Football player murder-suicide, traumatic brain injury and gun culture

The tragedy is undeniable. Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher fatally shot his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, Saturday morning in front of his own mother while the couple’s three-month old daughter slept in another room. Belcher  then drove to Arrowhead Stadium, where, after thanking his coach and general manager  for giving him a chance to play in the NFL, he shot himself to death, as the two men looked on.

Ultimately, we’ll never know what Belcher was thinking or feeling when he killed his girlfriend and then himself. The couple had been arguing but we don’t know about what. What we do know, though, is that neither internal problems in the couple’s relationship nor Belcher’s internal psychology can explain the horrific events, but rather the twin tragedies of traumatic brain injury and gun availability.

Derek Flood in the Huffington Post and Rick Morrissey at the Chicago Sun Times both look at traumatic brain injury, often sustained by football players and other athletes, as the potential cause of the Belcher’s seemingly inexplicable behavior. Morrissey writes that “Insanity is the only explanation I have right now for the tragedy that occurred in Kansas City, Mo., on Saturday morning…. There’s not enough information out yet, but nothing else fits beyond mental illness or brain injury or some combination of the two.” Flood points out that Belcher didn’t fit the profile of a domestic abuser.

Belcher graduated with a degree in child development and family relations from the University of Maine. While at Maine Belcher joined the anti-violence group Male Athletes Against Violence. As a member of MAAV, Belcher would have signed a pledge which included these lines:

I pledge:

  • to educate myself on issues surrounding violence while developing personal beliefs against the use of violence
  • to be a positive role model for my community
  • to look honestly at my actions in regard to violence and make changes if necessary
Flood also points out that those who knew Belcher were shocked by his behavior. Belcher’s former University of Maine football coach Jack Cosgrove  said, “I’m hard-pressed to find or recall a young man who had more of an impact in a positive way on his teammates and his football family in my time here. He’s truly one of the great stories in the program’s history.” And Belcher’s former High School coach Ron Langella said, “He was a good athlete, but an even better person. An unbelievable role model.”

Both Flood and Morrissey implore us to look at traumatic brain injury and what we should do about it. Flood urges, “we should be hesitant to write this off as a case of “one bad apple,” avoiding the larger conversation we need to have. When it comes to sports and TBI, perhaps it’s time we asked ourselves some tough questions about how much are we willing to sacrifice for our entertainment.” And Morrissey asks, “when are we going to reach the point when we seriously ask ourselves whether the game of football is worth it? Not as an academic question but in a practical way of asking how many lives we’re willing to sacrifice to a game.”

And as Flood points out,

The combination of traumatic brain injury, alcohol, and handguns make for a deadly combination that not only may be behind Belcher’s murder-suicide, but has also been linked to an alarming trend of suicides and violent crime among soldiers returning from combat. Again, we find the same scenario: Good kids who suddenly “crack” and become violent.

And when it comes to the role of gun culture, nobody said it better than Bob Costas, during Sunday’s half time and Jason Whitlock, the sports journalist he cited in his speech.

Transcript after the jump.

Well, you knew it was coming. In the aftermath of the nearly unfathomable events in Kansas City, that most mindless of sports clichés was heard yet again: Something like this really puts it all in perspective. Well, if so, that sort of perspective has a very short shelf-life since we will inevitably hear about the perspective we have supposedly again regained the next time ugly reality intrudes upon our games. Please, those who need tragedies to continually recalibrate their sense of proportion about sports would seem to have little hope of ever truly achieving perspective. You want some actual perspective on this? Well, a bit of it comes from the Kansas City-based writer Jason Whitlock with whom I do not always agree, but who today said it so well that we may as well just quote or paraphrase from the end of his article.

“Our current gun culture,”Whitlock wrote, “ensures that more and more domestic disputes will end in the ultimate tragedy and that more convenience-store confrontations over loud music coming from a car will leave more teenage boys bloodied and dead.”

“Handguns do not enhance our safety. They exacerbate our flaws, tempt us to escalate arguments, and bait us into embracing confrontation rather than avoiding it. In the coming days, Jovan Belcher’s actions, and their possible connection to football will be analyzed. Who knows?”

“But here,” wrote Jason Whitlock,” is what I believe. If Jovan Belcher didn’t possess a gun, he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today.”


Born and raised on the mean streets of New York City’s Upper West Side, Katie Halper is a comic, writer, blogger, satirist and filmmaker based in New York. Katie graduated from The Dalton School (where she teaches history) and Wesleyan University (where she learned that labels are for jars.) A director of Living Liberally and co-founder/performer in Laughing Liberally, Katie has performed at Town Hall, Symphony Space, The Culture Project, D.C. Comedy Festival, all five Netroots Nations, and The Nation Magazine Cruise, where she made Howard Dean laugh! and has appeared with Lizz Winstead, Markos Moulitsas, The Yes Men, Cynthia Nixon and Jim Hightower. Her writing and videos have appeared in The New York Times, Comedy Central, The Nation Magazine, Gawker, Nerve, Jezebel, the Huffington Post, Alternet and Katie has been featured in/on NY Magazine, LA Times, In These Times, Gawker,Jezebel, MSNBC, Air America, GritTV, the Alan Colmes Show, Sirius radio (which hung up on her once) and the National Review, which called Katie “cute and some what brainy.” Katie co-produced Tim Robbins’s film Embedded, (Venice Film Festival, Sundance Channel); Estela Bravo’s Free to Fly (Havana Film Festival, LA Latino Film Festival); was outreach director for The Take, Naomi Klein/Avi Lewis documentary about Argentine workers (Toronto & Venice Film Festivals, Film Forum); co-directed New Yorkers Remember the Spanish Civil War, a video for Museum of the City of NY exhibit, and wrote/directed viral satiric videos including Jews/ Women/ Gays for McCain.

