One Lesson of the Jovan Belcher Murder/Suicide: The NFL Has a Serious Domestic Violence Problem

Jovan Belcher
Jovan Belcher

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

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On Saturday, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins to death. Then he drove to the Chiefs’ practice facility, where, after thanking two of his coaches and the team’s general manager for all they had done for him, he shot himself in the head.

The Chiefs’ team captains and the NFL decided that Sunday afternoon’s game with the Carolina Panthers would proceed as normal, and, as an acknowledgement of the tragedy, the game began with a moment of silence for victims of domestic violence. It was a nice gesture, but considering the NFL’s serious domestic violence problem, it was sort of an empty one.

The San Diego Union-Tribune hosts a tremendously helpful database of NFL player arrests since 2000. I went through it last night, and determined that of the 32 NFL teams, 21 of them have this year had at least one player who’s been charged at some point with domestic violence or sexual assault. (I should note that some of these charges were withdrawn, and some of the players were acquitted. I should also note that charges are often withdrawn in domestic violence cases, even when the accused is almost certainly guilty. I should finally note that even though this database is thorough, it is likely not totally comprehensive.)

Each team in the AFC East has at least one player who qualifies: injured Jets receiver Santonio Holmes, arrested for assaulting his daughter’s mother; Patriots wideout Julian Edelman, charged with grabbing a stranger’s vagina during a Halloween party; Dolphins linemen Tony McDaniel and Randy Starks, arrested for domestic battery and assault, respectively; and Bills linebacker Shawne Merriman, who in 2009 was charged with viciously choking MySpace celebrity Tila Tequila.

The AFC North is similarly well represented, with Ravens linebacker Albert McClellan, Steelers linebacker James Harrison, Bengals tight end Richard Quinn, and Browns defensive end Frostee Rucker all having domestic violence charges on their records. In the NFC East, Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant was charged with attacking his mother, while Giants Michael Boley and Rocky Bernard were accused of throwing their significant others into a wall and a glass divider, respectively. (“We don’t condone any kind of domestic violence of any kind in any way,” said Giants GM Jerry Reese after signing the two players. “But Michael Boley does all kinds of community service and people never talk about that.”)

The NFC West includes players like Rams offensive lineman Quinn Ojinnaka, arrested for throwing his wife down the stairs during an argument about Facebook, and Seahawks linebacker Leroy Hill, charged with attacking his live-in girlfriend. Earlier this year, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh told his team that “we can do anything in the world and we can come and talk to him and he’ll forgive us except put our hands on women. If you put your hand on a woman then you’re done in his book.” But apparently that book contains exceptions for Perrish Cox, accused of rape, and Ahmad Brooks, who in 2008 punched a woman in the face.

The only blameless division is the AFC South, which, as far as I can tell, harbors no accused abusers in its ranks. (It is, however, the home of Jaguars punter Bryan Anger, who, if his name is any indication, will probably explode any day now, probably at teammate Guy Whimper.)

There are approximately 1700 active players in the NFL, and by my count, about 2 percent of them have faced abuse or violence charges. I’m not sure how this compares to the general population, though I’d be interested to find out. I do know that, according to a very recent report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the overall national rate of intimate partner violence declined by 64 percent from 1994 to 2010. I would be very, very surprised if the NFL is matching this trend.

It’s easy to blame this on football itself, a game in which participants hit people for money, regularly self-medicate, and work themselves up into violent frenzies. But I think it’s stupid to say that football causes players to become abusive; after all, the vast majority of NFL players don’t take their work home with them. Last month, Craig Stevens of Northeastern University’s Sport in Society group reviewed much of the literature on the topic of male athletes and violence and concluded that there was no definitive proof that contact sports foster violent behavior.

But football can attract violent people, many of whom lack the skills to work through their anger. Many of the NFL players charged with domestic violence had traumatic-sounding childhoods. Washington Redskins tackle Jammal Brown was charged with spousal abuse in 2006; while he was growing up, Brown’s mother died, his sisters dropped out of high school, and his brother went to prison for drug trafficking. Packers linebacker Erik Walden, arrested last year for assaulting his girlfriend, faced horrible trauma as a kid, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “His dad dying of a stroke when he was 10. His cousin stabbed to death in drunken fury when he was 12. His grandmother passing away.”

After the Jovan Belcher murder/suicide, there’s been a lot of talk about making more and better counseling services available to NFL players. And certainly, Commissioner Roger Goodell has made clear his goal of reducing domestic violence in the league. “We are going to do some things to combat this problem because some of the numbers on DUIs and domestic violence are going up and that disturbs me,” he told CBS Sports’ Mike Freeman earlier this summer. “When there’s a pattern of mistakes, something has got to change.”

But what Goodell has done to address this pattern as of now is unclear. Earlier this year, the commissioner suspended Saints defensive end Will Smith for his role in the team’s “bounty program.” (Smith has continued to play while the suspension is under appeal.) But he faced no league sanction when, in 2010, he was charged with domestic battery after allegedly grabbing his wife by the hair during an argument outside a nightclub. Though he was indicted by a grand jury in 2011, the charges against Smith were dismissed this March when he performed community service, went to domestic violence counseling sessions, and wrote an apology letter to the police.

Hopefully Will Smith got the help he needs. And perhaps the case of Belcher and Kasandra Perkins will lead other NFL players to seek counseling—and for the NFL to take action to make sure they do.