We don’t know what drove Jovan Belcher to kill his girlfriend, in front of their infant daughter and his mother, before heading to the Kansas City Chiefs‘ practice facility and killing himself, in front of coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli.
It could be a simple case of domestic violence. Or undiagnosed mental illness. Or football-induced brain trauma. Belcher’s teammates on the Chiefs and from his days at the University of Maine say the actions were uncharacteristic of the 25-year-old man they knew.
Like others, I wonder what led him to commit such a heinous act against 22-year-old Kasandra Perkins, who gave birth to his child less than three months ago. I wonder how he could behave so horrifically in the presence of his mother, who was in town to help the couple care for her granddaughter. I wonder why Belcher was compelled to speak one last time with Crennel and Pioli, who tried to stop him from harming himself.
But in the wake of this tragedy, I find myself pondering another question, too: Whose death would be enough to alter the NFL’s almighty schedule?
The league surely learned its lesson in November 1963, when the full slate was played about 48 hours after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I doubt that the NFL would make the same decision if a Commander-in-Chief is killed in office again.
On a Thursday in September 2001, two days after plane crashes in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania changed our world forever, every game was postponed. Bigger national tragedies are hard to imagine, but they surely would prompt the league to halt business as usual.
Belcher’s murder-suicide Saturday morning didn’t meet the standard. The NFL instructed the Carolina Panthers to keep their travel plans and fly to Kansas City for Sunday’s game. The Chiefs issued a statement Saturday afternoon, announcing that “after discussions between the league office, (Crennel) and Chiefs team captains, the Chiefs advised the NFL that it will play.”
It probably should have read “will play as ordered.”
According to a poll on the Kansas City Star’s website, respondents who opposed the decision to play the game as scheduled held a 52 percent to 48 percent edge. But the NFL merely was following precedent.
In December 2009, Cincinnati wideout Chris Henry died from blunt force trauma to his head after falling from a pickup truck during a domestic dispute with his fiancee. The Bengals played a road game three days later. Closer to home, Washington safety Sean Taylor died from gunshot wounds after robbers broke into his house in November 2007. The Redskins hosted a game five days later.
However, the nature and location of Belcher’s death, as well as its proximity to kickoff, presented a strong argument for postponing the Chiefs‘ game. At the very least, the contest could have been moved to Monday night. If fans who were inconvenienced didn’t understand, they could be forced to gaze at photos of Perkins and her adorable baby girl, while imagining the horrible pictures running through Crennel’s mind.
But Belcher was an obscure player in an obscure market, an undrafted free agent in his fourth season with a 1-10 team. His death garnered national coverage and warranted the obligatory moment of silence at stadiums across the country, but he was anonymous before then, inconsequential in the league’s grand scheme.
I pray that we never find out, but I wonder if the NFL would make the same decision if, say, Robert Griffin III was killed 24 hours before a kickoff at FedEx Field. Would the Denver Broncos or New York Giants play as scheduled on a Sunday if Peyton or Eli Manning had been murdered that Saturday? What about holding a game in Baltimore so soon if Ed Reed had just suffered a violent demise?
Maybe all of those contests would go on like Chiefs-Panthers went on. But I can’t shake the feeling that the death of higher-profile, face-of-the-franchise players would carry more sway, that there would be more outrage and indignation that the game proceeded, even as some folks continued to argue that playing assists the grieving process.
I understand that argument, but I also believe it’s a lot easier to make when there’s no connection with the victim. Belcher barely made an impact among Chiefs fans. Taylor, a star in Washington and at the University of Miami before that, was on the cusp of national prominence as a dominant free safety. But the Redskins and the league had nearly a whole week to digest his untimely death.
Playing in the immediate aftermath of Belcher’s murder-suicide just seems insensitive, which figures. Despite any protestations the NFL might offer in defense, it largely views him as insignificant.