Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

02 Dec 2012

On Jovan Belcher

Someone asked for an official FO take on the incredibly sad Jovan Belcher story. Here's my attempt at one.

Jovan Belcher was a football player who died on Saturday by his own hand after killing his girlfriend, who was also the mother of his child. I write for an analytical sports site. Here is the last thing I wrote on Jovan Belcher before Saturday:

"The spot opposite Johnson in the middle is a total coinflip at this point. The Chiefs must not have been impressed by incumbent Jovan Belcher's performance, because they brought back Kansas City stalwart Demorrio Williams and signed San Diego's Brandon Siler just for good measure."

Here is what we wrote about him in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012:

"At the other inside line-backer spot, Jovan Belcher will have to hold off a challenge from Brandon Siler. A free-agent signee from the Chargers in 2011, Siler missed all of last season with a torn Achilles tendon."

He was a low-rated linebacker by our metrics in 2011, stopping the run at a 58 percent rate that was solidly below-average. He had one quarterback hit, four hurries, and allowed 5.2 yards per completion on plays that he covered.

He was also a human being.

One of the biggest problems I have with what has happened to mainstream football journalism is that it has tended to take on the same corporate shape that has defined most of the media these days. Outside of a select few people, who we get to know very well, the rest of it is swept under the rug. Teams hide important information from the media, believing that there is little advantage to letting everything out. Players hide important information from the media, believing that there is little advantage to letting everything out. The media does its part to stay credentialed and in good standing by dutifully reporting the few stories that are allowed out. For that, we all suffer, as the players on the field becomes automatons of the schemes they play in, defined only by statistics, blown plays you can remember them missing, and great plays you can remember them making. Outside of pre-approved stories, who they actually are tends to get lost in the shuffle.

It is no accident that FOX "employs" Cleatus, the gigantic football-playing robot. He embodies the average football player.

I am a Texans fan. When Derek Newton got hurt, I did not malign what a tough break it was for him, because I don’t know anything about him. I looked at his play, looked at the fact that replacement right tackle Ryan Harris has been more-or-less acceptable when healthy, and shrugged my shoulders. Newton could be a father of three or a single guy who goes clubbing every night –- and I could turn this into a whole segment loosely based on the song "Shaniqua" -– but I don’t really know anything about that. He’s a football-playing dude to me, and once he was gone, another football-playing dude took his place.

I’m not trying to imply that what happened to Belcher was something that could have been prevented, or that what caused him to do the things that he did was something that could have been seen coming. I just find myself wondering what could have been done. What could have been known if he was born into a different culture?

Because now that he has gone and done this terrible act, I feel completely numb about my role as an analyst. There are depths of the NFL world that are beyond our reach; things we never will know. A person who was extinguished and lived in a bubble that actively sought to keep people from sharing things. A person who didn’t seek (enough) help for the demons that were circling round his brain. Reasons that may not ever be known.

It’s a real shame.

I broke down some tape of Jovan Belcher before I wrote about him for the last time as a living person. Nothing stood out to me. He seemed like a decent, solid, linebacker without any defining traits.

Now he has one, and I wish he was still relatively anonymous.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 02 Dec 2012

40 comments, Last at 05 Dec 2012, 1:18am by Paul R


by LionInAZ :: Sun, 12/02/2012 - 4:21pm

I think that this is the kind of story where the national media should step back and let the locals work it out. They're the ones who know the players and the community.

by Theo :: Sun, 12/02/2012 - 5:09pm

FOX isn't even showing the entire lineups this year.
They only show the 4 big names of a unit. Which I find very weird.
That's actually the part I sometimes rewind to see who's on there.

by Insancipitory :: Sun, 12/02/2012 - 6:01pm

I'm not saying I disagree with you, just that I'm more cynical. I really have quit on the networks for the most part. They do a good job finding people to capture the essence of the game and proceed to try to ruin it by finding idiots to bother viewers. At somepoint I just can't fight their inability/unwillingness to do better.

