As seems to so often be the case, whenever a tragedy happens that shakes us to our very core we’re left unable to figure out how we should feel, knowing only that however we feel, someone is going to tell us we’re wrong. Such is the case with the shocking murder-suicide of Jovan Belcher on Saturday, which have left many of us unsure what to make of any of it.
We like to put people into black-and-white categories as a society – we like to have someone to blame and someone to be the victim. We like to fit everything into a nice and neat story. No one would put any blame on the girlfriend who was killed or the young girl who was orphaned; they are both clearly victims. But let’s face it, neither are they the story here. No one even knew who either of them were until they were reported in the aftermath of the tragedy. The reason this has become a national story is because the man who did it was an NFL player.
Certainly it’s hard to sympathize with Jovan Belcher, who took the life of his girlfriend and then himself, leaving his young daughter without any parents and rattling the Kansas City Chiefs organization to its core. It’s tempting to blame him, to turn him into a monster. But ultimately, it’s hard to blame him either; Belcher’s actions were in keeping with suffering from mental illness. Which brings us to the elephant in the room, the question of whether Belcher’s living, playing the particularly physical position of linebacker, had anything to do with his death.
Five and a half years ago, professional wrestler Chris Benoit took the life of his wife – and didn’t spare his son – before hanging himself. His brain was subsequently examined by neurosurgeons at West Virginia University, who compared it to that of “an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient”, and his father attributed his actions to the effects of repeated bumps to the head over the course of his wrestling career. For a league already haunted by the specter of concussions, as the Saints’ Bountygate appeals continue to drag on, to witness such a chillingly similar turn of events should serve as a reminder of the consequences of this sport’s brutality.
The case of Chris Benoit also, perhaps, suggests exactly what we should make of this tragedy. Before his death, Benoit was one of the more beloved figures in wrestling, but that adoration quickly turned to sadness and anger as most of Benoit’s career was all but forgotten and Benoit himself became a symbol of the effects of the culture of wrestling. Jovan Belcher was hardly a superstar, so perhaps it’s telling that we find ourselves conflicted in how to feel about him all the same. Regardless, while it’s too early to know exactly why Belcher did what he did, it’s entirely possible that in a few years, Jovan Belcher could be every bit as much a symbol of the NFL’s concussion problem as Dave Duerson, the former Chicago Bears safety who committed suicide nearly two years ago.