A Responsibility to Speak Out: The NFL and the Belcher Murder-Suicide
Gender-based violence plagues our community. Approximately 30% of Americans say they know someone who has been abused by her significant other in the past year. Rather than being a highly visible topic, a shroud of silence seemingly surrounds the issue. Over forty years after the Women’s Liberation Movement, we are still trying to break the silence and raise awareness. We should somehow be closer to ending the violence, but we are not. As a domestic violence survivor, I utilize opportunities to break the silence and speak about my experience. My hope is that I help to spread awareness and generate discussions that will dismantle the stereotypes and assumptions about intimate partner violence (IPV). I have little influence compared to some activists in the fight to end gender-based violence, and I have far less reach than large organizations. Most recently, an enormous group⎯ the National Football League (NFL)⎯ had the responsibility to take a stance against IPV and send a needed message to its huge fan base. And, they did.
On Saturday, December 1, 2012, Kansas City Chiefs’ linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins, with whom he had been arguing, and then shot himself. The murder-suicide was incredibly public, with the suicide taking place in front of the Chiefs’ practice facilities. The NFL rushed to deal with situation. Reportedly, they are providing counselors for teammates and family members, and the organization also pushed out statements to the media stating their thoughts and prayers are with the families of those shot in the tragedy. While a good response on a personal level, what was remarkably absent from the NFL’s immediate reaction (and the media for the most part) was any mention of intimate partner violence.
The NFL published a story on its site about the incident, including a link to messages people are sending through Twitter. Some honor Belcher as a great guy. Most of the tweets talk of “the tragedy,” and their hearts and prayers go out to the families of the deceased. This is more than a tragedy; it part of a much larger problem⎯ that of gender-based violence. Generally, murdering a significant other is only part of the cycle of IPV⎯ a long cycle in which the violence continually escalates over time. In fact, the shooting is not the first instance of IPV by Belcher to his girlfriend (see this article). This makes the need to raise awareness for IPV and particularly for speaking out against incidents or signs of domestic violence more pressing.
Even outspoken Christian Tim Tebow tweeted, “Wow… Unbelievable tragedy. My prayers go out to the entire Chiefs organization and their families.” His, like a some others, entirely omits the ultimate victim⎯ Kasandra Perkins. Another NFL football player, Chris Baker, tweeted, “Please keep The Chiefs player and his family and his girlfriend in your prayers such a sad day yo never know Wat someone is going through.” He seemingly mitigates Belcher’s actions by saying “yo never know wat someone is going through.” Obviously, something had to make Belcher be violent (or so the statement implies). Belcher’s agent, Joe Linta, stated that “something went crazy wrong” with Belcher that morning even though Linta had suspected Belcher of being capable of incredibly violent acts. Think about this. His agent admits Belcher probably was violent, so why did something have to go “crazy wrong”? Again, this diminishes responsibility. Regardless of what Belcher was dealing with and even if “something went crazy wrong,” there is no excuse for shooting his significant other.
The NFL’s web site had a story on Saturday discussing Belcher through the years and the impact he had on the game. Considering Belcher just killed his girlfriend, the article is⎯on the day of the murder⎯ in bad taste to say the least. It also underscores the incident by showing how good of a guy Belcher was (aside from the “tragedy” aka murder) and how much he did for the NFL. On Sunday, ESPN talked about Belcher’s life, how he thanked the coach before shooting himself, and how good of a guy he was. Sigh… Some other stories circulating go so far as to claim football killed Belcher, finding a reason in the brutality of the game and in the resulting head injuries. (Available records only have him listed as having one head injury and that was back in 2009.) Yes, the NFL should look into the brutality of the game and the large amounts of head trauma with its consequences, but, that does not take any accountability away from Belcher. People have such difficulty reconciling competing images of an abuser, and so they look for some explanation. Demonizing the aggressor may not always be the best approach, but finding excuses (if not outright glorifying the abuser) and then whitewashing the crime only as a “tragedy” is not acceptable. What message does this send to people?!?
While Belcher shouldn’t in any way be honored nor his crime toned down, there is something to be learned here about abusers. Belcher was an NFL football player⎯a status that is revered by many men and women. How can Belcher be a football hero yet also an abuser and murderer? News reports also talk of Kansas City as a city in turmoil, and they are probably right. Fans are seeking to reconcile their views of Belcher in the wake of such violence. Some gathered outside his boyhood home with jerseys bearing his number and pictures of him, forming what Fox Sports News called “a shrine.” One of the people attending was Belcher’s youth football coach Ruben Marshall. Marshall told the press, ”He [Belcher] was a good, good person … a family man. A loving guy…You couldn’t be around a better person.” (I have to question the “You couldn’t be a better person” part. Belcher could have been better by, say, not killing another human being.) But, Marshall shows how jarring the competing views of an abuser can be.