But I think the flipside of that is the players and the rise of social media are exploiting that arena of sports entertainment that the larger media doesn't know how/care to capture. Seemingly all the players are managing their own brand on twitter/facebook, The Real Rob Report on youtube. And isn't that better anyway? The bitter with the sweet, to create a more genuine shared experience?

by Guido Merkens :: Sun, 12/02/2012 - 6:04pm

There are two reasons for that: first, every fan has the internet, so nobody needs Fox to tell them who #26 is. Second, teams don't even really have a "base" package anymore, so which players are actually on the field for the first play doesn't really matter.

I don't really take it as a symptom of the "stars are the only players we care about" phenomenon that Rivers is talking about.

by Theo :: Sun, 12/02/2012 - 7:03pm

I do take it as a symptom of that.

by Stats are for losers (not verified) :: Mon, 12/03/2012 - 12:23pm

It's easy enough to find out who's who when everyone is walking around with the entire sum of human knowledge available on their phone.

As an erstwhile Eagles fan, my most interesting game-watching experience this season was the one in which Demetress Bell was repeatedly abused by the Cowboys D-line, to the point where he would just stand around and watch plays happen. Different people watch games for different reasons, and the networks/advertisers/etc. are targeting that meaty part of the curve...

by Willy (not verified) :: Sun, 12/02/2012 - 5:50pm

With basketball and baseball, you're able to attach faces to the people, so I think it humanizes the sport more than football or hockey. They're just uniformed, numbered people out there, doing a job. Which is why I think the loss of Steve Sabol is really, really saddening. These aren't just chess pieces, or objects or statistics, and NFL Films is really able to bring that out. It's also why I enjoy Hard Knocks. It's why my eyes light up when I see John Connor or Bernard Pierce or other less "famous" players come up on the play-by-play and my non-Hard Knocks watching friends look at me funny.

by Total (not verified) :: Sun, 12/02/2012 - 7:08pm

Kasandra Perkins was the name of his girlfriend. How about we don't lose that?

by Joshua Northey (not verified) :: Sun, 12/02/2012 - 7:17pm

I felt like you did a great job Rivers. Kept everything in context and was honest.

The big thing I always take away from this is that the media and especially the fans really don't know the players...at all.

And because of that all the mythologizing and handing out of superlatives and commendments on sterling character are really out of place.

I have known a few professional athletes pretty well, and they are just people. No better or worse than others.

If they aren't an absolute physical specimen they tend to be harder working than the average person, because otherwise they wouldn't get where they are. But they also tend to be more violent and competitive for the same reasons. People who in a more normal situation might come across as a jerk with no perspective who spikes the ball in the face of their brothers 13 year old because they take everything 8 degree too far.

Obviously these are just generalizations based on a small sample size, but I am always struck with how out of place so much of the glorifying of these people is. They are really really good at their rather specialized jobs. And that is great and entertaining to watch.

But they aren't courageous, they aren't heros, they just a bunch of duds paid to run into other dudes. Some better as people, some worse as people.

Obviously there is always a lot of money in making things/people out to be more than they are, so that is probably whats driving 90% of it right there.

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Sun, 12/02/2012 - 8:16pm

This whole thing is sad, but frankly, the following is a bunch of crap:

" For that, we all suffer, as the players on the field becomes automatons of the schemes they play in, defined only by statistics,"

I don't think we suffer at all. They're not heroes, they're not even good people in most cases. For all intents and purposes, they're actors. I don't want to know about their personal lives. They're not my friends.

by Anonywhipped (not verified) :: Mon, 12/03/2012 - 3:01am

they're not even good people in most cases.

This is sad and ignorant, and it proves the point of the article. In most cases they are good people. Good men who work hard and compete hard and love their families and are pretty normal except for their athletic gifts. Maybe if you didn't see them as just as automatons you would know that.

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Mon, 12/03/2012 - 9:45am

" In most cases they are good people"

No, they're not. Professional athletes, as a whole are generally hyper competitive. They're not normal as you assert. Even at the level of D1 college athletes they're already skewed very far from normal.

Have you ever had a conversation with an elite athlete?

by Anonywhipped (not verified) :: Mon, 12/03/2012 - 1:20pm

As a matter of fact I had dinner with a pair of MLB all stars this past year (odd story). Both were class acts and almost amazingly normal given.

I have several friends and relatives who competed at the D-1 level, and I've encountered other "elite athletes" on occasion and in every case it was pretty much the same: a normal person who happens to be really good at some form of athletics. Many are individuals you would be happy to call your friend. Some are not. Certainly there are a-holes and scumbags, but those also exist in the general population.

