The sports media’s rush to judgment on a tragedy

Only a few hours after Jovan Belcher of the Kansas City Chiefs shot his girlfriend to death and then took his own life, grand pronouncements about the cause of this tragedy predictably made their way into publication, and on television airwaves.

With only threadbare facts available to them beyond the deaths that left an infant girl an orphan, the sports media rushed swiftly into high gear, tapping into touchy social and political terrain. This isn’t unusual, given the competitive 24/7 environment that demands instant reactions to feed page views, propels ratings and positions sports media figures prominently in the “conversation” still to come.

I won’t wade into the gun control comments made by Bob Costas on NBC’s Sunday Night Football, and similar sentiments expressed by Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock. This is a controversy that, not surprisingly, is taking on a life of its own, and now the expected pushback has commenced.

Lost amid this debate is an even more dubious claim by ESPN’s Jemele Hill. For her, the murder-suicide was cause to dust off stale gender feminist arguments about athletes and domestic violence dating back to the fractious 1990s.

Before I dig further into her column, it’s important to note two things: Her missive was posted on espnW, the Worldwide Leader’s female-oriented site.

Also crucial here is a sentence that Hill writes high in her piece, but only in passing and doesn’t bother to revisit:

“As of now, it does not appear Belcher had any history of domestic abuse.”

Kasandra Perkins was the victim of a violent act — a fatal shooting in her home at the age of 22, just three months after she gave birth to Belcher’s daughter.

But instead of stopping there, realizing that writing anything more along these lines would amount to sheer speculation, Hill descends down an unfortunate cultural rabbit hole:

Regardless of whether we ever learn the full story behind what led to this unspeakable tragedy, violence against women is a significant problem in our society. In sports, it’s sometimes met with indifference until something like this happens.

Hold on here. In the space of two sentences, we have an admission from Hill that we don’t know if the Belcher-Perkins relationship was a physically abusive one, to her broad-based lament about domestic violence in society, including the macho world of organized athletics.

The “full story” be damned — a deadline looms, after all — Hill’s argument spirals dismally from there. She cites former Syracuse quarterback Don McPherson, who proudly describes himself as a “feminist” member of the College Football Hall of Fame. Always prepared with the evergreen quote, McPherson bemoans how the sports world doesn’t want to grapple with these issues.

Next, Hill goes to another leading male critic of the male sports culture, professor Jeff Benedict, who tracks arrests of athletes, and who found a high percentage of them in a recent survey period involved domestic violence. Nowhere in her piece does she question how many of these arrests led to actual convictions. As during the ’90s, when this issue first resonated — including the debunked Super Bowl and domestic violence connection — accusation is tantamount to guilt.

Hill drops numbers from a National Coalition Against Violent Athletes survey — a survey from 1995, seventeen years ago, during the height of the hysteria that Benedict, among others, helped to foment.

More recently, she mentions a domestic violence case against former Oregon running back LaMichael James, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, as well as a nasty, threatening text message sent by former Florida running back Chris Rainey to a woman.

And then there’s the 2010 murder of Virginia lacrosse player Yeardley Love by George Huguely, a member of the Virginia men’s lacrosse team, which Hill references to set up her essential point:

“It also raises questions about how violence against women is marginalized by the legal system and how some coaches, based on the weak punishments, desensitize athletes to the issue.”

That we still don’t know anything about whether there was domestic abuse between Jovan Belcher and Kasandra Perkins doesn’t stop Hill from indicting the male sports culture on a platform designed for the consumption of female readers. It is a cheap and easy appeal to their sense of outrage before any relevant facts are known, and it prompts an emotional response instead of cultivating understanding:

“Sports is supposed to teach men the proper values — leadership, teamwork and accountability — but locker rooms also sometimes promote a twisted sense of masculinity and pander to jock culture that is firmly rooted in being anti-woman.”

To use a still-emerging story to rehash this litany of woman-as-perpetual-victim is disgraceful. It insults every actual victim of domestic violence, regardless of gender and whether it’s at the hands of an athlete or not.

As I wrote earlier this year about hockey players at Boston University, the culprit is not a “male sports culture.” To blame external forces for criminal behavior is to absolve individuals of responsibility for their own actions. Rae Carruth is sitting in a prison cell because he murdered his pregnant girlfriend. That he was a player for the Carolina Panthers at the time generated voluminous coverage, but he did not kill her because he was an athlete.

We may never completely know what drove Javon Belcher to do what he did on Saturday. Other speculation centers on mental illness, and the effects of concussions. But that’s all it is — speculation.

