After reports of the horrific incident taking place just outside of Arrowhead Stadium – near the training facility – today in Kansas City, it’s only natural for all of us to ask – why?
That’s a question that we may never actually get an answer to, and I, personally, don’t necessarily want to know why because it doesn’t matter anymore. I’m grieving in my own sense with the city of Kansas City and the NFL as a whole that a promising young man felt that the only way out was to take his own life. Of course the real tragedy lies in the murder of his girlfriend in front of his own mother while leaving a newborn to a world without parents.
This incident shocks us not only because of the heinous and appalling nature of the crime but mostly because it happened within an environment to which emotions and personal weaknesses are frowned upon. In the world of professional sports at their highest levels within the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB, we are constantly exposed to the egotistical and flamboyant characters that come with all the fame and fortune. After all, these are the people that we as a society put on a pedestal as we pay hundreds to thousands of dollars to see play a game however many times a year.
I find nothing inherently wrong with the idea of society valuing professional sports as an important part of our culture while other people might view it as foolish or unimportant (but that’s a topic for another day).
It would be wrong to say that athletes that are a part of professional sports in America are anything less than blessed. They are blessed with some of the finest physical characteristics on Earth, instant fame and a following of millions of fans, and of course, they are blessed with financial stability or even financial excess.
As a society, with all of our problems associated with having too little money and not enough notoriety as individuals, many of us look at professional athletes with both money and fame with envy as well as the assumption that life is and will be good by default.
As kids, it was nearly impossible for us to look at professional athletes as anything short of superheroes. They’re living the dream by playing a game that they love in front of the whole world. Similarly, as adults, it’s hard for us to understand how anyone with so much money and a dream job can have any sort of complaints or negativity in their life.
With our fantasy football matchups, our betting habits and our sports-centric lifestyles, it’s very easy to forget that the names and numbers on the field/court/rink that we see actually have families, friends and life stories as unique as any of ours. Professional athletes as humans, have feelings of success, failure, concern, worry, anger, etc. that all of us share and are equally as powerless to resist the onset of such feelings.
Many criticized Vikings punter Chris Kluwe for his involvement in the gay marriage debate in Minnesota as he seemed to struggle on the field. Hundreds of people attacked him via Twitter for not focusing on what was at hand and to spend less time worrying about what most would say is an important issue. In the same light, others questioned quarterback Christian Ponder for who he dated as a reason for his poor on-field performance.
It’s situations like the Jovan Belcher incident that puts things like that in perspective. For about six months out of the year, young men from an infinite amount of different backgrounds prepare for and play a game that we all love. When they are not playing or practicing during their downtime or the offseason, they are faced with the same problems as every other person on this planet.
Personal lives and opinions are not things that are afforded to one specific group over another. These are the things that we as individuals share regardless of what we do for a living – yes, even professional athletes.
A while back, I had a short conversation on Twitter with former Vikings wide receiver Bernard Berrian as he explained his views on capitalism and other topics. He made an interesting statement (though hardly anything truly exceptional) when I questioned his opinions concerning the fact that he is a millionaire based on the lucrative contract he received from the Vikings over four years ago.
“A few dollars in the bank doesn’t [guarantee] anything,” said Berrian.
This is a certainty that I, as well as most of you, can understand. The reason it struck me is because through all of the nonsense of the 2011 season that the Vikings endured with Berrian as he appeared to have given up and lost interest for the game, he still had the same heart and same realization that even the less fortunate of us are reminded of on a daily basis. The amount of money, power and the fame are all just a small part of what makes us.
So too with Jovan Belcher do we once again realize that through all the passion and intensity for the game of football – it is just that, a game. To some, this thought might infuriate or frustrate because to most of us on Sundays, we certainly don’t treat it like it’s just a game. To others like me, the idea that football is just a game played by ordinary people who bleed and feel just like me is why I love the game. To me, sport is the pinnacle of individual, human achievement as athletes fight through the same problems as me.
While I certainly don’t think it is wrong for anyone of any age to look up to professional athletes with any level of admiration, it should never lead us to expect any more or less humanity from these athletes.
Though I think that athletes should be held to higher standards due to their responsibility to the youth among the fan base, it would be completely wrong for any of us to expect that any athlete can’t have real problems in their life and that all they may need is a little bit of understanding and compassion from those around them.
Unfortunately, this Jovan Belcher incident is a situation that brings us back down to Earth when it comes to expectations for our professional athletes. Too often do we forget that the players that we follow are made up of much more than just a group of statistics and highlight reels.
The occurrence in Kansas City isn’t the first instance of a suicidal professional athlete with the whole world in front of them, and I am almost certain it won’t be the last. However the lesson of this nightmare should be one for sports fans and non-fans alike. No matter the job, no matter the perks and no matter the situation, sometimes all people need – even the most fortunate of us – is help even when society tells us that money and fame will make it all better.
Keep in mind as you’re watching football this Sunday that the players running around on the field making or missing plays are only as human as they can be and face the same problems that all of us encounter once they exit the stadium.
My thoughts and prayers go out to the friends, teammates and family of Jovan Belcher and his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins.
Follow Greg Jensen on Twitter – @JensenGregory