Who Killed Jovan Belcher? Professional Sports and Emotional Illness

By: Chris Dagonas

Jovan Belcher and Rae Carruth.  These are two of the many professional athletes who have killed a loved one.  Their stories, though not exactly parallel, bring up an issue that is often ignored when professional athletes commit atrocities.  Namely, does the culture of sports prevent young men from committing crimes, or does it breed criminal activity?

Jovan Belcher grew up in West Babylon, New York, a middle class community on Long Island.  Far from being an “at-risk” youth that was saved by football, as the narrative so often goes, Belcher was by all accounts an engaged, enthusiastic student in high school and at the University of Maine, where he studied (ironically) Child Development and Family Relations.  This sounds like the kind of field of study that would better suit a social worker than a football player, but Belcher was not enrolled simply to play football.  He received an academic-athletic award (“The Scholar-Baller Program”) after graduating.  He went undrafted in the 2009 NFL Draft, but was signed by the Kansas City Chiefs shortly thereafter.

Jovan Belcher

Jovan Belcher

Rae Carruth was born in Sacramento, California, and attended the University of Colorado as a wide receiver.  He was a first-team All-American, and played with future NFL star Kordell Stewart.  After graduating, he was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in the first round of the 1997 NFL Draft.  Carruth also had a son while at Colorado University with his hometown girlfriend.

Rae Carruth

Rae Carruth

Belcher’s first year in the NFL was unremarkable.  He was largely a backup linebacker, but worked his way into the starting lineup by the end of the 2009 season.  This is an impressive feat for a rookie defensive player, and demonstrated Belcher’s commitment to improving his game.  Throughout the 2010 and 2011 seasons, Belcher continued to improve and remained the starting middle linebacker, a key defensive position, for the Chiefs.  This season, Belcher started strongly, though the Chiefs were disappointing.

Carruth had a solid rookie season with the Panthers in 1997.  He recorded 44 catches and 4 touchdowns.  He broke his foot in the opening game of the 1998 season, and was unable to play the remainder of that year.  His 1999 season started respectably, but fell apart six weeks in.

In the early morning of December 1, 2012, Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, at their home in suburban Kansas City.  He then drove to Arrowhead Stadium, where GM Scott Pioli and coach Romeo Crennel had already gathered to begin preparing for the next day’s game.  While Pioli and Crennel tried to reason with Belcher, he ignored their pleas and turned a gun on himself.  Media speculation has varied; some say Belcher was suffering from depression, others say he had suffered head trauma from a life spent playing football, still others say he was angry that his girlfriend may have been seeing another man.

Belcher's Bentley towed from the grisly scene

Belcher’s Bentley towed from the grisly scene

On November 16, 1999, six weeks into the NFL season, Cherica Adams was shot by Van Brett Watkins in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Adams had been dating Carruth, and was pregnant with Carruth’s child.  Watkins was a nightclub owner and friend of Carruth’s.  Carruth had been driving in front of Adams, and had stopped, blocking her escape.  Watkins, sitting in the passenger seat of a third car, stopped beside Adams and fired four shots into her car.  Carruth and Watkins then sped off, and Adams called 911.  She survived long enough to talk to police, and indicated that Carruth had likely been at the centre of the shooting.  Adams’ baby survived, but Adams passed away a month after the shooting.  Carruth became a fugitive from the law, was released by the Panthers, and was found a week after Adams’ death, hiding in the trunk of a car, surrounded by bottles of his own waste.  In 2001, Carruth was found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced to 17 years in federal prison.

Carruth, as a Federal Prisoner

Carruth, as a Federal Prisoner

These are but two of many stories that involve professional athletes, making outrageously poor decisions and committing brutal crimes.  Parallels have been drawn between Belcher and Chris Benoit, but that is a poor analogy in my opinion, because Benoit was subsequently proven to be suffering extreme dementia at the time of his death, while Belcher and Carruth were completely within their faculties (as far as we can tell).  What could drive a young man, with so much potential and so much to be grateful for, to commit such acts, if not poor mental and emotional health?

