gun’s fault. Months pass, and it happens again, and the cycle continues with more and more people dying every day. When are we going to own up to our own shortcomings?
The famous self-help book How to Win Friends & Influence People says that when you are wrong you should admit it quickly and emphatically.
WE ARE WRONG ABOUT GUNS.
We like to think that if we were Jovan Belcher’s girlfriend, and we had a gun, none of this would happen. We like to think that a world where everyone’s pointing guns at each other somehow equates to a world where no one gets shot. It’s an argument that caves in on itself like a sinkhole. Bob Costas had the right to say what he did on Sunday Night, and it was brave of him. The people decrying his comments are those that disagree with his sentiments. They shouldn’t disagree with his right to say it. There is no time in sports to not see the bigger issue under the shadow of events like Jevon Belcher’s on Saturday. Seeing the bigger picture allows us as a society to understand the tragedy through the context of football. It lets us know there’s a bigger point to life than the Cowboys v. the Eagles.
Had Costas argued against Gun Control, people would cry foul too; they’d just be on the other side. And so politics go. But Costas was right when he said Belcher and his girlfriend would still be alive today if he didn’t have a gun. Belcher acted without reason when he quickly grabbed a gun and murdered the love of his life. Realizing his mistake, he killed himself, probably because he couldn’t live with the guilt. Sadly, his incident is but one of many that happen every week in America. In Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, the documentary filmmaker notes that gun deaths in America each year average out to 11,127, while other countries like the UK and Japan come in between 40-70. He goes on to ask, what is so different about Americans?
We’re afraid of giving up tradition. After all, the 2nd Amendment gives us all the right to bear arms – as signed by our Founding Fathers. Republicans far and wide use that as their evidence for less gun control. But does any reasonable person think Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin could’ve ever envisioned the Columbine attacks, or the Aurora Theater Shootings, or even Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide when they wrote that law? Those men were dealing in a time when guns meant muskets that took around a half hour to load. They needed that law so they could protect themselves from an overbearing, possibly vengeful former motherland. That’s not the same today.
It’s why I’m sure the American Government failed to put it into Japan’s constitution when we helped rebuild their government after World War II. We didn’t want them rising up and becoming world superpowers again on a militaristic scale, and so we lowered their gun and weapon allowances in their constitution. The result has been wonderful for Japan, as their gun deaths are amongst the lowest of any country every year. America needs to stop standing by as tragedies continue to happen without making any changes.
We need to adopt laws like Canada and strengthen the ones we have in place. No one should be able to own an Uzi, or any gun with banana clips, or even semi-automatic weapons. There is no justification for that on our streets. In Canada, according to writer Kelly Oxford, to get a gun you must:
- Pass a gun safety course
- Provide three references of character
- Provide information on your love life and financial affairs
- When husbands/wives get a license to buy a weapon, the spouse must sign a form indicating they feel safe with him/her buying a weapon.
- Now mail this all in, get a license back in the mail (4-6 weeks later) and go and BUY YOUR GUNS AND ALL THE AMMO YOU NEED.
Do you think Jovan Belcher’s girlfriend would’ve signed the papers necessary for him to get a gun? I don’t know the answer, but it’s interesting to think about what would’ve happened if those laws would’ve been in place.
All of this comes back to the bigger issue here, which is what sports mean to the world, and America specifically. Sports come before anything to us. You can take our lives, but you can never take our sports away from us. Beyond anything else, this is what drives our culture today. The NFL is the biggest example of this. No murder or act of violence will jar us enough to reconsider our values. So instead we stop for a few seconds to acknowledge the unbearable sadness of the situation, before the jets fly over and the game is played.
We say we need football to heal, that it’s what this city or country needs, what the victims would have wanted. But we know that’s a lie. We just can’t seem to look into our own hearts long enough to challenge our preconceptions and maybe, just maybe, admit that sometimes, sports mean nothing.