There's a reason that halftime of NFL broadcasts is usually reserved for game analysis and highlights, rather than social science. NBC announcer Bob Costas showed why with a little sermonette during the Philadelphia Eagles-Dallas Cowboys game Sunday night.
Just a day earlier, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend before driving to the Chiefs' practice facility and shooting and killing himself in front of the team's head coach and general manager.
During halftime of "Football Night in America," which is not to be confused with "Monday Night Football" or "Thursday Night Football," Costas referred to Belcher's shocking murder-suicide as "nearly unfathomable." He then proceeded to fathom it in terms of a cliched gun-control fable. Costas quoted approvingly sportswriter Jason Whitlock's argument that "our current gun culture simply ensures that more and more domestic disputes will end in the ultimate tragedy."
Costas is an extraordinary and justly acclaimed broadcaster, who apparently hasn't spared a moment's reflection to the long-running argument over guns in our society. If he had, he wouldn't have treated such tripe as priceless words of wisdom.
A Gallup survey last year found that 47 percent of adults have a gun in their home or on their property, the highest figure since 1993. Yet, as of 2005, the number of intimate homicides had steadily declined since 1993, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Overall, domestic violence has dropped by more than 60 percent since 1993.
That is not to deny that the presence of a gun makes a violent relationship much more dangerous. But what set of laws could possibly deny a gun to Jovan Belcher, who had no criminal record and was touted as a model NFL player, without denying them to the vast majority of gun owners who will never do harm to anyone? It is already illegal for someone convicted of domestic violence to own a firearm.
Costas left out the most powerful part of Whitlock's commentary, which was an excoriating attack on the NFL for letting the Chiefs' regularly scheduled game be played the very next day after the killings. Nothing to see here except more football.
If it proves to have any larger lessons, the Belcher story will tell us more about the NFL than the NRA. According to a friend's account reported by the website Deadspin, Belcher "was dazed and was suffering from short-term memory loss" after his last start. The source described him as suffering from a "combination of alcohol, concussions and prescription drugs."
Nearly simultaneously with Belcher's murder-suicide, Boston University researchers published a study that found, in the words of a Reuters report, "years of hits to the head in football or other contact sports lead to a distinct pattern of brain damage that begins with an athlete having trouble focusing and can eventually progress to aggression and dementia." It is apparently not big hits to the head that bring on the condition, called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, but a diet of small blows.
This phenomenon may have absolutely nothing to do with Belcher's crime. But the question will be asked, and yet more attention will focus on the issue of brain injuries. The league is already getting sued by thousands of former players and their relatives for not taking brain injuries seriously enough. The game is so hugely entertaining that it is hard to see it ever losing ground in American life unless people eventually come to believe our viewing pleasure isn't worth the price exacted from the players.
If Costas really wanted to issue a jeremiad in the aftermath of the Belcher killings, perhaps it should have been directed at the vastly profitable football-industrial complex of which he is a small part. In keeping with his view expressed in the past that the NFL is "unacceptably brutal," he could have said: "As I stand here, I, too, profit from a game that depends on men doing violence to one another with effects we still don't fully understand." But that would have hit too close to home, and the third quarter beckoned.