“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].’
The neurological changes to Jovan Belcher were aided and abetted by a culture of harassment and bullying directed, the lawsuit contends, from the highest levels of team management.
Shepherd’s legal team writes that “General Manager Scott Pioli and other agents of Defendant Kansas City Chiefs often berated Decedent, telling him on numerous occasions, that, ‘he was just an accident, and they would get rid of him.’ The Defendants constant bullying pressure and stress coupled with Decedents occupational neurological impairments caused or contributed to cause Decedent to become insane …”
Ms. Shepherd cannot rectify in her mind the fact that her son, Jovan Belcher, the killer of Kasandra Perkins, was once upon a time an advocate against violence against women. While at the University of Maine, Belcher was part of the organization Male Athletes Against Violence. Men enlisted in the struggle to stop violence against women are profoundly less likely to be violent against their own partners. Yet Belcher shot Perkins nine times, with his mother and child in the house. This was a different person, and Ms. Shepherd wants to know why.
That is exactly why the NFL should be nervous. Cheryl Shepherd, it appears, wants answers more than she wants a payout. In August 2013, more than 4,500 former NFL players suing the NFL for concussion negligence chose to settle out of court for $765 million. The deal indemnified the NFL against future class action law suits and ensured that no one would have access to the NFL’s own research on the effects of head injuries in their sport. But for Cheryl Shepherd, as Hruby writes, this is less a money grab than an “information grab.” She wants to go to trial, and if her suit is allowed to move forward, we will all get what the previous settlement denied us: a discovery process under oath. Harassing players to take the field with head injuries, under threat of losing their jobs, should not go unpunished. If Scott Pioli used what can only be described as his “class leverage” to compel Jovan Belcher to wreck his own brain, then he needs to be held to account.
The Belcher murder is a tragedy that speaks to everything the NFL attempts to hide in its skeleton-stuffed closet: guns, violence against women, and the looming possibility that head injuries could have contributed to Belcher’s deadly behavior. Attempting to rip it out of our collective memories is an obscenity. Kasandra Perkins is not a Heisman Trophy. If the truths about Belcher’s murder suicide are inconvenient for the NFL, then so be it.