Jovan Belcher Was a Horrifying Rorschach Test for Sports


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.


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Sports Roundtable

Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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