I do think its really weird that you think being "hyper competitive" is somehow a damning character trait.

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Mon, 12/03/2012 - 7:31pm

We have different experiences then.

Pretty much every elite athlete I've met has been the sort of person who just can't take it easy in any sort of even slightly competitive arena.

I've dealt a lot with D1 wrestling. Its a little saddening watching elite athletes intentionally hurting their teammates to open up a slot in the lineup. Guy in front of you can't wrestle if you mess up his knee in practice, you know?

I'm sure there are some elite athletes who are generally nice people, I've just never met any, and I have no reason to believe Belcher is one of them.

by NG5 (not verified) :: Mon, 12/03/2012 - 12:32am

This is an excellent article, thank you for writing it. It does speak evocatively about the inherent reductiveness of statistical analysis and the product-driven nature of football. I wish there were more writing about the lives and significance of most players (additionally, not in exchange for the interesting work you do here).

One of my favorite pieces that addressed the athlete outside of performance was a series called "How a Career Ends" by Rob Trucks. He conducted interviews of players at a certain age about when they knew their careers were over, but in a biographical way. Most of the interviews are really extraordinary.

If only more writing celebrated the individuals who even had the talent to play in the NFL, or those who just missed. There are always more people to understand, and it's unfortunate that we can't know them all.

Thanks again.

by Paul R :: Mon, 12/03/2012 - 10:25am

While it is important to remember that there are human beings under the helmets, I don't think one should feel guilty for judging a player primarily on his job performance. After all, it's an athletic competition, not a nice-guy competition. On the field, the number on the jersey is far bigger than the name.
That's an element of security for the players, too. Don't we all want to create a separation between our work and our personal life?
I'm sorry that I didn't know and appreciate Jovan Belcher as a person, but only philosophically. Only as part of the big idea that we should all appreciate each other as human beings, as family.
In the real world, I go to a restaurant because the chef is a good cook, not because he's a nice guy.

by Cro-Mags :: Mon, 12/03/2012 - 1:38pm

"In the real world, I go to a restaurant because the chef is a good cook, not because he's a nice guy."

I tend to agree, I also don't care how Pac-man Jones spends his weekends, what level of consent Ben Roethlisberger gets from girls, Dez Bryant's financial investments, or who Brett Favre emails pics of his willy to. This is slimy fodder I have no taste for.

I think the saddest thing here is that a child is going to grow up never knowing either parent, and also having to cope with the knowledge that one killed them both.

I heard a stat yesterday that there are 600 murder suicides in the US every year (to which Mike Francesa said "that's six a week!" so take it with a grain if salt). I think that's the issue here, if this converging with the high-profile of the NFL brings awareness and some response to help curtail this, at least some good can come from it.

by Will Allen :: Mon, 12/03/2012 - 2:38pm

You really don't care if one of your fellow citizens rapes people? Would he have to rape someone you personally have affection for, in order for you to care?

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Mon, 12/03/2012 - 7:35pm

I believe that whether or not a football player is raping people is the business of the police in whatever jurisdiction hes allegedly raping people in.

It doesn't affect me at all if that's not in my jurisdiction. I watch football for what happens on Sunday. This isnt WWE/WWF. I'm not interested in the soap opera going on off the competitive surface.

There are roughly 400K rapes a year in the USA. There's no reason for me to be more concerned about a football player raping someone than any other rapist.

by Will Allen :: Mon, 12/03/2012 - 9:18pm

You didn't say that you were not more concerned about citizen x raping someone, compared to citizen y raping someone. You said you didn't care if citizen x raped someone. That's remarkable, even with the caveat that law enforcement is the institution that we use to deal with such matters. Really? If someone cut his wife's head off, but escaped prosecution due to a prodcedural error by police, you wouldn't care?

by Paul R :: Tue, 12/04/2012 - 12:11am

(We're talking about O.J., right? Thought so.)
I'd like to clarify something in my original post because I'm afraid the restaurant analogy has sent us out on a social-Darwinist limb that is making me uncomfortable.

