Liam Day wonders if the tragedy in Kansas City was a part of society’s expectations that men be strong and silent.
Let’s start with what we know. On Saturday morning, Jovan Belcher of the Kansas City Chiefs shot Kasandra Perkins, the mother of his three-month old baby, drove to Arrowhead Stadium, spoke briefly with his coach and the team’s general manager, then shot himself in the parking lot.
In the wake of the seemingly senseless tragedy, reporters and commenters from across the breadth of mainstream and social media have offered theories to explain what remains unexplainable. Bob Costas talked about guns, Deadspin has reports of short-term memory loss, Justin Peters says that the NFL has a dating violence problem. And certainly the immediate coverage of Saturday’s events included a fight earlier that morning when Kasandra Perkins returned around 1:00 AM from a concert she attended on Friday night.
My guess is that all of them are partially right. What happened Saturday is an example of dating or partner violence. There can be no doubt about that. Whether the NFL does indeed have a dating violence problem will take more comparison than Peters was willing to do in his piece, which he published on Slate, but it is not unreasonable to posit that men who play an extraordinarily violent sport might be more prone to violence off the field as well. How many of us bring our work home? What does a football player bring home?
At 25 Belcher probably hadn’t yet suffered the significant head trauma so many players who committed suicide before him had, but again, I don’t believe it’s unreasonable to hypothesize that his executive function, in particular, had been impaired by all the hits he’d taken over the course of his high school, college and professional football careers, as relatively brief as they may have been, and that this may have interfered with his ability to make a rational decision when he woke up Saturday morning after the fight with Perkins.
And clearly, owning a gun made it easier for Jovan Belcher to do what he did. To stand at a remove from another human being and pull a trigger requires less of us physically and emotionally than, say, stabbing or strangling someone does.
But I don’t believe any of these variables, all of which may well have been contributing factors, were determinative. Yes, Jovan Belcher committed an act of partner violence, but how many NFL players are happily married? Perhaps an autopsy will tell us that, even at only 25, Belcher was already suffering chronic traumatic encephalopathy, but how many former NFL players never committ suicide? Yes, the proliferation of guns in our society is one of the reasons our murder rate is so much higher than countries with stricter gun control, but not everyone who owns a gun shoots his or her spouse.
Yes, each of these factors was probably there and played a role, but they did so within a much broader context and I believe that, if we were to change the context, the presence of the factors would be significantly less likely to combine and, in combining, combust the way they did.
Despite the incredible advances we’ve made in the means we use to communicate, it is terribly ironic how badly we still suck at it. I used to joke that my mother was someone for whom the question, How are you?, was literal. Because it’s true. 99% of the time when we ask someone how they are we aren’t really interested in the answer. The question is a means of deflection, not connection. Because to connect, to truly learn how someone is, to learn about their physical pain and their emotional scars, is more than we can process probably in the passing moments we have between meetings or projects or e-mails or whatever it is that we have to do during our busy days.
The great Russian author Anton Chekhov wrote a story, whose title is alternately translated as Misery or Heartache, about a cabby in Moscow whose son has died. In the course of one night and a mere six pages, this man attempts to tell one after another of the parties of revelers he picks up and drops off about the death of his son, but each time they can do no more than offer the vaguest platitudes of sympathy before rushing off to their destinations. The story closes with the man telling his horse, the only living creature that will bear to listen, of his pain and misery.
Perhaps in terms less literary, but no less eloquent, Brady Quinn, the quarterback of Jovan Belcher’s team, spoke in the press conference after the game they played on Sunday, the day after Belcher killed first Kasandra Perkins and then himself, about our society’s failures to communicate. As reported in the Washington Post:
I know when it happened, I was sitting and, in my head, thinking what I could have done differently. When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it? When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you really telling the truth? We live in a society of social networks, with Twitter pages and Facebook, and that’s fine, but we have contact with our work associates, our family, our friends, and it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships that we have right in front of us.
And if this is true for our society as a whole, how much more true is it for men in our society, for whom communicating is not only not expected, but often actively discouraged? Real men don’t feel, they don’t fear, and they never cry. Generations of screen heroes—from Gary Cooper to John Wayne to Clint Eastwood—bred in us a belief that men are supposed to be strong and silent.
But, as Kevin Powell pointed out on CNN.com, being silent has left us almost totally lacking a language to communicate when we feel incapable of being strong, because to admit that we aren’t would be to admit that we are something less than a man. Right down to the very words we use to enforce conformity at recess in middle school—words like gay and fag, the epithet of choice whenever a boy can’t throw a football or hit a baseball or is afraid to hop a fence or skip school or ask a girl out on a date—it is a very limited vocabulary that we’ve inherited.
And the problem is, of course, that life is so extraordinarily complex. Maturing into manhood is a complex biological and cultural process; entering a romantic relationship with another person is no less complex, to say nothing of the complexity involved in caring for a baby you’ve brought into the world together. Each of these processes—for they are all processes, occuring as they do over time, continuing as they do without end, for we never stop growing up and our relationships never stop evolving and it is only the most selfish parents who ever stop caring for their children—demands a language that can fully describe them and our physical and emotional responses to them in all their complexity.
When we lack that language, we are likely to become frustrated and, when frustrated, violent. Not every man will commit murder-suicide, but how many will kick in a door or punch a wall or call their girlfriends or wives bitches at the tops of their lungs. When men become violent toward women it is partly due to the fact that they can’t get them to do what they want, out of the mistaken notion that it remains, even in the 21st century, the woman’s duty to respond to the man’s desires, but it is also a matter of being incapable of communicating what we want, truly and deeply want, because we lack the vocabulary.
In the next days and weeks, more information will emerge, I’m sure, about the life Jovan Belcher and Kasandra Perkins lived together, and more and different theories will be offered for why what happened happened. But, despite what else is learned, I can’t help feeling, like Kevin Powell, that this terrible tragedy might have been avoided had a young man, who, despite his 6’2”, 228-pound frame, had only recently become a man, been able to admit his fears and frustrations, which were very likely some of the same fears and frustrations many of his teammates have.
Because to have no fears and to feel no frustration is to be not a man, but a superman, and though I suspect it may be easy sometimes, playing professional football every Sunday in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans, to begin to believe you are a superman, no one is. It’s just too bad we can’t admit it.
Photo: Kathy Willens/AP