Monday, December 3, 2012

When Sports And Tragedy Meet

It's been a brutal, brutal year for the Kansas City Chiefs, who may be the worst team in the NFL this season. This past Saturday, it got drastically worse. Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, before taking his own life in front of his coach and general manger, leaving behind a 3-month-old baby girl. On Sunday, the Chiefs took the field and I won't even begin to imagine the maelstrom of emotions they must have been feeling. If the Chiefs' victory over the Panthers today, just their second win in this interminable season, was of any solace to any of the players, then more power to those players.


I don't know how they felt. They were presumably playing in memory of their fallen teammate and brother, a teammate who was also a murderer, who struck out against the mother of his child in anger, effectively orphaning his daughter even if he hadn't taken his own life (again, I'm assuming he would have been incarcerated). None of us knows how it feels to be a Chiefs player today. But that not knowing doesn't preclude empathy; it just means that we have to be careful when declaring what is objective and what is subjective. There are the undeniably brutal facts, but there's a lot of conjecture being thrown around, some of it very irresponsibly. This conflict will be a theme for this post.

When facing a tragedy - regardless of where one stands on the monstrousness of Belcher's actions, it is undoubtedly a tragedy - there may be no more hackneyed cliche than to say "there are no words." It applies even as it doesn't; Saturday's horrific events are both indescribably awful and crying out for some sense of explanation and understanding. We naturally want to make sense of the senseless, to make meaning where maybe there simply is existence, and that can be a dangerous gambit. I've written many times before about the perils of narrative, of assigning a story and retrofitting the details (it's kind of the pet theme of this blog). Usually this is in a much lighter context, perhaps declaring that just because LeBron James hadn't won a championship didn't mean he wasn't "clutch." In the case of Jovan Belcher, it carries a little more weight.

So let's tackle the first question: was Belcher a monster? Deadspin ran emails from a friend of Belcher's entitled "Friend: Belcher “Was Dazed, Suffering From Short-Term Memory Loss” After Last Game; Alcohol, Painkillers, Domestic Tensions Played Role In Murder-Suicide." There's a brief bout of victim-blaming, as the friend claims that the deceased Perkins was the instigator, but all in all it gives a pretty unvarnished view of Belcher's life and actions, that of a man trying to reconcile with the flawed mother of his child and plagued by substance-abuse. Counteracting the manufactured "this came out of nowhere" narrative, these emails certainly implied that it wasn't a total leap for Belcher to strike out like this. In fact they scream of the instability in his life. His reaction was obviously shocking, but judging by these emails, he didn't simply snap in a second. I'm always in favor of added context, but what interested me even more was what happened in the article's comment section, as three camps formed vis-a-vis what purpose this article served: as explanation, as justification, or moot.

I tend to side with explanation, that Belcher's substance-abuse issues and concussions clearly played a role in his actions. He's certainly more to blame than say a nebulous idea like "football" or even a more concrete one like "head trauma," but we can't ignore them as context. Another group sought to push all the blame on football or the warrior mentality that prevents guys from seeking out help or drug abuse (or at least call out Belcher's friend for subtly doing so in his emails to Deadspin). I don't ultimately know where I land on the spectrum of blame because, again, we don't know how in control of his faculties Belcher was. The third group interested me the most, however, and that was those who rejected all of this information as superfluous, and simply called Belcher a monster.

On its face, I don't totally disagree with that assessment. Some people can only see explanations like head trauma and substance-abuse as justifications to soften the weight of Belcher's actions, as abdication through added information. I admit that if we seek to in some way justify a murder-suicide as dependent on certain underlying problems, it's easy to fall into a trap wherein one could justify, say, Hitler as merely a man possessed by his pathologies and not a monster. Ultimately, I don't know where I feel about that (and I don't really feel like getting into a discussion about whether people can be inherently evil). In Belcher's case, I side with this added context as explanation but not justification, but I am aware that it's not a perfect answer. There are no good answers.