I got a sense from Rivers McCown (author of this column) that he regretted not knowing more about Jovan Belcher as a human being, that he only knew him by his stats. My point was that it's not his responsibility to know that Jovan was a Scorpio who liked stamp-collecting, or whatever. Rivers is a sportswriter, Jovan was an athlete. Their relationship needs to go no further.

Similarly, when I go to a restaurant, I want to eat good food. If the chef there cooks good food, I will eat there and our transaction is complete. It's not my responsibility to find out about his personal life, nor his to find out about mine.

*However* (this is the part I wanted to make clear) if I should happen to learn that he steals from orphans, or kicks puppies, or is a Patriots fan, then I will probably take my business elsewhere. Our relationship has unintentionally become personal at that point. But until then, I'm hungry, he's got food, end of story.
Same with Rivers and Jovan.

by LionInAZ :: Tue, 12/04/2012 - 12:42am

What if said chef dumped hos used cooking oil down the sewers in defiance of local rules and fired his servers because they wouldn't wash his car?

by Paul R :: Tue, 12/04/2012 - 4:30am

Hey, at least he's changing the cooking oil. My wife was a restaurant inspector for a time. I could tell you some stories.

by Will Allen :: Tue, 12/04/2012 - 3:41am

Oh, I agree with that. I just found it pretty weird for someone to say that he didn't care if an NFL qb raped women or girls.

by Paul R :: Tue, 12/04/2012 - 4:48am

Yeah, I dunno. I guess he's fine with it as long as it's not during the game.

"Gee, Phil, they're down by nine with no time-outs, I would have thought they'd be going no-huddle at this point."
"Yes, Greg, it is unusual, but they've decided to huddle up and--wait...Oh, I see. It's not a huddle, Simpson is just raping a cheerleader."
"Yes, I see now. 23 seconds on the play clock, though. Not sure if this is the best option. A delay penalty puts them out of field goal range with this wind..."
"Well, he's a real competitor, Greg."

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Tue, 12/04/2012 - 9:34am

Why should I care any more about a football player killing someone than the millions of other murders across the globe that happen every year?

by Will Allen :: Tue, 12/04/2012 - 9:55am

The original statement that I responded to was not that someone should not care more about a NFL player being criminally violent more than an another citizen being criminally violent. It implied that it was irrational to care that a NFL player was criminally violent. The former statement is pretty reasonable, while the latter statement is pretty stupid. It was then implied that since te police deal with criminal violence, there is a lesser reason for me to care about criminally violent behavior of people I am not in proximity to. That's kind of crazy as well. I live in this polity. It matters to me when criminal violence occurs, no matter who is engaged in it, and no matter if the criminal justice system punishes the criminl violence. Why on earth would it be supposed otherwise?

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Tue, 12/04/2012 - 11:02am

So, do you get upset every time some anonymous person is killed (roughly 15000 times a year in the US), or just when a football player is involved?

That must be terribly taxing on your emotions.

by Will Allen :: Tue, 12/04/2012 - 3:37pm

Somehow, your understanding of the english language is such that you have reached the conclusion that the "to care" is synonymous with "to be upset". Your conclusion is in error.

I'll try to make this less abstract, in an effort to help you grasp the point. There is a guy who I once did business with that I stopped doing business with, because he had a nasty habit of beating his wife. I wasn't "upset". I simply decided it was a big ol' world, and I didn't want to be a customer of a guy who I knew to be a wife-beater, because there were perfectly acceptable ways for me to be a customer of that service with someone who didn't beat his wife. Similarly, I did become less interested in watching the Steelers play, and was less likely to do so, once I concluded that the Steelers starting qb was likely a rapist. This by no means implies I was "upset". It simply means that of the extraordinarily wide variety of choices I have, in regard to the ways I find it enjoyable to spend my leisure time, watching someone I believe to be a rapist play the most prominent position in a football game is frequently lower on my preference tree than some other options.

I hope this clears some things up for you.

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Tue, 12/04/2012 - 4:21pm

I grasp your point just fine Will. I just find it absurd.

Whether the Steelers QB is a rapist doesn't mean jack shit to me. Just as whether or not Tom Cruise is a scientologist doesn't matter to me.

They're actors. They're not people I interact with. They're not people I know. I don't care.

by Will Allen :: Tue, 12/04/2012 - 4:31pm

Well, since your grasp of language is so poor as to conflate "care" with "upset", I had my doubts. You now seem to be conflating "raping people" with "being an acolyte of a nut". There seems to be a pattern here.

