In a suburban home early one morning, a 25-year old man gets into an argument with his 22-year old girlfriend. They are still arguing hours later when the man shoots the woman multiple times. The man flees the murder scene in his car and drives about 5 miles to his office. There, he has a friendly conversation with company executives, who are aware of the situation and trying to stop him from committing any additional violent acts. But, despite their pleas, the man ends up taking his own life by shooting himself in full view of co-workers. Does work go on mostly as normal the next day?
When horrific circumstances like this unfold in the workplace, the answer is almost always “no.” But most workplaces aren’t the NFL. And, thus, the Kansas City Chiefs hosted the Carolina Panthers less than one day after 25-year old Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed Kasandra Perkins before turning the gun on himself—in front of team personnel, including general manager Scott Pioli and head coach Romeo Crennel.
It was apparently decided that the game would go on as scheduled after the league office conferred with Crennel and the team’s captains. But were any of these people, especially those who had just witnessed a violent suicide, really in a position to decide whether to play?
Different people have different responses to any event, including those that are horrific. This is why grief counselors are often immediately dispatched and made available where and when people are exposed to a traumatic event. For its part, the NFL announced in the aftermath of the tragedy in Kansas City that it would be offering professional counselors to support members of the Chiefs organization and their families. But the game that followed should not have been played.
Earlier this year, commendably, the league began providing funds for the establishment of NFL Life Line, a confidential call-in and online resource available to any current and former NFL players, coaches, team and league staff, and members of their families members who are experiencing a crisis. Whether Belcher accessed Life Line at some point isn’t known—nor should it be. Nevertheless, a picture about Belcher’s behavior in his final days is emerging.
A person claiming to be a personal friend told Deadspin.com that Belcher was dealing with a confluence of stressors: short-term memory loss (attributed to football-related concussions); excessive alcohol consumption; increasing use of painkillers; and, apparently, strained domestic relations.
These factors may prove to go a long way in explaining why Belcher “snapped” early this past Saturday morning. No doubt that the search for answers will be complicated by his having earned a degree in child development and family relations from the University of Maine and anapparent membership in the Male Athletes Against Violence initiativethere. MAAV membership would have included his signing a pledge to never commit violence against women and stand up against those who did.
More often than not, people expect that NFL players are in tip-top condition. After all, they undergo rigorous testing throughout the calendar year and, as a rule, must be in “game shape” for about 20 weeks of it. But physical shape may not extend to psychological shape, no less the detection of suicidal thoughts.
The National Institute of Mental Health points out that “suicidal behavior is complex,” and “some risk factors vary with age, gender, or ethnic group and may occur in combination or change over time.” But suicide is a huge problem for young people in the United States and many other countries. Suicide was the third leading cause of death for Americans 10- to 24-years of age. And the highest rate of suicide in that group is 20- to 24-year olds.
Professional football and hockey have sadly had their share of suicides in recent years. Domestic violence is also a problem. Sports leagues and teams are working to combat these trends. But business as usual in the face of a violent murder/suicide by a player is not the way to do it.