by John Viril—
I know I write a Kansas City Royals blog, but Jovan Belcher’s tragic suicide today at Arrowhead Stadium cuts beyond any topic limits. I cannot help but think about the place of sports in our society and what role, if any, that his profession might have had in the terrible events that occurred this morning.
I’d like to think that sports had nothing to do with it. That would be easy and convenient. Then I could go back to yelling at my favorite sports team, free from any sense of participation in unspeakable events. But I don’t think we, as sports fans, should be that easy on ourselves.
Please bear with me. This column is not an exercise in self-flagellation. I am not trying to vicariously dramatize my own life by assuming some kind of tenuous responsibility for the death of a man who led a far more glamorous life than me. And yet, as a life-long intense fan of multiple sports, I cannot help but think we ask a lot of our athletes.
While sports are dramatic, glamorous and often richly rewarded, they also are emotionally difficult for their participants. The very things that thrill and mesmerize billions of fans across the globe, are also challenging to live with if you exist in the eye of the hurricane. We ask these young men and women to dance on an emotional tightrope for our entertainment, and then gasp with horror when someone misses the safety net.
We, really, should not be so surprised.
Being a young man working a job that earns millions of dollars per year, which you can lose in an instant, brings its own pressures. On top of that, your life is public. When you fail, an entire city (or even a whole country) knows it. And when you fall short of everyone’s athletic expectations, you are excoriated in an emotional backlash by disappointed fans, almost in retaliation for enjoying a high profile that, in the fractions of a second in which athletes make their living, you have failed to live up to.
Of course, athletes choose to live this life—most likely attracted by the same things that make us fans. And how we envy them. I know I do. Certainly, the material and social rewards that can come from being an athletic hero are part of that envy; but, there’s far more to it that than that cynical reason. The emotional highs that come with your job are almost unobtainable in any other walk-of-life. Words cannot describe the raw emotion that explodes within an athletic venue during an intense game or event. As a fan, I can only imagine what being the focus of all that passion would be like.
Athletes live with it. We also know that the adulation can be addicting—which is why it can be so hard for players to walk away.
And with those highs come canyons that most of us probably cannot fathom. Consider that these are young men that have been fabulously successful for most of their short lives (sports are, by their very nature, for the young). Yet, as every long-time sports fan knows, two bad weeks can feel like the end-of-the world.
Here we come to the dark side of sports. Because when those weeks become a month, and then extend into a season—very bad things start to happen. Players begin to question their abilities. Coaches doubt their philosophies. Fans get angry and call for changes—because what they truly want is the vicarious thrill of success that they cannot get from their work-a-day world. And, because these players are often just numbers in a box score, images on a television screen, or hazy figures seen only at distance, these people don’t seem quite real to us.
Consequently, it seems harmless to turn these icons into emotional piñata’s upon which to vent our frustration. Some of us, however, take it too far. So intense is our frustration—so stirred up are our emotions—that we start to correlate bad performance on the field with bad character. We attribute all kinds of evil personal motives to people we know only by on-field performance, to make sense of disappointing results.
While everyone involved with sports understands (and generally accepts) why it happens, they still cannot help but be aware of public scorn. These people are not just animated pixels with which we can create our own personal demolition derbies on the latest Madden game. In reality, they are all too-human people which the Belcher tragedy reminds us.
Of course, no one can say what part these pressures had to play in the terrible decisions Jovan Belcher made Saturday morning. God only knows what thoughts go through a man’s mind when his whole life dissolves within a matter of hours. All I can say with any kind of certainty is they couldn’t have helped.
I’m not trying to vilify sports fans either. Heck, I’m a fan. I’m going to get up tomorrow and watch the games like I’ve done most of the weekends in my life. And, I will continue to do so for years to come. Because sports brings so many good things to all of us, I cannot let them go.
Not only do sports bring me entertainment, sports also help me connect with people I would find difficult to understand in any other way. Sports can bridge generation gaps in society, and even within families. Now that I live in Tucson, Arizona, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Kansas City Royals are living connections to my childhood home. Sports have a far more profound effect on our world than the results of the latest game. In no way am I asking anyone to give that up.
Instead, I can only ask that we remember not to make it personal when we don’t get the results we desire. That would be a worthy legacy for the tragic life of Jovan Belcher, if only we choose to make it so.