The answer, to me, seems to be in football’s emotional manipulation of its young players.  No sport treats its participants as aggressively and callously as football.  Players are routinely signed and released, sometimes several times a season, and injuries are ignored, or players are told to “play through it”.  Players are then stressed to perform to the best of, or beyond, their abilities.  This is not just an issue of concussions, either.  There can be lingering injuries that put undue stress on players, and the constant fear of being cut, released or dropped to the bottom of the depth chart can severely affect a player’s mental and emotional state.

‘Football players make millions of dollars, they should just suck it up.’  Since when is a bigger paycheck fair compensation for the loss of health, be it physical, mental or emotional?  In fact, in many cases a sudden, stark rise in finances can be far worse for young football players than living on a student’s wage in a dormitory.  More money means more hangers-on, more girlfriends, more “friends”, and more people trying to get a piece of the pie.  Both Belcher and Carruth were seeing more than one woman, and Carruth already had a child with one woman while Adams was pregnant with his son.  Of course, the victims of these cases are just that: victims.  But an emotionally fragile young man sometimes can only see a single way out of bad relationships through the most extreme, vile solution they can imagine.  This is not limited to athletes, but when athletes are the ones perpetrating the acts, the world pays attention.

So, a young man is trained from a relatively young age to hit hard, but don’t get hurt or they’re finished.  Taken from almost no income to millions of dollars, but keep coming in to work every day, and don’t get distracted by all the glitz and glamour that their new salary can afford them.  The vast majority of athletes are, of course, able to navigate these hazards safely, and emerge after retirement with their salaries, criminal records and dignities intact.  Some, like Michael Vick or Josh Hamilton, fall into bad behavior, but are able to repent and recover in time to save their careers.  Some, like Antoine Walker, spend their fortunes and are left with nothing to show, financially, but it is easier to sympathize with stories like Walker’s.  Lastly, you have some men for whom the pressure and stress proves too much, and who react in a heinous way, and harm others and themselves, or both.

As we’ve discussed, professional sports leagues must begin to deal with the emotional stresses of the job, and do so in a serious, proactive way.  Any new draftee should be seeing a psychologist or emotional therapist immediately, before problems arise.  It may be too late for Carruth and Belcher, but think of the young men who currently run fly patterns and blitz quarterbacks on grass fields and empty lots all over the USA and Canada.  And hope that the story of Jovan Belcher is not merely one of a long list, but the final one, and the turning point, for athletes and the battles of emotional distress.

56 responses to “Who Killed Jovan Belcher? Professional Sports and Emotional Illness

  1. I have to say I agree with Mia. The NFL didn’t have anything to do with this – from what I gather he’d have been abusive no matter what his chosen career path.

  2. Can I just bring up the fact that I didn’t even have to read this all the way through to find out that these Tragic Young Men murdered TWO WOMEN? Oops sorry, I sometimes forget that I’m not allowed to bring that up. My bad.

  3. I think that is definitely an understandable stance to take, and at times throughout that weekend I felt that way myself. However, in my opinion it is not a coincidence that so many professional athletes self-destruct in one way or another. Some are less harmful to others or themselves, but it is a common theme.

    Also, my understanding is that he was not a violent or aggressive man before this incident. As mentioned in the post, he was majoring in family studies, and had no history of violence.

    Lastly, I wanted to make sure in the post and here again that Kasandra Perkins, or Cherica Adams, or other victims of such crimes, are treated with respect and not blame.

    That all being said, the point of the article is that leagues have a responsibility here, by putting its players into stressful conditions with little or no preparation, and counselling is hard to find.

    Thanks for the comments, we greatly appreciate them.

      • there have been a lot of good comments on here, on a complex issue…let’s not let sarcasm turn this sour.

        if i sounded arrogant there, i apologize…what i meant to say was that I can very easily understand opposing viewpoints, and struggled with my thesis myself while writing it.

  4. I think those who rush to judgement tying parallels to sports, football in this case, to aggressive or violent acts are short-sighted. How many murders are perpetrated every day? How many are crimes of passion in which we hear neighbors and friends testify on the news that the murderer was “just a normal guy”?

    Perhaps Belcher was depressed, which is not an uncommon mental impairment. What id the UPS man did the same, would it be attributed to some work factor involving sniffing the ink from all the address labels from his truck? Sometimes things happen that are not so clear cut as to allow us to definitively classify. I also agree with Mia, Mr. Belcher took his own life, perhaps because he could see no way out.

