Jovan Belcher Was a Horrifying Rorschach Test for Sports

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The Kansas City Chiefs' player's murder/suicide revealed that the sports world isn't separate from the real world—no matter how much fans and media wish otherwise.

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Reuters / Dave Kaup

Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Patrick Hruby (writer, Sports on Earth and The Atlantic) discuss what happened after an NFL player killed his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins and then himself last Saturday.


There is no way to sum up the horrific, tragic murder-suicide by Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher in a cliche or a 20-second soundbite. The issues of domestic violence in football, gun control in America, playing in an NFL game in a stadium where someone killed himself in the parking lot 30 hours beforehand—these are not Around The Horn issues. The tragedy occurred less than a week ago, and in my opinion (and I don't claim to speak for anyone else), the proper course of action as journalists should be to wait for all the facts to come out and respect the families of Belcher and slain girlfriend Kasandra Perkins before drawing any 30,000-foot conclusions about weighty issues like domestic violence, gun control, murder, and suicide.

Of course, that hasn't stopped some of sports media's biggest shills from offering their two cents on the topic. At halftime of the Cowboys-Eagles Sunday night game the day after the horrific events in Kansas City, NBC's Bob Costas lectured the media about its apparent (to him) tendency to only bring up sensitive issues after tragic events. "Those who need tragedies to continually recalibrate their sense of proportion about sports would seem to have little hope of ever truly achieving perspective," Costas intoned, before quoting liberally from a meandering column on Belcher by Jason Whitlock.

The comments spurred a backlash from sportswriters and fans alike. Many NBC viewers were turned off by Costas's editorializing at halftime of a football game, feeling it was the wrong forum. Deadspin's Sean Newell unleashed an anti-Costas rant entitled "Here Is Bob Costas's Sanctimonious, Horseshit Editorial On Jovan Belcher." Costas did have his defenders in the press, including Deadspin founding editor Will Leitch, who wrote at Sports On Earth that he was impressed with Costas's willingness to take an unpopular stand on a hot-button issue (essentially, guns are bad) on national television.

Me? I don't have a huge problem with what Costas did, despite my feeling that we should wait for more facts to come out before stating our opinions as journalists. As Leitch said, he's earned the right to say whatever he wants in his weekly 90-second life lessons during halftime of every Sunday Night football game. Also, I think he's right: Americans are more likely to escalate violent confrontations to a deadly level because of the preponderance of guns. And if you don't agree with Costas and cherish the 2nd Amendment above all others? Just change the channel next week, dude. Watch ESPN for a couple minutes or something. You'll turn back in time for the second half.

What about you guys? What's your response to the media's response to the Belcher tragedy?

–Jake

Jake,

Sometimes sportswriters choose their topics. Other times, topics are thrust upon them. Being in Kansas City, last week's murder-suicide falls into the latter category. I was at Arrowhead on Sunday. Before the game there was a brief announcement over the PA asking for a moment of silence to "remember all victims of domestic violence." That was it. Then they played football.

Costas revealed himself at best to be insensitive, self-serving and shallow. At worst, he was ghoulish.

But then Bob Costas spake unto us. Costas used his weekly soapbox at halftime of NBC's "Sunday Night Football" to express his loathing for handguns. Or, more accurately, to express Jason Whitlock's loathing for guns. Like any event too vast and dark for the human mind to comprehend, news this inexplicably bad becomes like a mass-media-administered Rorschach Test. Everyone sees what they want, and a given reaction is more likely to reveal some truth about the person who has it than to offer any genuinely fresh insight on events.

That's the case with Costas. He revealed himself—at best—to be insensitive, self-serving and shallow. At worst, he was ghoulish: callously seizing on the horrifying deaths of two people in order to boost his own stature. Costas has long harbored delusions of punditry, and his utterly tepid, easily dismantled, half-pilfered rant about handguns sounded like just another attempt elevate himself to an observer of human events.

In the wake of his speech, just as Costas surely hoped, the national conversation turned. Now we are no longer talking about the shooting in Kansas City, the dead couple, or their orphaned child. Now we are talking about what Bob said on NBC Sunday night.

What he said, almost incidentally, was hapless. There is, in fact, statistical and anecdotal evidence that concealed carry laws can reduce crime, some of which has been published in The Atlantic. But Costas barely made an argument worth demolishing.