Jemele Hill would like for you to think, without any evidence, that the football universe he inhabited may have played a part in the murder of a young woman before he turned his gun on himself.

But from the Chiefs’ post-game locker room came this response from quarterback Brady Quinn, also a product of the “jock culture” denounced by Hill. His dignified and deeply humane thoughts, devoid of ideology and rampant speculation, have been largely ignored amid the hot air coming from the sports media:

“The one thing people can hopefully try to take away, I guess, is the relationships they have with people. I know when it happened, I was sitting and, in my head, thinking what I could have done differently. When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it? When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you really telling the truth? We live in a society of social networks, with Twitter pages and Facebook, and that’s fine, but we have contact with our work associates, our family, our friends, and it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships that we have right in front of us. Hopefully people can learn from this and try to actually help if someone is battling something deeper on the inside than what they are revealing on a day-to-day basis.”

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  1. Posted December 4, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    (A) The Quinn quote was far from ignored. I’ve seen it all over the place. The mention of it I tweeted out there was from NBC’s Pro Football Talk, but I’ve seen it other places as well.

    (B) Why haven’t we seen an updated study? Are the 17-year-old numbers the only numbers we have?

    (C) The argument here seems like the argument against acting on climate change, seizing upon any bit of doubt to make the leap from “we have some questions left unanswered” to “this is not a problem and never was/will be.”

    I’d agree with using caution on making “grand pronouncements.” But I also think it’s a healthy discussion to have. “Male sports culture” isn’t unanimous, just as not every rock star is an addict and not every politician is an adulterer. People who feel a sense of entitlement often feel that the rules don’t apply to them — I don’t know any specific studies that quantify “often,” but you don’t live 40 years without realizing such things happen.

    If you look at Carruth — can we really say his status as an athlete didn’t play a role in what happened? He had enablers, and he surely thought he’d get away with it. If you look at the Seattle Times coverage of Jerramy Stevens and other UW athletes, you’ll see a pattern of the university going “above and beyond” to help athletes out-lawyer their accusers.

    So if we need more study to quantify such things, OK. Let’s do that. But conversely, we don’t have any evidence to suggest Hill’s wrong.

  2. Bern
    Posted December 5, 2012 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    And of course Whitlock recently followed up with his “the NRA is the new KKK” quote to top off this entire mess. What a clown.

    As far as I’m concerned Costas, Whitlock and Hills’ pandering to the PC world is pathetic. Sweeping pronouncements based upon isolated incidents is their stock in trade. At least Costas and Whitlock have some legitimate understanding of sports. On the other hand everything I have heard or read from Ms. Hill consistently indicates she can’t put out a piece without a racial or gender agenda. She has zero credibility which probably explains why her platform is primarily ESPNW, which few real sports fans frequent to begin with.

    If they can find a legitimate, credible professional in the social sciences to perform balanced, unbiased research and reach conclusions that are based upon empirical data / facts and not politics and a social justice agenda I’m fine with it. Unfortunately I doubt that is possible.

    At the end of the day individual responsibility is the answer. People are going to break the law. If they do they need to be punished appropriately. The concept of taking away the rights of tens of millions of people because a microscopic subset of society breaks the law is not only foolish it borders on Orwellian.

  3. Posted December 5, 2012 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    Here’s something Slate posted on Monday indicating that 2 percent of the current 1,700 NFL players have faced domestic abuse charges.

    That doesn’t reflect whether the charges led to convictions, at least in cases that have been concluded. That’s one of my main beefs with these numbers — the researchers or media outlets that compile the charges don’t come back and update them.

    The author also is careful to point out “it’s stupid to say that football causes players to become abusive.”

    Quinn’s comments did get plenty of attention on Sunday, but they’ve been completely overwhelmed by the Costas/gun comments; Robert Lipsyte on Slate today is all over that.

    Beau, I’d agree with you that it’s a “healthy discussion to have” about domestic violence in sports, but only if the case in hand actually involves that. We don’t know that yet, and I think Jemele Hill’s desire to make it an issue anyway is reprehensible.

    That’s what I object to above all, as well as her trotting out false, stale ideological rhetoric that I’ve been following for nearly 20 years. A rather noxious feminist blogger named Amanda Marcotte did the same thing on Monday; I’m just now seeing this.

    Hill and Marcotte are not the least bit interested in having a “conversation” about this. They are rather accomplished opportunists who leap at the chance to reflexively trump the plight of women at the hands of brutish men.