Monday, December 3, 2012

Football: Tragedy and Furor.

     If we’d had a water cooler at church Monday morning, it is certainly clear that one of the subjects being discussed would have been the Jovan Belcher murder suicide and the surrounding events.  For those who have remained blissfully unaware, a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Michelle Perkins, by shooting her nine times on Saturday.  He then proceeded to Arrowhead Stadium, where he encountered two coaches and the Chiefs GM.  He thanked the GM and the coaches for the opportunities they had given him and then, as officers were arriving on the scene, took his own life in front of those men whom he had thanked.  Had that been the end of the story, there would have been much tragedy to discuss.  Belcher’s actions leave his newborn daughter, Zoey, without her father and mother.  Two families are obviously devastated, and the holidays will never be the same for them.  Plus, Belcher had been an American success story.  He had signed with the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent -- he was not expected to make the team.  Yet he had worked himself into the starting lineup, and he had recently signed a lucrative contract extension which would have assured the couple financially.  What makes someone who has worked so hard, overcome such incredible odds, do something so horrific?

      Had that been all the story, there would have been much to discuss.  Bob Costas, the multiple award winning sportscaster from NBC, decided on Sunday to do his weekly editorial on the loose gun culture in America.  Some interpreted Mr. Costas’ opinion to be a call for the repeal of the second amendment.  Others, of course, thought that sports and politics had no business being intertwined.  Still others went on the defense for the NFL as Mr. Costas remarked there will be much to investigate in the future.  How much of a role did concussions or performance enhancing substances or even the culture of football play in this seemingly random, but incredibly tragic series of events?  And, lest we forget, some pundits were wondering whether the game between the Panthers and the Chiefs should have even been played just as other pundits were alleging that Mr. Costas’ views were an offense worthy of being fired.  Who knew a first amendment right, expressing an opinion that relates to the second amendment, should be a fireable offense and equated with racist and sexist remarks!

     Where to begin?  What makes the Belcher case worthy of note, unfortunately, is the fact that he was an NFL player.  In many ways, the NFL has replaced the gladiatorial games of the Roman Empire and has, in a real way, become a modern idol in America.  Don’t get me wrong, I love my football, especially my Steelers.  But look at how the NFL sets the schedule for much of America.  There are, in most locations in the United States, an early game and late afternoon game televised.  Try being a pastor when members of your congregation are reminding you before the service the need to be quick because the Pack and the Queens are playing at noon!  We used to just have Monday Night football, but that became such a ratings juggernaut that the NFL sold games on Sunday and Thursday nights to make more money for the league.  The SuperBowl has become the single biggest watched show in the United States, and advertisers launch campaigns around the event.  Heck, even at St. Alban’s we schedule our Annual Meeting for the week between the Conference Championships and the Super Bowl.  SportsCenter and other such shows have made the “big hit” must see for each game.  Yes, we love touchdown runs.  Yes, touchdown throws and catches can be a thing of art.  But the big collisions always, always get shown on the highlight real.  And the men who play and coach the game are larger than life.  Yes, we enjoy their failures, but we also love their stories of redemption.  And the money . . . billions and billions of dollars are made from this endeavor.

     That’s why much hay was made Saturday over whether to play the game:  the dollars.  Reportedly, the Chief’s team voted to play.  If such is the case, I have no problem with the decisions.  If owners or management or the league pressured the players, well, that’s a different story.  People respond to tragedies in different ways.  I get that.  As a pastor I get to see the very worst in human behavior (mostly around weddings and funerals, but that’s a discussion for a different day).  That a bunch of football players wanted to play in light of the tragedy would not shock me.  Similarly, though, I would not have been surprised had those same players said they were too emotionally drained to “get up” for the scheduled game.

     I do have a heart for the coaches as well.  I am blessed to cheer for a team that has had only three coaches in my lifetime (Steeler coaches retire).  Much of the country errs and cheers for teams that go through coaches every three to five years.  As a consequence, coaches seem to have been commoditized by society.  By that I mean we seem to think that the men under the headphones are interchangeable.  What we forget is that coaches become intimately intertwined in the lives of their players.  They become emotionally invested in the young men and women who play for them.  They learn what makes their players tick and become master motivators, assuming they are good coaches.  No matter the level of football, coaches become aware of the family lives of their players.  It’s simply unavoidable.  I’ve no doubt that the Chief coaches feel personally like failures for being unable to get Belcher to put down the gun.  For the rest of their lives they will see trigger being pulled and hear the sound of the bullet firing.  Hearing what I have of Coach Crennel, he is well liked by those who played for him.  I have little doubt he will carry a guilt over his player’s death, at least for a time.

