Those who watched the Dallas Cowboys eke out a win over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday evening got a special treat from NBC during the halftime show. Along with recapping the football games from earlier in the day, analyst Bob Costas decided to spend 90 seconds discussing the murder-suicide committed by Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, in which he shot and killed his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins, the mother of their 3-month-old daughter, before going to Arrowhead Stadium and turning the gun on himself — in front of his coach and GM, who desperately tried to talk Belcher out of it. Instead of covering the story, though, Costas delivered an editorial about gun control and his opposition to the Second Amendment that ironically unfolded while "God Bless America" played behind him.
Without irony, Costas derided the spouting of tired bromides in the wake of tragedy: "In the aftermath of the nearly unfathomable events in Kansas City, that most mindless of sports clichés was heard yet again: 'Something like this really puts it all in perspective.'" Costas then quoted from a column written by Jason Whitlock in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, demanding that viewers keep perspective on the shooting by blaming the gun. "[I]f Jovan Belcher didn't possess a gun," Costas assured his audience, "he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today."
It's amazing how much Whitlock and Costas can assume about a murder-suicide in the short span of a single day, and how much blame they can assign the weapon rather than the perpetrator. Then again, supporters of the Second Amendment are used to those particular clichés in the immediate aftermath of a shooting death.
But here's the biggest issue with Costas' lecture: It came in the very strange context of how the NBC crew had addressed the crime throughout the broadcast of its Sunday night football broadcast. Like other NFL broadcasts earlier in the day, the commentators could hardly bring themselves to mention the fact that Belcher murdered his girlfriend. They referred to the incident as a tragedy, spoke of the losses of both people, and rightly mourned the fact that the couple's daughter would grow up an orphan, but never offered any judgment on Belcher's actions — until finally, after the game, an apparently exasperated Rodney Harrison noted that Belcher had deliberately taken someone else's life. In the middle of this non-judgmental approach, however, Costas spent more than a minute-and-a-half of air time blaming the gun.
Let's first get the facts straight about firearms and handguns in the U.S. Estimates vary widely on the number of households with firearms, but Gallup's survey in 2005 put it at 42 percent. With roughly 150 million households in the U.S., that means that a gun is present in roughly 63 million households. Yet the number of murders committed by firearm in 2011, according to FBI statistics, was 8,583. That represents 0.0136 percent of all firearm-owning households. Murders by handgun came to 6,220, which makes that percentage 0.0099 percent. If guns caused murders, we'd be seeing a lot more murders. More than 99 percent of Americans seem to be capable of owning guns without committing murder, which demolishes the blame-the-gun argument.
Costas' brand of knee-jerk speculation cuts both ways. After all, Belcher played in one of the most violent mass-market sports in the world. Did that have anything to do with the crime? Deadspin reports that Belcher sustained a concussion on Nov. 18, and had been taking medication for it — all while drinking large amounts of alcohol, according to a source close to Belcher. "If you review the footage of the Cincinnati game, he took a few hits to the head directly," an unnamed friend of Belcher's told Deadspin's Isaac Rauch in a series of emails. That mixture exacerbated tensions at home, where Perkins had just returned after the couple's separation, according to the source.
And when it comes to Belcher taking his own life... sadly, this isn't the first time that we've seen an NFL player commit suicide. There have been six suicides in the past two years, in fact. The NFL has recently, and belatedly, begun taking steps to prevent long-term brain damage to its players. The changes have been a long time coming, and might not be enough. As the New York Daily News reported on Sunday, evidence shows that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) might not come just from concussions, "but also from repeated, less spectacular blows to the head — calling into question the future of America's most popular sport."
Did the concussion and/or Belcher's medication cause him to kill? That kind of speculation becomes a lot more uncomfortable for commentators and networks that rely on the NFL for ratings and ad revenue, while gun manufacturers and owners make for a much safer target — pun intended. A medical cause seems a bit more likely than just having a handgun — but plenty of players have concussions without killing themselves or others. Perhaps sports experts should stick to sports, and report honestly on the dangers players face on the field, while we all let the police and medical experts investigate crimes themselves.