My second question concerned whether or not the NFL should have postponed the game. I think there's merit to each side of the debate, and the NFL really was in a no-win situation. Jeffrey Chadiha pretty eloquently lays out the case for playing here, that the Chiefs just needed to play, needed that normalcy that comes with football every Sunday. Simply postponing the game by a day seems pretty meaningless because, well, it is. Since both teams are out of the playoff picture, I would have elected to play this game after the regular season (an idea I saw somewhere online), perhaps with some of the game's proceeds going toward Belcher's infant daughter. Obviously that didn't happen, but in the wake of tragedy, playing the game reinforced how meaningless sports can be even as it cemented their importance. I swear that will make sense.

I write a lot about the experience of being a sports fan, but I actively try to disentangle my personal experience from my writing because the collective experience interests me a lot more. I know I fail at this sometimes, but I'm going to blatantly break that rule here for the first time. I also write frequently about how meaningless sports are in the grand scheme of things, but they aren't on a more personal level. Permit me to get self-indulgent for a moment.

Today, December 3rd, would be my brother Baki's 20th birthday. Baki was an incredible athlete, possessed with otherworldly hand-eye coordination and grace, a joyous spirit, and a profound sense of sportsmanship. An intuitive and kinesthetic learner, no one really taught him to throw, which he did brilliantly by the age of two. It just made almost vivid sense to him. Again, I don't know how it was to live life like him. I'm reasonably athletic, but I never had his flair or his nonchalant grace. He was an athlete. Baki had many other virtues, but I primarily remember him as such, as a body in motion. The irony is not lost on me that he died so suddenly, of an un-diagnosed heart condition, silently in the night nearly eight years ago. Or maybe I'm misusing the word irony again.

Even on a more specific level, the memories I have almost all pertain to sports: playing catch with my family, all the hours we would field grounders from my dad even as his arm got tired, the soccer games where he astounded me with his improvisational skills, the baseball game where he threw a 150-foot strike from left field to gun down a runner at home, even just wrestling with my brothers (and always assuming insane alter-egos). I have other memories, but very few are as vivid.

The point is I get how important sports are even as I constantly downplay it. The day he died I remember two things running through my head on a loop: the song "From Me To You" and an unceasing thought that I would never be able to see another of his Little League games. That was how I felt him gone, even as I was too in shock to understand what had happened. That pain was and is real. Sports were necessarily part of how I processed his loss because they were so much a part of him. I can't say for certain, but I think part of my ongoing love of sports is a way to hold on to my memories of Baki.

Sports were also part of how I grieved. I don't know what it was like to be a Chiefs player today, but I  remember what it was like to channel my energy into sports in the months that followed Baki's death. I remember the relief of being part of a team. I remember how good it felt to have a goal (literally and figuratively) that was attainable. I remember what it was like to just be out of my head for a little while. All those manufactured identities, which I often dismiss but which are inseparable from sports and sports fandom, are so fundamentally human. They're a way to impose meaning, to know that there are others on your team, others that care about the same things you care about. Sports are a manifestation of community.

And sports matter. I've heard people joke about the NFL replacing the Church, not just as a communal obligation on Sundays, but as a cultural institution. I don't think that's necessarily too far from the truth (nor do I necessarily see that as a bad thing). We're all searching for meaning. Who am I to judge? Religion has more blood on its hands than CTE.

All of which is to say, sports may be cosmically unimportant, but that doesn't mean they can't heal or foster community or myriad other great and important things. Jovan Belcher's story is tragic in a way sports can never touch. I can't say for certain that the Chiefs should have played today, though I congratulate them on gritting through the game. I'm even ignoring a lot of the subtext, for the moment at least, that football contributed to Belcher's demise, even as I leave the door firmly open to that possibility. I'm simply saying that sports, insignificant sports - as a communal institution, as temporary respite, as a way for people to feel like they belong - maybe sports can heal.

3 comments:

  1. Beautiful, Jona. Thank you for this.

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  2. Thank you for sharing this, Jon. Your words are moving and true. Any thought of trying to be an NPR commentator? Aunt Susan

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    1. I appreciate it and am so happy people like this. It was a big deal to be this personal for me.

      As for NPR, it may be something I'll pursue. I'd never thought about it before.

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