    • I think the difference is in the proportion. How many professional athletes are there in North America? Maybe 3,000? How many “average Joes” are there? millions. So yes, there are more crimes committed by average joes than by professional athletes, but proportionally, the numbers are way higher for athletes.

  5. Though I’m tempted to agree with your premise that football is cruel (another example being the story of the celebrated Bear Bryant while at Texas A&M in the miniseries “The Junction Boys), I don’t see how murder can be reasonably demonstrated as a side effect of any single part of someone’s life. Even if that part is as intense as football (professionals have spent many thousands of hours playing over 20 years or more by the time they retire). Instead, I think such an argument is attractive because it is comforting to be able to say “hey, we’ve explained why these people did this awful thing.” As Philip Roth wrote in his novel “The Human Stain” concerning such judgment: “There is truth and then again there is truth. For all of the world that is full of people who go around believing they’ve got you or your neighbor figured out, there really is no bottom to what is not known. The truth about us is endless. As are the lies.”

  6. I was an athlete for years, a college baseball player, never a professional. I knew and know several professional athletes. I think it primarily comes down to ego. Most alpha-male athletes will never voluntarily see a therapist and will rarely admit anything could be mentally wrong with them. Because that spits in the face of being strong, being tough and succeeding on the field. I don’t know the statistics, but shit like this happens throughout society every day, but we only care when it’s a professional athlete. That’s the saddest part; America’s obsession with sports and entertainment. Our priorities as a society are out of whack.

    • I agree with this wholeheartedly. Stuff like this happens every day, yet because a professional athlete did it, it’s being blown up and idiots like Bob Costas are hijacking the halftime show to talk about gun control because of it.

      Every one has stress, not just athletes. You can either deal with it or you can’t. If you can’t, and choose not to seek help, then these are the types of things that can happen.

  7. You missed one thing (at least)…the fact that a majority of these men are on steroids and that messes with their minds in ways they are illequipped to deal with. But as Mia points out, no one forces them to do it, they make a conscious choice. If Belcher was emotionally weak, then according to Darwin he was just weeded out…it’s too bad he had to take someone else with him.
    Also, there is no more “emotional manipulation of its young players” in football than there is in any other sport. In order to be an elite athlete, you have to be prepared to do things that most people can not and will not do…football is not responsible for it. It is the athlete’s choice as to whether or not he wants to go down this path in life.

    • I used football as a framework only because Belcher’s incident was the most recent. I could have drawn similar parallels with hockey, baseball, or basketball, or sports as a whole culture.

      Also, many athletes feel pressure from their families to pursue careers as athletes that may not interest them at all (Ricky Williams, for example), then can not cope with it.

      I agree with your addition that prescription and non-prescription drug abuse is also rampant, and that’s all the more reason to make sure these guys are psychologically healthy throughout their careers.

  8. There are many stressful jobs in this world, and counselling is NOT so hard to find for people with money. It might be that these pro athletes are ashamed to go for help, not that help isn’t there. I can’t accept that this job is any harder than being an emergency room doctor or even a professional musician, yet we don’t see so many of those running around performing these heinous acts.

    I think there is something to be said about the link between promoting and encouraging too much aggressive behaviour for the sake of a sport and its effect on life outside the sport. Maybe if athletes didn’t need to be hyped up on steroids and coursing with testosterone we’d see more reason and rational decision-making.

  9. I agree with you that in many cases we need to understand an issue within its context. What happen is important as well as why did it happened and what can be done to prevent a recurrence.
    Thanks for your insight.

  10. I don’t believe this man woke up that morning with the intention of killing his child’s mother. As a person who has suffered from depression since child and is on meds, most people on the outside looking in don’t even know you are suffering. There are so many who are in denial or who know they need help but refuse to get treatment because they think they can handle it and it will somehow go away… Until something tragic like this happens.

  11. Short answer: He killed himself, and then his girlfriend. Another sad case of murder/suicide.

    Long answer: I believe a combination of possible long standing emotional problems, along with head trauma and steroid use may have contributed to his suicidal/homicidal tendencies. This doesn’t mean that football caused him to do it though. This may explain why other athletes commit these terrible acts.

    Still, interesting post.

  12. I don’t know if I agreed with you that professional sports and emotional illness killed Belcher. I do think that the combo of professional sports and emotional illness does need to be address but in Belcher case we need not forgot he killed a woman and the mother of his child and never forgot this.

  13. This post was a lovely read, and I think I share your opinion on many of the things you said. ALthough Mia is right in saying it was his fault, often people feel they cannot ask for support. Perhaps that is the first step the sports industry needs to take.

  14. I am sorry but I have to disagree with you about the NFL putting undo stress on its workers or in this case players. Most of the players that make the 53 man roster don’t have to worry about getting cut. Jevon Belcher nor Rae Curroth were in that situation. Belcher was quite the opposite. He worked his was as an undrafted free agent and became a starter. If anything, he was staring at a nice fat payday. These guys know what they sign up far. These are young men who have the resorces to seek help, as was the case with Belcher. Reports have said the Chiefs were helping him and Miss Perknis in counseling. I don’t know if we’ll ever know what caused this young man to chose violence over reason. I certainly don’t think anyone could blame poor working conditions or undo stress of the job as an underlining cause for his actions. Just my opinion.

  15. So let me get this straight. You take two of the most despicable events the sporting world has ever seen and you immediately jump to the broadest of broad conclusions by saying the NFL is a place that “manipulates the psychology of its young players?” Hell, LIFE “manipulates the psychology of young adults.” You don’t offer any sort of statistical backing to your argument and the other two examples you reference (Hamilton and Vick) is like comparing apples to oranges. 34,598 people day each year from suicide. In the NFL there has been 6 suicides in the past two years (scary trend). 78% of NFL athletes go broke three years after retirement. If you are going to write an article this polarizing you needs STATS, you need to show trends, you need to reference more examples that actually relate. My move is usually to post a witty comment congratulating on the Freshly Pressed article but dude… You can do much better than that.

  16. Sad situations all the way around.. no winners here, both men suffered in silence and as with any job, mental illness needs to be addressed the same as a physical illness/injury.. I’m very saddened for all involved..
    Thank you for a well written post!

  17. Interesting post. I didn’t even think of the similarities between Belcher and Carruth. Carruth’s story to me seems a bit different. While Belcher seems to have been suffering from something, even if it was just anger/jealous, Carruth to me seemed to just not want to have to deal with this person and another baby and did so out of selfish reasons. Just my opinion.

  18. There is no doubt that this man needs to take responsibility. But I can’t help but ask the question, what could someone have done to prevent such a tragedy. Why weren’t his friends there to help and be a voice of encouragement. In such a position as one who makes millions, I know he probably found a way to hide his desperation and troubles. But what about those who were close to him, someone so hugely suicidal must have showed signs. Goes to show we can’t take for granted the issues people around us face.

  19. No excuses or rationalization please. He is totally and completely responsible for killing Kasandra and then killing himself in a cowardly act. Lets not shift the blame here.

    • If you cannot handle the heat, get out of the kitchen. As I saw in a movie yesterday “Suicide is a permanent solution for a temporary problem”.

  20. I lived next to an NFL starter QB who suffered the same disease his son did. Son took life while living next door. I made me dig for an understanding of mental sufferings so I might have more to offer others in hurt. Sadly, our culture, entertainment, and such has set an unhappy “default mind set” such that when hurt sets in, these teachings and experiences take over. Violence is not an option for the hurt or hurting. Look for and Mentor where you see a need and if all else fails – use words and open prayer; my neighbor is now also my church friend.

  21. The murder of Kassandra was horrible. The fact that anyone would think suicide is the only answer to whatever is going on in their head, regardless of why it is there, is just as horrible. My thoughts are with their families, especially during this time of year.

  22. Why aren’t we focusing on the real victims here Kassandra and her baby? He’s a murderer who happened to play football for a living!

  23. I don’t think most answers were in the spirit of answering the question. All I’ll add is he didn’t grow-up/live in a vacuum. Nor can one point to any “one” thing that brought his internal/external conflicts to a head, because rarely does life work this way. It is sad all around. Non of us here will ever figure it out to a certainty.

    People could try more to be people and engage one another in meaningful ways not just in passing or to be polite. Listen, watch, care and expecially talk with others.

    He won’t be the last that does this nor was he the first.

