“Sports, perhaps better than any endeavor except politics, has become adept at a type of cleansing more commonly associated with authoritarian governments. With surprising regularity and ease, once-popular figures who have run afoul of the rules or the law have been erased like disgraced leaders from an old Soviet photo album, whitewashed from history.” — Richard Sandomir, The New York Times
On December 1, 2012, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his baby’s mother, Kasandra Perkins. Then Belcher drove to the team’s facility next to Arrowhead Stadium and took his own life in front of head coach Romeo Crennel and General Manager Scott Pioli. Before committing suicide, Belcher “thanked” Scott Pioli and asked him as well as team owner Clark Hunt to care for his infant daughter, Zoey.
It is still chilling to even write these words. This should have been a story for our times and a reference point from where we measure every overblown “scandal” in sports. Instead, with a chilling uniformity, the NFL moved on like it was just a commercial break in the action. Every network, with the exception of NBC, barely touched on the horror in their pre-game and half-time shows that weekend. The name Kasandra Perkins went unsaid. As for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, he made the Super Bowl media rounds the following month and Jovan Belcher’s name somehow didn’t come up once.
This past weekend, Kansas City completed a remarkable turnaround from having the league’s worst record and was back in the playoffs. Yet as much as pre-game shows love segments about teams “overcoming the odds”, there was nothing about how new head coach Andy Reid was able to right the ship after such a tragedy. How did learning that their teammate was a killer who took his life in the franchise’s parking lot affect this Kansas City team? You would never know. Belcher seemed destined to be thrown into the memory hole, erased from the sports world, no different and no more or less important than Reggie Bush’s vacated 2005 Heisman Trophy. That is what made the news of a lawsuit levied against the Kansas City organization by Belcher’s mother Cheryl Shepherd last week so important. The NFL has moved on, but Cheryl Shepherd has not.
Ms. Shepherd wants to know why her son changed so dramatically. Mainly, she wants the facts to back up what she suspects. The suit alleges that undiagnosed head injuries transformed Jovan Belcher into a different human being. As Patrick Hruby writes in an excellent piece at Sports on Earth, the lawsuit “describes Belcher as a ‘loving father, son, teammate and advocate for victims of domestic violence’ who ended up suffering ‘severe and persistent headaches, [post-concussion syndrome], depression, mood swings, explosivity, suicidal ideations, irresistible and insane impulses’ and ‘neurologic dysfunction such as [chronic traumatic encephalopathy].’