     Dollars are king in all NFL decisions.  Less attention is paid to what the player does off the field than what occurs on the field.  Laws can be broken, but if one can play and help a team win, a team will usually pay up for the player’s services.  Players can cheat using drugs or by taking cheap shots, but little is unforgivable if the players has the talent.  At this point, we do not know what prompted the Chiefs to get counseling for this young couple.  Was it the stress of the birth and parenthood?  Was the player not adjusting well to life off the field well?  This being professional sports, the question should certainly be considered, did something he put in his body contribute to this?  This being football, did he suffer brain injuries from those glorious collisions which contributed to these problems?  Was the decision not to marry hers?  There are lots of reasons that could have caused the Chiefs to get the couple into some kind of therapy.  No doubt we will learn more about those reasons in the coming weeks.  

     Had Belcher been a factory worker, the events of the day likely would have been buried on the back pages of only the local newspaper.  It is a sad, tragic tale we know all too well.  Domestic violence is still a big part of society and a big part of our ministry here at St. Alban’s.  Nobody shines a spotlight on the women and men with whom we deal and the mean who beat or threaten to kill them.  We might not be too surprised to learn that a man killed a woman because she stayed out late with friends, but parts of the country were shocked.  My guess is that part of the offense at Costas’ remarks were the fact that he placed domestic violence and their victims smack dab in the middle of the American conscience, at least for a brief time.  Too many of our neighbors would rather go about their lives with their heads buried in the sand than admit a significant portion of our population sees nothing wrong with domestic violence.  Because Costas’ statement was given during halftime of the Sunday Night game, millions of eyes and ears were forced to confront a societal evil.  What makes such violence acceptable?  What can be done to prevent it?  That some believe there is no reason to bring up such questions causes me to question their agendas.  A football player shot a woman 9 times!  If domestic violence is not to be discussed during the next set of games, when will it ever get discussed in society?

     And speaking of Domestic Violence and Mr. Costas’ editorial, what of our gun culture?  Clearly we have the right to bear arms.  But Costas raises an issue with which we as citizens living in an American society must confront.  Can situations such as the Perkins murder be avoided?  Far too often we see events similar to this play out because one of the perpetrators had a gun (think of Trayvon Martin case, for example).  Although it is not as common, we sometimes hear how a life was saved by the ownership of a gun.  So pundits and viewers should probably not be too shocked to hear that such an event is causing us to consider how we govern ourselves.  Do we want to enable men who risk brain injury on practice days and game days to be able to buy and carry weapons as they want?  Or do we as a society want to consider some prudent restrictions?  I certainly do not know the answers, and I do wish we could help avoid tragedies like this from happening.

     I do, however, find Coach Dungy comments very disturbing.  The long time coach of the Indianapolis Colts (and a former Steeler, by the way!) remarked that about three quarters of his players always owned guns when training camp started each year.  Three-quarters of his players each year!  The problem was such that the NFL brought FBI and local officials in to make sure the guns got registered properly (players move or come to town from all over the country). Really, the NFL was probably avoiding tarnishing the shield.  What if three quarters of new players made the police blotter for gun possession?  Worse, what if some of those guns carried had been used in the commission of a crime?  Ostensibly, the law enforcement brought in made sure the players knew the local rules.  When can guns be carried?  Can they be concealed?  How is law enforcement informed during inevitable contact.  Given the violence of the sport and the risk for injury, is this the best the NFL can do?  But can they reasonably do more?  If gun ownership were banned by standard language in the player contract, would players adhere to the spirit of the language?  How many try to trick the doctors checking for concussion?  Why should we think they would act differently when many come from backgrounds where possession of guns is a given?

      I must confess I am at a loss over the increasing furor surrounding Costas’ comments.  I get that people want the right to bear arms to be uninfringed.  The language is in the Bill of Rights.  It’s in our DNA.  But we must also acknowledge that we infringe on this amendment from time to time.  Criminals and the mentally ill are not allowed to bear arms, for good reason.  Similarly, even law abiding citizens are prevented from owning certain types of weapons, though that limitation is often a source of passionate debate.  Mr. Costas’ comments came at halftime of a game the day after the murder.  Mr. Costas, by virtue of his longevity and the quality of his work, has earned the right to use the platform given him to speak on any number of subjects that relate to the sports he covers.  He has challenged baseball and its tacit acceptance of both steroids and a two-tiered system which prevents many fans from reasonably expecting their team to contend.  He has certainly used his platform on the Olympics to address a number of different concerns.  Each of his discussions that I can recall, though, relate directly to sports.  Mr. Belcher was a good linebacker in the NFL (one of only 93 men in the sport who start).  After he killed his girlfriend, he drove to his home stadium, the site of yesterday’s game against the Panthers.  He shot himself in front of two coaches and the GM after thanking them for their faith in him and offering him a shot.  How is this event not related to football?