Katie is a writer, comedian, filmmaker, and New Yorker.

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Join the Conversation

  • Megan

    I’m dismayed that you’re so quick to write off domestic abuse as a possible contributing factor, just because he joined a group in college and his friends think he’s a great guy. While I agree that access to firearms and possible traumatic brain injury are also involved, the fact is that he murdered his partner. There are plenty of football players with access to weapons who haven’t killed anyone, let alone an intimate partner. And he didn’t snap and shoot up a public place, or go after people associated with his work. He focused on his partner. “Internal problems in the couple’s relationship” may actually be able to explain a lot about what happened, and there’s a lot about the situation that points to domestic violence as a cause instead of away from it.

    • Robert

      Now that you mention it, once gun control was talked about I think most people forgot about the domestic violence part. Also, I heard someone say on a sports radio show that the NFL would rather bring attention to gun control than any brain damage because of the legal issues they have had with concussions. It also doesn’t hurt to get attention off domestic violence since there have been more than a few cases involving NFL players beating their lovers. Their PR department has done a great job.

  • Brittany

    Dude, there’s already a Facebook page begging for Bob Costas to be banned from the NFL. It is the funniest thing I’ve seen all week.

  • Robert

    Jovan Belcher was an NFL linebacker. For those that don’t follow football linebackers are pretty strong dudes. He happened to have a gun but even if he didn’t he could’ve easily killed his girlfriend with his bare hands or a kitchen knife. I disagree with republicans on some things but when it comes to guns, or any weapon for that matter, you have to blame the attacker. What Bob Costas said was stupid. That’s like someone saying if there were no cars there would never be drunk drivers crashing cars. If there was no internet there would be no online scams. If women never went out in public they would never get harassed in public. I could go on and on. Sometimes I wonder if people are for banning guns just for the sake of disagreeing with republicans. Switzerland, which requires that all adult males have guns, has very little gun crime. Mexico on the other hand has strict gun laws and has higher gun related crime than the US. I don’t own a gun but I believe in the right to own one.

  • Erin

    I find this analysis troubling. As an advocate at an anti-domestic violence agency, I often work with groups interested in learning about domestic violence. One of the hot topics of discussion has been whether or not veterans are more likely to be abusive when returning from war. I see a parallel here. The research shows that veterans who return with PTSD or TBI have symptoms that may appear to be similar to an abuser’s behavior, with some distinct differences. For example, being overly concerned or worried when a loved one leaves the house may feel overbearing, but without the elements of control and dominance, such as constantly checking and demanding an explanation for every errand, it is not abusive. Writing off this case because Belcher seemed like a nice guy is pretty typical of most cases of domestic violence. If someone seems too nice, too charismatic to be an abusive monster, no one will believe the survivor when she discloses the abuse. It’s a tactic of control. Even ESPN ( is writing about domestic violence in regards to this case – so why is there an insistence on framing this about gun control or TBI? Is it just too scary to consider that a well-liked guy could also be abusive? Let’s face it: killing your significant other IS abuse. Someone capable of that kind of violence is not acting out because of a brain injury.

  • Sarah

    I can’t help but feel really surprised at the framing of this piece. Katie, I normally love your work, but I worry that you missed the mark here.

    Ignoring the fact that this was a case of domestic violence and writing about it in terms of gun control and TBI is irresponsible and dishonest. This man killed his wife – that is domestic violence. To reduce a horrific and deadly societal problem like domestic violence to “internal problems in the couple’s relationship” is deeply misguided. Stating that he didn’t fit the profile of a domestic abuser and mentioning his involvement in an anti-violence organization – as if that proves anything – is pretty hasty.

    The reality is, unfortunately, that perpetrators of domestic violence seem pretty ‘normal’ – they have friends and family, they play sports, they join clubs in college. There is no profile that fits all domestic abusers, except for one: having committed an act of violence act against a partner, which Belcher did. In fact, one of the hallmarks of an abuser is to seem like a Nice Person to everyone else. To create a persona that others would defend by denying the potential for abuse is a very common tactic to silence and manipulate survivors.

    I agree wholeheartedly that we need to critically examine traumatic brain injury and football, but this is not the appropriate angle for that conversation. This is a case of domestic violence, full stop.

  • Carlin

    Anyone who has experience in victim/survivor-centered support services will fully understand the desire to always say the “right” thing when DV or SA comes up – especially when the dominant voices of the media/culture are offering up some pretty horrible commentary. The problem I find is that there is no such thing as a blog post/FB status/online comment -sized equivalent of perfection when we’re trying to unravel the incredibly complex grey area of individual acts of intimate partner or sexualized violence. There just isn’t.
    We pretend that we have the knowledge and expertise to cut right to the core of the issues, but that’s really an illusion brought on by our personal ideology. No one else can be counted on to interpret our words in just the way we mean them. Or to read between the lines for the social and cultural context.
    So, this Feministing post didn’t reach to the heavens and open up the sky to reveal the truth-of-all-truths… It still was a really good attempt at talking about mutliple facets of Kasandra’s murder. I can’t argue with that.
    Thank you for writing it, Katie.