In the wake of the events of this past weekend, I have spent this morning reflecting on the story of Jovan Belcher. On Saturday, the 25-year-old NFL player shot and killed his girlfriend (the mother of his infant daughter), then drove to the stadium to take his own life with his head coach and general manager looking on.
There are a multitude of soapboxes that have been pulled out of storage into in the past few days. On Sunday night, the iconic sportscaster Bob Costas made his case against handguns. On Monday, Rush Limbaugh brilliantly countered Costas by making the point that, clearly, handguns had nothing to do with the shootings. Good point.
Beyond the everlasting handgun debate lies a serious discussion regarding the health of football players. And as somebody who has spent more time getting to know my neurologist than I would like, the prevalence of concussions in the NFL (77 this year, to date) has been brought into speculation by the injury history of Belcher grabs my attention. While there is only one head injury listed on his stat sheet (and no hard data has shown this to be a cause for his breakdown), the brain is a sensitive device. Last year’s sudden suicide of former star Junior Seau raised awareness when word came out that he had suffered as many as 1,500 concussions. The frightening part about brain injuries, however, is that it only takes one hit to do permanent damage. NFL players live with the constant threat of a life-altering concussion.
The (much more) Inconvenient Conversation
And while handguns and concussions are certainly worthy topics of discussion, there is a subtler, more global issue at hand that will more than likely be overlooked in the final analysis. In a word, that issue is violence.
There is no getting around it- football is an extremely violent sport. How else can you account for the fact that the average lifespan for an NFL player, at 55, is around 22 shorter than the average man? By the way, the average lifespan of a major league baseball player is 5 years over the national average. The game chews men up and spits them out.
The great former running back Barry Sanders wrote, of his first professional game:
In that first game it seemed like bodies were whizzing by me like bullets and colliding like cymbals. No one in their right mind would throw themselves off a roof over and over and over again, and yet that’s what we did to our bodies once a week, nine months a year, until we left the game or the game left us.
Now, all I have is my own perspective, my own inner-workings, and a certain way in which I see the world. There is no scriptural principle against suiting up and taking to the gridiron- even on a Sunday morning. But, like I said, I have my own perspective. But this theme of violence is something that I am gripped by, as I reflect today. We legislate against murder, against assault, against abuse, and at the same time, we naively believe that we can watch twenty-two men pummel one another for hours on end, turn off the television, read a psalm and sleep the sleep of the righteous. How do we disconnect our entertainment from our reality? Are we as successful at shutting off violence as we think we are?
Tragically, it seems the players themselves sometimes have a hard time making the transition between bloodthirsty player and kind, gentle, loving man.
The prevalence of violence is not a new phenomenon in our time. It goes all the way back to a time when Cain, furious with Abel, his more spiritual twin brother, murders his own flesh in cold blood. Or perhaps our violent streak goes back one generation further.
It may take a few readings to see clearly, but when Eve took the fruit in the Garden, humanity declared an all-out war on peace. Violence would forever be our motif, our way of life.
Our problem is older than handguns and more life threatening than brain trauma. And as the people of God, it is our responsibility to be a people of peace. What that means for you come kickoff time is none of my business. I mean that as sincerely as I can. But as you watch, take your pulse every now and again, and consider what you will do with your emotions when the fourth quarter comes to a close.
In the wake of this latest unsettling news and the proliferation of soap-box preachers, I would simply suggest that we not miss the point once again. No, football is not to blame for any murder. Handguns- however powerful and unnecessary they may be-are not guilty of murder. It is our own thirst for destruction that invites violence to sit down and stay a while.
Sometimes we are so quick to dive into the controversy surrounding a tragedy such as this to see it for what it truly is. This is a story of a man who seemed to have it all, yet had this same flaw we all share. He was a son of Adam. He was (perhaps an unwilling) participant in the war against God.
God offers us peace, but first we must own that we are at war.
Perhaps the view would be better from down off the soap box.