     And for those who want to silence Mr. Costas because he dared to question the 2nd amendment: did he?  Did he in fact challenge the second amendment?  Or was he calling into focus and discussion the American attitude that we should all have easy access to guns.  Did he make some controversial statements?  Sure.  Nobody knows whether they would have been alive today had he not owned a gun.  The day that this murder suicide was being perpetrated, a young man out west was killing his father and self with a crossbow and knife while students fled to safety.  We in the QCA know of cars being used to kill women, knives, and bludgeoning weapons as well as hands.  Mr. Belcher was big enough and strong enough to strangle Ms. Perkins, if his emotions were so out of control.  Ownership of a gun doesn’t necessarily mean a death sentence for someone in a fight.  But I don’t think Mr. Costas did anything wrong raising the questions.  Quite the contrary, I think Mr. Costas’ comments could force society to confront some of its darker sides, sides we might prefer were not examined.  But firing him?  Equating his comments to racist or sexist comments as some pundits have done?  Hyperbole much?  Wait, that’s a free speech right, too.  Maybe those pundits should be fired for holding views contrary to others.

     All of this discussion, so far, has ignored the harder questions that so many want to talk about.  What caused this?  Why would he snap like this?  What happens to him now that he killed himself?  What should we think about it?  The truth is, we may never know for sure what caused Mr. Belcher to snap and kill his girlfriend, take his own life, and leave his three month old daughter an orphan.  We may never have the questions of why answered sufficiently so that we can point to a specific cause.  What we can say about this as Christians, however, is two-fold.  One, in this season of Advent as we look with joy upon our Lord’s first coming, such tragedies remind us of our need of a Savior.  Only God can redeem senseless violence and terrible pain.  Only He can take the guilt that friends, family, teammates, coaches, law enforcement and others might feel for whatever they did or did not do in dealing with this young couple.  Only He can become sin and create in us the righteousness of His Father in heaven.

     The other thing we can do, however, is contribute to the water-cooler discussions that center on these events.  You and I serve a Lord who commanded us to turn the other cheek rather than seek revenge.  Better still, we are reminded that vengeance ultimately is His.  If we choose not to use weapons as an outflow of our love for neighbors, maybe others will be inspired to take up our counter cultural decision.  Yes, as Americans we have the right to buy all the guns we want to protect ourselves.  As His children, though, we recognize that we already have the best protection possible.  Even if we die today, we still belong to Him.  And that, brothers and sisters, is an incredible promise.  But it is a promise He has already demonstrated the power to keep.

     The violence that such actions entail also remind us of our need for a Savior.  While most of us would love to focus this season on the little baby and the loving father and mother, His birth is only part of the Gospel.  This little baby came to die for us.  To understand Christmas fully, we must also understand the violence of Holy Week and the Cross.  Were this little baby unwilling to walk that path for us, we would have no hope.  We would still need a Savior.

      I understand that people want answers.  Many of us want to understand everything that happens around us.  I think part of the problem that some had with Mr. Costas’ comments on this tragedy is that he admitted he lacked many answers.  In fact, he admitted that we as a society lacked many answers.  Some had tuned in Sunday to escape the pressures of life, and Mr. Costas dared to remind viewers of their ultimate ignorance and ability to commit their own tragedies.  Many times we Christians must live without answers as well.  We see through the glass darkly.  But He demands that we see ourselves with His eyes.  Suicide remains one of those uncomfortable questions we try hard to ignore in the Church.  How does one get so hopeless?  How does one forget that through Him they were created and have their being?  How does one reject His life and His love?  Ultimately, the fate of this young man and the woman he killed and all of us on earth rests on this baby that will grow up to die on a Cross.  To Him has been given all authority and power, and so He will make the righteous judgment even in cases such as this.  If Mr. Belcher was a Christian and just snapped, our Lord knows.  If the sport he played somehow damaged his decision-making, our Lord knows.  And if he rejected our Lord, He knows that too.  In either case, the One who died gets to make the decision.  That’s His authority.  That’s His job.  Thank God He loves widows and little girls like Zoey.  Thank God He loved us all enough to come among us and redeem us.


No comments: