In the wake of the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide this weekend I got this email from reader Tom:
When ESPN first broke into their college football coverage to report that a Chiefs player had been involved in a murder/suicide, they said it was a 25-year old player. I heard the number 25 and thought, "Please don't let it be Charles. He's one of our few good players." When I read that it was Belcher, a small part of me breathed a sigh of relief. Does this view make me a terrible person?
You see this kind of insensitivity a lot in the sports world. Something bad happens, and then someone makes the mistake of wondering out loud what the sports implications of it are, and then that person gets universally shouted down. It's practically an automatic thing at this point. But to me, this is more reassuring than appalling.
You're not a bad person for wondering how a tragedy impacts your sports team. It only makes you a terrible person if you don't question yourself for reacting that way. If your reaction had been an unrepentant, "Thank God it wasn't Charles. Now let's go CRUSH some Coronas, brosephine!" you'd be an awful person. But all of us have our fair share of inappropriate internal reactions to tragic events, reactions we usually keep to ourselves because we don't want the rest of the world to see us as selfish and callous. Then empathy takes over, especially once you learn more about the people involved and all the heartbreaking details, and you smack some sense into yourself.
I remember when they hadn't yet named the Chiefs player in question as the story was unfolding, and I was wondering to myself, What if it's a big star player? That would be crazy. Now, that's a terrible thought, one that treats real tragedy as spectacle. I don't feel great about thinking that way. If I did, then I'd be a complete bastard.
But the reason you have a conscience is so that it calls out to you, "Hey fuckhead, people died. Be sad," and then you recalibrate yourself accordingly. That's what makes you human. That's your saving grace. The sins of your id are forgiven when you force them to come correct. And when you care about football players as football players first and human beings second, you inevitably end up with knee-jerk responses like that CBS fantasy analysis that everyone shat on this weekend, responses that you have to be smart enough and decent enough to repress. You aren't a bad person for thinking bad things; you're a bad person if you can't recognize your bad thoughts, or if you think they deserve to be expressed just because you had them.
The other thing here is that you didn't know Belcher or Kasi Perkins, nor do you know anyone on the Chiefs. And that puts you at an emotional remove from the entire situation that you'd really have to strain to get past. We can't give a shit about everything that happens to everybody because then we'd walk around all day paralyzed with anguish. It seems callous to go about your day without a care in the world when people are getting massacred in Syria, but that's just how things have to be. You'd be an emotional phony if you acted as if a situation involving people you didn't know (and some people that you hadn't even known existed until that moment) were the most devastating thing in the world to you. You can read the details of this case and feel horrible and picture what would happen if this were your life. But you can't know the people involved—not really.