This in part illustrates another problem in dealing with domestic violence. If perpetrators of the violence were unloveable and horrible all the time to everyone, then they’d be easier to identify, easier to hold accountable, and perhaps easier to punish. But the fact is most abusers can be so charming and loving at times or in certain situations. This is why people are sometimes shocked to learn a person they know or work with is an abuser. It is also part of the reason the question “Why didn’t the victim just leave?” becomes so frustrating to survivors and activists. Domestic violence is incredibly complex with multiple factors playing into the situation. Solutions are not simple. Still, Belcher shows just how prevalent and hidden IPV is and that there is no “type” that can be a victim or abuser. The public needs to learn this message to better combat domestic violence.
Thankfully, the NFL responded to some public outcry about addressing domestic violence. Despite the decision to go ahead and play the Chiefs-Panthers game on Sunday, December 3, the NFL held a moment of silence for all victims of IPV. Their story is seen here. Millions watched. The media thoroughly covered the game. And the fan base saw the NFL pay respect to victims of IPV. The league also refused to allow patches, stickers, or decals with Belcher’s number on the jerseys in order not to honor publicly a man who took another’s life. A few other professional players articulated the problem the day of the murder-suicide and focused their attention appropriately. Some of the Belcher’s teammates have discussed setting up a fund for Belcher and Perkins’s child. Children in IPV are often forgotten victims since they too suffer psychological and sometimes physical damage. Hopefully, the Chiefs will succeed in their fund for the now orphaned child. Also, former linebacker Tom Jackson spoke out against the hero worship on Sunday’s NFL Gameday broadcast saying, “he [Belcher] was a murderer before he committed suicide.” Jackson shut down the “good guy” conversation on the show and refused to celebrate a young man who took another’s life. In another instance, Royals second baseman Johnny Giavotella tweeted, “I’m sorry, we also need to pray for the girlfriend who was murdered and the parentless child who will be forever scarred from this incident.” And they are right. The focus should be on Perkins, her daughter, and the larger problem of intimate partner violence.
The NFL spends most of October raising awareness and funds for the fight against Breast Cancer. The pink gloves, mouthpieces, towels, shoes, and jerseys all help to generate discussions. Clearly, the NFL (like most large corporations) has the power to take on issues and create a positive change in the community.
Breast cancer doesn’t have another human being as the cause of the problem, which might be a contributing factor as to why less silence exists on the topic. In IPV, however, someone is the source of the violence. Studies have shown that the closer the acquaintance between victim and perpetrator, the more likely the public believes the victim somehow provoked it. Here we are back to a major issue with gender-based violence. If this isn’t downright victim blaming, it is rather close. Too often, excuses are made or victims are blamed, all of which denies accountability to the responsible party. Unless in self-defense, nothing excuses a violent act towards another person. Violence is a choice. Everyone is responsible for the choices they make.
The NFL has not been oblivious to the problem of IPV, and the Belcher murder-suicide is not the first in the league. In 1999, Carolina Panthers player Rae Carruth hired a hitman to kill his pregnant girlfriend, Cherica Adams. In 2000, Carolina Panthers player Fred Lane was murdered by wife Deidra. In 2009, Steve McNair was killed by his mistress in a murder-suicide. In 2009, Chris Henry was killed in Charlotte after falling from a truck driven by his fiancee during a domestic dispute. Those are the IPV episodes that ended in death. Plenty more crimes of IPV have occurred in the NFL, such as recently dismissed domestic violence charges against Dez Bryant of the Cowboys. On August 1, 2012, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said, “Some of the numbers on DUIs and domestic violence are going up and that disturbs me….When there’s a pattern of mistakes, something has got to change.” Yes, something does. The NFL made a definite step in the right direction, but given the enormity of the problem even within their organization, they need to take a stronger stance, perhaps by recognizing Domestic Violence Awareness Month (an issue many activists have been pushing for years). Not to mention, they probably would do well to address suicide prevention given the number of current and former players who have killed themselves this year. Vague reports have surfaced about more proactive measures in the NFL for domestic violence (watch video here). Fox Sports news claims that some NFL coaches have called team meetings to discuss the problem of domestic violence and tell their players there are programs in place to help players deal with this issue. After all, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) states ALL instances of IPV are preventable. One head coach is supposedly trying to hire a full time therapist for his team to intervene in situations and avoid a similar murder-suicide. Hopefully, Perkins’s death is leading and will continue to lead to positive change.
In our daily interactions, we have the responsibility to speak out against gender-based violence, and we can change the misperceptions and the silence surrounding it. Organizations have that responsibility too. By remaining silent on the domestic violence, people/organizations only perpetuate the problem, and with that choice, they should be held accountable. When individuals or groups (like the NFL in the Belcher murder-suicide) take a stance and raise awareness, they are generating much needed discussions on gender-based violence. Only by holding abusers responsible and by dispelling myths of domestic violence can we hope to stop the violence.