Costas could, and should, have begged any woman experiencing domestic abuse to get out of that deadly situation as quickly as possible, and then suggested ways to find a woman's shelter.

Or he could used that platform to point out that men in this society are taught that asking for help is a sign of weakness, doubly so for athletes, and especially when it comes to mental illness. Bob could easily have used that national pulpit to say how wrong that is, and to urge any man experiencing intense anger, depression, or violent impulses to seek help immediately. If Costas truly wanted to be controversial he could have noted, as his new best friend Jason Whitlock sometimes does, that a lot of rap and hip-hop that players listen to dehumanizes women and glorifies gun violence.

Finally, most crucially, Costas had an opportunity to do something good. He might, for instance, have called for his audience to make donations to a local battered women's shelter, thereby having a huge, positive, tangible effect on otherwise a bleak situation.

But he didn't do any of that, did he? All Costas did, really, was call attention to himself, using platitudes borrowed from another writer. That tells us nothing new about gun violence. All it tells us, really is something we already knew: that Bob Costas has a very high opinion of himself.

Guys, that's my look at this awful Rorschach Test, anyway. Maybe I'm wrong. Tell me, Patrick: What's your take?

–Hampton

Hampton,

Let me start by defending Bob Costas. A bit. I agree that his pontificating on gun violence was ill-advised. Not because it was self-aggrandizing or ego-driven, but because—as you and others have pointed out—it was slipshod and half-baked, much like the Jason Whitlock column it borrowed from.

In fact, half-baked is being too generous; in the context of our heated, ongoing, irreducibly complex national argument about the proper place and role of firearms in American life, both Costas's remarks and Whitlock's piece were like half-tablespoons of cookie dough that fell off the baking sheet before even reaching the oven. Neither man offered any new or real insight. Guns are dangerous. You can kill someone with one. Who knew? Meanwhile, everyone else fell back on their reflexive pro-and-anti-gun control talking points, or else castigated Costas for having the gall to talk about something besides football during a football game.

No matter how you break up a newspaper or arrange cable channels, there is no sports world. There is just: the world.

It's the latter part I find the most interesting.

I think Jake has things right: Last Sunday was too soon to make a serious effort to answer the What Does It All Mean? question about the terrifying deaths of Kasandra Perkins and Jovan Belcher. The reporter in me has learned it's always better—or at least smarter—to gather all of the facts on the ground before turning your gaze to the clouds above. Still, I don't think much of the criticism directed at Costas was rooted in a disappointed desire for more journalistic patience, nor in dashed hopes that Costas would unspool a Lincoln-esque speech. It was rooted in defensive anger over a perceived attack on the right to bear arms, or in the fact that Bob Costas—a sportscaster—mentioned such a thing in the first place.

Why was Costas mixing political peanut butter with my football chocolate? Doesn't he know better? Doesn't he know his place? Doesn't he know what the audience wants?

As someone who has spent much of my career jail-breaking the sports page—reporting and writing on the intersections between sports and culture, between sports and politics, between sports and, well, everything—I can tell you this: A lot of fans hate that. Because they watch sports to escape. They want sports to be a separate, hermetically sealed world of wins and losses, stats and standings, my team and yours, heroes and goats. They pretty much want to experience sports the way a five-year-old experiences everything: with almost no wider perspective or knowledge. The play's the thing; the game, its own engrossing alternate reality. For many people, all sports are fantasy sports.

Of course, this is untenable. Magical thinking. NFL players do not live in the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. Games are not played in a bubble on the surface of Mars. No matter how you break up a newspaper or arrange websites and cable channels in neat little segregated topical silos to target specific demographic groups, there is no sports world. There is just: the world. And that's it. Life is what happens when you're busy setting your fantasy lineup.

I think Costas and Whitlock understand this, and for that, I applaud them—if anything, I just wish both men took that understanding more seriously. The rest of us, too. The Marxist and West Indies cricket historian C.L.R. James once wrote that "the British tradition soaked deep into me was that when you entered the sporting arena, you left behind you the sordid compromises of everyday existence." He was, I think, being ironic. Ruefully so. If the Belcher story puts anything into perspective, it's that the arena offers no escape. Not from murder, not from horror, not from guns and the people who use them. Not from the sordid compromises of everyday existence. The ones we call sport.

–Patrick

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Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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