I understand that you don't care if people you don't interact with rape and kill other people. You have made that clear. Congratulations.

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Tue, 12/04/2012 - 4:48pm

I'm not conflating anything Will; that's something you seem to be trying to do in your sanctimonious, patronizing drivel.

I've got better things to do than worry about whether a bunch of people on Tv are nice guys.

by Will Allen :: Tue, 12/04/2012 - 5:45pm

Well you attributed a feeling to me, "upset" when I employed the word "care", despite the fact that the words really don't convey the same meaning. You seem to conflate being a scientologist with being a rapist. You now seem to be saying that a simple statement, that one would usually rather not, ccmpared to other options, be entertained by people who rape and murder, entails a state of "worry" about these things. You don't seem to know what words mean. Again, I offer guidance by example. I have one neighbor who's a pretty nice person. I have another neighbor who's not. I care about that to the the extent that I prefer to spend time with one, rather than the other, but that doesn't mean I "worry" about it.

I'm sorry to have engendered such a negative reaction from you, by noting that I care about the murders and rapes that are committed by people I do not interact with.

by Dean :: Tue, 12/04/2012 - 4:36pm

So you're basically rooting for a logo and some laundry.

by Tballgame (not verified) :: Mon, 12/03/2012 - 12:30pm

I am having trouble getting too worked up over the loss of Mr. Belcher. I know he played football and seemed to work hard and maximized his gifts. This isn't a first round pick that devolved into a two-down back, but an undrafted athlete from a low profile college program that made himself into a borderline starting NFL linebacker. We assign nobility to these lower ceiling athlete success stories.

At the same time, he had a child out of wedlock, which is the result of poor decision-making, despite the banality of it. He then shot the mother of his child. Kasandra Perkins made some poor life choices as well, but we do not mourn not knowing her better. She didn't do anything of national interest, like playing football, so we do not care as much who she was. And really, if we want to be honest with ourselves, we were not disappointed we didn't know Mr. Belcher until he shot himself in front of his coach and GM.

In terms of football ability, I suspect there are 5-10 Belchers on each NFL team. And by that, I mean replacement level players that have reached or exceeded their assigned ceilings. They are alive today and you can invest your time now in getting to know them and their stories. I don't think that pursuit is worthwhile to a fan or analyst, but the opportunity is there.

I think we are better off watching football for football and spending time getting to know our neighbors, our family, and our friends and supporting them emotionally and spiritually so that they never suffer a crisis like the one that drove Mr. Belcher to murder and suicide.

by dbt :: Mon, 12/03/2012 - 2:02pm

I'm worked up over the loss of Kasandra Perkins, and I'm worked up over the lost of Jovan Belcher. Maybe that just makes us different people that think about these things different ways.

The tragedy here is that someone who was clearly in retrospect, struggling with life, didn't figure out how or where to get help, and instead went over the edge. I lament that.

(I also know plenty of people who have had children out of wedlock. Hell, my wife and I conceived out of wedlock. I don't see why that makes a person's life more discardable).

by Mr Shush :: Mon, 12/03/2012 - 3:19pm

It is undoubtedly a tragic case, but I think the point is fairly well made. A given person has only so much time to spend worrying about, getting to know and helping others, and it's pretty clear that most of us will do far more good devoting that time to those around us than to people who live 4000 miles away (in my case) who we will never meet. People do and suffer awful things all the time, all over the world, and this case is distinguished only by its newsworthiness.

There may well be people who could, even should, have known Belcher better, had more of an idea of whatever he was going through, perhaps been able to help prevent it. Jamaal Charles, perhaps. Then again, for all we know it was a sudden psychotic episode that no-one could reasonably have anticipated. The question of whether anyone could have helped is open. The question of whether anyone posting on this forum could have is pretty clearly not.

by Jerome Manson (not verified) :: Tue, 12/04/2012 - 1:30pm

Sad day for the NFL when stuff like this happens.

by Jerry :: Tue, 12/04/2012 - 7:37pm

Stuff like scalpers spamming?

by Paul R :: Wed, 12/05/2012 - 1:18am

...and a partridge in a pear tree.