What Ailed Jovan Belcher & What’s Killing the NFL
America’s favorite sport has another major crisis on its hands.
At approximately 7:50am on December 1st, 2012, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher fatally shot his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, 10 times with a .40-milimeter handgun in the master bedroom of their home, his three month old daughter in the next room. Belcher then left the house and drove to the Chiefs’ practice facility, where he reportedly thanked Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli, head coach Romeo Crennel and linebackers coach Gary Gibbs before shooting himself.
A year after Belcher was buried, doctors exhumed his body to test his brain for signs of CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive brain disease found in some athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma. Dr. Piotr Kozlowski found tau proteins in seven sections of Belcher’s brain, findings that appear consistent with CTE.
At just 25 years old, Belcher was already dealing with a degenerative condition linked to depression and dementia. Belcher joins a growing list of over 50 former NFL players who have been diagnosed with the condition post mortem, including Hall of Famers Mike Webster and Junior Seau. Sadly, Belcher isn’t the only case that ended in a gruesome death: former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Justin Strzelcyzk died in a car crash after leading police on a 40-mile high speed chase in 2004; twenty-six-year-old Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry died after falling from the bed of a moving pickup during a fight with his fiancee; former linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide in 2012, shooting himself in the chest so his brain could be studied.
But while football isn’t the only sport that has had cases of CTE in athletes – CTE has been found in the brains of deceased former-soccer and lacrosse players, too – it’s the NFL’s defiant stance that concussions and repetitive brain trauma don’t lead to any long term effects that has so many angered. And it’s that same stance that has caused the media to scrutinize, poke and prod the NFL all the more.
By and large, the NFL isn’t passing the test. Since their admission in 2009 that multiple concussions lead to long term effects, the league has stayed mum on the issue. What’s more, they’ve consistently failed their players on the field. Despite improvements in helmet technology, the NFL hasn’t required players to wear newer, safer models – one study found that the most popular helmets on the field offer the least protection. It would be like NASCAR letting drivers choose whether or not to wear the best seat belts available. And while concussion protocol has improved over the last five years, the NFL still allows players to slip through the cracks. Twice during Wild Card weekend in last year’s playoffs, players diagnosed with concussions either attempted to or successfully got back on the field. This year, Philadelphia Eagles star running back LeSean McCoy took a hit to the head, lost his helmet, was helped off the field and taken to the locker room to be evaluated. The Eagles appeared to follow mandated concussion protocol. But five minutes later, McCoy was back on the sideline, and his play the rest of the day looked sluggish.
The studies on the long term effects of concussions have received national attention, and Pop Warner football’s numbers seem to have declined as a result, dropping five percent from 2010 to 2012. ESPN statisticians dispute that the drop is a result of concussion fears, but it stands to reason that a sport that has major problems – concussions and long term brain damage – and fails to curb or even adequately address those problems, will see national youth participation numbers drop. The NFL, it turns out, might not be undone by another more popular sport, but might instead fall victim to its own stupidity, its own inability to protect its athletes.