For the typical American sports fan, waking up on an autumn Sunday means one thing: football. The thought of skipping it and missing any of the action, especially in our fantasy sports-driven culture, is almost unheard of. Imagine waking up one Sunday and having to actually interact with people.
Perhaps it’s a reality we will have to face decades down the road, of course. It’s obviously not for a lack of popularity, as the NFL is the most popular sports league around—attendance, television ratings, you name it. It stops becoming a game, though, when general well-being is put at risk.
This past weekend’s tragic events put that in a sobering light. Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend before killing himself at Kansas City’s practice facility a few hours later.
In a vacuum, this would seem like an isolated incident. It would seem to be a player’s sanity gone awry and not reflective of the NFL as a whole. That’s obviously true, as this tragedy had a lot to do with Belcher’s emotional distress. But I cannot seem to shake the notion that a great deal of blame has to be put on the game of football.
There are reports that Belcher suffered head injuries, just like any other NFL player. It is entirely possible that countless concussions over the span of his short NFL career led to exacerbated mental problems, which we now know he dealt with. Even with counseling, multiple head injuries may have done something to Belcher’s thinking that led to his actions.
Just to be clear, this is not meant to exonerate Belcher in any way, shape, or form—not even close. Killing his girlfriend and leaving his infant daughter orphaned is an unspeakable crime. Still, it raises the question of whether a gladiatorial sport like the NFL had something to do with it. It’s probably the first time something along these lines has occurred, but with mounting head injuries we cannot be quite certain it is the last.
I hope they are able to determine if there was some brain damage that took Belcher over the top. It would certainly be a damning conclusion for a league that claims to put player safety at the forefront. They have certainly taken measures in that regard: increasingly stringent rules on unnecessary hits and rigid concussion guidelines after any reported head injury just two among them.
But while they stand as great safety initiatives on the NFL’s part, there is no denying the hypocrisy that underlies it. For Roger Goodell and his league, it’s all about the money—always has been and always will be, unless these safety concerns continue to grow over time. After the Belcher murder-suicide, playing a football game the next day was a ridiculous decision for the NFL.
Hell, take a look at the Chiefs’ sentiments after the game. Sure, they won, but their attitudes reflected one of just getting through the game. There was no motivation present; it’s pretty ludicrous notion to rally behind a murderer, even if he is a fallen teammate.
The NFL’s revenue-hungry model doesn’t stop there. Take Thursday night games as a prime example. One scheduling faux pas had the Ravens playing four games in 18 days. This results in a muddied product, if we are to look purely at the results. The Thursday night games consist of two lethargic, exhausted teams trying to somehow push through and get a win, while fans and team management hold their breath hoping to avoid some major injury to their star players.
The beating an NFL player takes in one game is incalculable, so for Goodell to force them to stunt their recovery time by three days is pretty unfair.
As if that wasn’t enough, the league has flirted with expanding the schedule for some time now, adding an extra game or two with the sole purpose of increasing their already bloated budgetary bottom line. For players, it would just mean an extra weekend or two of taking that constant pounding. So much for player safety.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. For all the devastating head injuries we plainly witness on Sundays, there are plenty more that players, to a startling degree, tend to shake off.
“Be in the hundreds,” Hall of Famer Jack Youngblood told the New York Post of his head injuries. “If I didn’t have a concussion every football game, you weren’t playing very hard.”
Perhaps there is some apocalyptic end for the NFL coming, at least as the system exists now. Or, maybe the NFL is just too big of a monster to fail, even with mounting concerns over concussions. Either way, it’s tragic that we needed Jovan Belcher to bring the issue back to the forefront.