On Saturday, Jovan Belcher, an inside linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, shot and killed his 22-year-old girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins. He then drove to Arrowhead Stadium and committed suicide, shooting himself in the head in front of head coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli. Sadly, there is another element to the tragedy. Belcher and Perkins leave behind a three-month-old daughter named Zoey, who was being looked after by Belcher’s mother in the same house where the first shooting occurred.

The initial reaction to this news was to feel anger and rage that someone would steal life from another, and then take their own, avoiding consequence at the hands of others and abandoning another human whose caretaking was their natural responsibility. Then, a brief moment of consideration revealed that there is never a simple explanation to the motivation behind any of our actions, least of all the most heinous. That isn’t meant to excuse what Belcher did, only to state that such heart-rending happenings leave little room for our own poorly-informed judgment.

The sports media coverage of the shootings, when not misusing the event as an opportunity to express personal opinions on gun control or the warrior culture of the National Football League, has focused mainly on the player, and not the victim. To Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic, this is distasteful.

I’ve been looking at how the sports media has been covering this and its a little dismaying to see pictures of Belcher smiling and the ever amorphous deploying of tragedy. I think it’s worth remembering that Belcher murdered his girlfriend, that what Jovan Belcher did and what Kurt Cobain did are not the same thing.

If Jovan Belcher wasn’t a professional football player, I think we might see more emphasis on the victim.

While I wouldn’t want to measure the rightness or wrongness of focusing attention on the more famous aspect of this particular devastation, I do understand our inclination toward viewing disasters involving a sports figure from his or her viewpoint.

There exists a tendency among some of us to convey a certain amount of detachment from sad events involving athletes because of the already excessive amount of attention being paid to whatever tragedy happened. This sentiment is something of a protest, meant to express that bad things happening to an athlete are no worse than bad things happening to people not living their lives on a public stage. This is hardly a profound perspective. No one would claim that the loss of life experienced on Saturday in Kansas City is any more significant than the loss of life that occurred anywhere else in the world on that same day. Acknowledging empathy in this situation doesn’t lend the circumstances undue importance.

Sports are a vicarious experience. We project ourselves into the cleats, sneakers, or skates of others, and derive an entire range of emotions based on their performance. With increased access to these athletes through the conveniences offered by modern technology, it’s become increasingly difficult for us to simply cease this practice when athletes remove themselves from the game and enter the domain of real life. That doesn’t mean that we suddenly all become surrogates for Robert De Niro’s character in The Fan. It simply means that sports have become a method for many of us to embrace or avoid the events of our own life.

We’ve heard many times that sports offer us a distraction. Deadspin’s Drew Magary, defending the NFL’s decision to play Sunday’s game involving the Chiefs and Carolina Panthers as originally scheduled, wrote favorably about the matchup being used as something to shift our focus.

You will hear the word “distraction” enough times today to make you want to throw up into a bucket. It’s a horrible cliché, but it’s not wrong.

However, sports also offer us an outlet to express things from our own lives that we might not wish to deal with in a head-on manner. When our vicarious projections extend beyond the field of play, it allows us to express emotions for legitimately tragic circumstances in sports more easily than communicating similar feelings caused by events that involve us as key figures, and that’s where this outpouring of sentiment – for an event that is largely not our own – comes from.

The people reading, viewing, and listening to sports media are typically sports fans. We’re attracted to sports because of its role as a distraction/outlet based on what athletes do, and so it’s entirely understandable why we’re more likely to see headlines referring to the events of Saturday as a suicide rather than a murder or both. That’s not wrong, and it’s not necessarily right either. Like much of our reaction to the impactful deaths of two people this weekend, it just is.

Rushing to define it, to lay blame, to find reasons for what occurred based on limited amounts of information, or to misappropriate it for the sake of one’s own agenda all come across as far more unnecessary than merely expressing pain, no matter where its rooted, through that with which we’re most familiar. Sadly, we’re more familiar with Jovan Belcher than Kasandra Perkins, and so he’s the vehicle with which we’re driven to the reality of this sadness.

References:

Chiefs Linebacker Commits Suicide At Stadium. [The New York Times]
The Killing Of Kasandra Perkins By Jovan Belcher. [The Atlantic]
Costas Advocates For Gun Control. [FOX Sports]
In KC, It’s No Time For A Game. [FOX Sports]
Why It’s OK For The Chiefs To Play A Game Today. [Deadspin]