Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, on Saturday morning. Then he drove to Arrowhead Stadium, thanked his coaches for all they had done for him, and killed himself, leaving behind the couple’s infant daughter, Zoey.
Unable or unwilling to examine the big picture, the industry has treated the murder-suicide as an isolated event, a random freak-out, a glitch in the matrix. One troubled kid, and let’s move along: we have a football game to play.
But if the early reports are to be believed, Jovan Belcher had been a caring friend, a devoted father, a good teammate, and a quiet and humble hard worker. He had also been medicating himself daily, again according to early reports.
That wouldn’t be surprising. He was a starting NFL linebacker. Smashing heads was part of his job description. The most recent result of a job well done was a head injury he sustained in a Nov. 18 game against the Bengals that reportedly gave him short-term memory loss and kept him from starting the following game.
To mostly be held out of a game for a concussion in the NFL means that your brain is in very bad shape. Football, at its core, is about toughness. You never say when you’re hurt. You suck it up.
Ask Alex Smith, now the San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback, about the incentive to report concussion symptoms. He led his team to the NFC Championship game last year. He leads the NFL in completion percentage this year. His team is in first place in its division. Yet he lost his job a few weeks ago while recovering from a concussion.
I watched the games on Sunday and saw a friend take a vicious hit to the side of his head. The announcers didn’t make much of it, but I could tell he was hurt. I texted him after the game to see if he was OK. He said: “fuck no I’m not okay but I can’t have that on my resume.” Players with head trauma are considered damaged goods by NFL teams under increased pressure to handle concussions more effectively, and trying to avoid the issue altogether. Shut up and play.
The NFL’s decision to carry on with business Sunday, after Belcher killed Perkins and then himself Saturday, drives home the point. No matter what happens in life, there will be a football game on Sunday.
I am in no position to speculate as to why Jovan Belcher did what he did. Whether the constant frontal-lobe smashing made him more prone to lose control is a question I’ll leave to the scientists. But what I can say without any doubt is that the NFL is a breeding ground for mental illness.
When I played in the league, my moods were erratic. I was in constant pain, some days worse than others. I medicated myself with pills, alcohol, and marijuana. The substances were not a problem for me and were not the source of my pain. Football was the source of my pain.
I was a football actor, acting out the wishes of my coaches and the mythology of the industry. I did what I was told and never spoke up on my own behalf. I was never asked how I felt or what I thought. There was no one for me to talk to about my problems. It was all football, all the time. Anything else was a distraction. The frantic pace with which we prepared for each opponent left no time or outlet for emotions.
The NFL is a self-proclaimed man’s world. But it overinflates the manly. It goes all in on a bluff.
All men are weak. All men are afraid. All men break down eventually. What maintains the NFL’s dream world of consequence-free violence, and what makes that dream world such fertile ground for mental illness, is that as soon as a man shows his weakness, he is replaced and no one sees him ever again. For those who remain, the lesson is clear: Keep your pain to yourself.
For a man who is fighting his demons, this lesson only turns up the heat.
Several former NFL players have committed suicide over the last few years. Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling, and Junior Seau shot themselves in the chest. That they decided, in the depths of despair, to preserve their brains for the autopsy, is an indication of the role they believed football played in their fall. But these were former players dealing with “life after football.” Perhaps they just couldn’t adjust to the real world.
Yet in that same time span, three active players have killed themselves, too. Kenny McKinley, O.J. Murdock, and now Jovan Belcher. They also used guns, but they did not preserve their brains for the study.
By now, the curtain should be drawn all the way back on the professional football myth. Money and fame do not equal happiness. In fact, if I am honest with myself and what I have witnessed, money and fame, combined with head-first violence, often equals sadness. But it’s a sadness that is never revealed, that is swallowed for the good of the team. We’ve got a game to play, after all. The show must go on.
Considering the events in Kansas City and the role that Jovan’s head injury might have played in it, I was especially concerned for the well-being of my friend who took the head shot this week. I implored him to be careful, to look out for himself. “Forget your resume,” I said. “This is your life!”
“It’s not as simple as you’re making it out to be, man,” he replied.
With that sentence, he put me right back inside the bubble, tip-toeing through the minefield of the NFL-battered psyche. And he’s right. It’s not that simple.