The terrible tragedy of Jovan Belcher's murder-suicide is a moment in time that causes a step back. Sometimes we tend to treat players as commodities -- height, weight, speed, 40 time, salary-cap number, etc. -- rather than people. But players are not just numbers on a roster or spreadsheet. And some, like Belcher, carry demons that can manifest in the most horrific way.
I certainly dealt with players losing family members on the eve of games, most notably that memorable night in Oakland in 2003 when Brett Favre’s father died. Those experiences, while difficult, were nothing like what the Chiefs are experiencing now.
A tragedy such as this, as most, causes us to focus on what, if anything, could have prevented it. Let’s examine:
In my experience, teams have secure parking lots and entrances to team facilities, requiring punching in passcodes for entry. Of course, these security measures are designed to protect players and coaches from external, not internal, threats.
As with many new initiatives, the Belcher case may force further implementation of team security. A player possessing and using a gun on himself within the team parking lot and/or facility is uncharted territory but will cause discussion on precautions not only for player entry into secure areas but also perhaps player screening at different checkpoints.
NFL teams spare no expense on physical training: three full-time trainers, two team doctors and outsourced specialists. The disastrous Belcher event focuses efforts on the mental side.
All teams have player engagement directors -- many of them former players -- to guide players in acclimating and succeeding outside of playing. They start with incoming rookies as “chaperones” at the rookie symposium, trying to earn the trust of incoming players. I know many of these directors and recommend some highly.
They are not qualified in areas of mental health counseling, however, and players do view some as “spies” for management. When I tweeted about them Sunday morning, LeCharles Bentley, a former player with the Browns, said of them: “Too busy trying to get dirt on players to run back and tell GM or Coach... A few good ones but way more bad ones.” Beyond these directors, teams have mental counseling available, usually directed to specialists when asked. After this tragedy, my sense is there will be refocusing in this area.
As to NFL resources, the league instituted this hotline in July -- NFL Life Line -- with “trained counselors who can help individuals work through any personal or emotional crisis.” Although some have inferred that the hotline's timing was in response to the death of Junior Seau, whatever the reason, it is important to have it available.
Of course, all the mental counseling resources imaginable -- whether through the team or the league -- are inconsequential if the affected person does not reach out for help. We may never know whether Belcher showed signs of needing help or even if he sought it out. For the sake of his deceased girlfriend and orphaned baby daughter, we all wish he had.
Playing the game
Once the decision on whether to play Sunday's game was posed to Chiefs players, I expected the game to proceed as scheduled. Players want to play; it’s what they know, it’s what they do.
Putting aside the logistical concerns of not playing -- won-loss records, contractual clauses, broadcast and sponsorship issues, gate receipts, etc. -- this was a decision that had to be made once the players were consulted. The Chiefs will use motivation of Zoe -- the little girl now left without parents -- to fuel them.
It often takes a tragedy to focus on elements previously unseen and dormant. Let’s hope the Belcher tragedy can effect some positive change in the mental health and screening for NFL players.