  24. Chris, definitely a good read and a blog that was always bound to provoke mixed reaction.

    The key question here is do sportsmen/women receive adequate emotional/mental support from their employers to deal with the unique pressures inherent in their roles?

    Living in the UK I’m not overly familiar with sports culture stateside but I can draw on the Premier League (soccer to you guys) and the changes in players off field behavior in the last 20 years.

    Soccer players used to be regarded as idiots. Unable to string a sentence together they would look stupid having a microphone shoved in their faces after winning/losing a match. Naturally, due to exhaustion and lack of training in speaking to camera they could not cope mentally and would often stammer, slur and be unable to answer simple question.

    EPL clubs realised this was damaging their brand and made sure that all of their players were trained in public speaking and behavior. The whole culture changed. Have a look in the difference between David Beckham’s early career interviews and compare them to current day.

    EPL Clubs now support a family culture, encouraging their players to leave calm, settled lives. There will always be the exception to the rule but over here they seem to be trivial and funny (Mario Balloteli’s antics are hilarious) rather than dangerous and criminal.

    The point I’m making is that clubs do have a responsibility to their employees to ensure that if players show signs of stress or display antisocial behaviors (ie multiple girlfriends, as both of the individals in the blog had) that they are supported and receive adequate coaching/discipline which may prevent such terrible tragedies happening again.

    Just to be clear I’m not trivialising these awful crimes and I don’t believe the author is. They are terrible crimes and I think that any action that may prevent history repeating itself is worth taking.

  25. I think this was a different take on this whole story and though both were horrible crimes, the point that the writer is trying to make here is that extra help from the teams is particularly valuable and could prevent such outcomes.

    I have to agree with the fact that young men suddenly being put under pressure mentality, from stardom, performance, family, public, management, shareholders etc.. can have adverse effects, horrendous ones even, I am not sure how many similar cases have happened though, but I definitely agree that extra support should be given to these aspiring young players.

  26. “As we’ve discussed, professional sports leagues must begin to deal with the emotional stresses of the job, and do so in a serious, proactive way. Any new draftee should be seeing a psychologist or emotional therapist immediately, before problems arise.”

    All this post said–and said well but that’s beside the point–is that life is tough for rookies in the NFL. Newsflash: Life is tough for EVERYONE! Why don’t we have a program for everyone. Why don’t you see a psychologist?, and your children?, and do what they say? Oh, yah…it’s called subjugation, eventually by institutional government, for the common good, comrade.

    Are NFL players more dangerous than members of society at large?, governments with military-industrial complexes?, maybe bloggers from Toronto with their cultural influence? The NFL circus is so profitable (politically too) that there will be lots of help for NFL players, who dutifully parade pink in Breastober, just like there already is lots of help. Less resources for you and me though. Add some government-provided bread and you have a winning formula, for the barbarians and their leaders. Open, free, democratic societies do better because the system works when you let individuals fail by the judgment of nature on their nature.

    Zero tolerance on unpleasantries in life is hubris and folly. Watch a nature program on the tell-a-vision and remember we are part of the world even if we can engineer parts of it without permanence. You, dear reader, are not a god to engineer society with absolutes. You can only pretend and love your freedom of successively fewer choices. Sheep are happy to make mutton or wool. Farmer’s choice.

  27. People like him could have been greatly helped by Paul Hegstrom’s book “Broken Children Grown Up Pain”. This is a very sad news story. More people need to seek help from professional therapist like Life Skills International. A wonderful organization that has helped me, my wife, my family, and countless others.

  28. Teenaged Olympic-hopeful gymnasts are under the same kind of stress, men and women. That’s a make-or-break sport. I don’t know of any rampaging gymnasts who’ve cracked under the pressure but I do know of plenty of Average Joes who have snapped for no reason. While I can appreciate your attempt to see things from the other side of the fence, there is no explanation besides the one your very first commenter pointed out – the only ones responsible are the one who committed the crime.

    There is one point being made here that I can connect with sudden celebrity: emotional support should be available for anyone in any occupation, but there is a very real difficulty with dealing with sudden riches and celebrity (even if it’s only minor). Take lottery winners, for example. Many of them self-implode simply because they don’t have the coping skills. I think the same goes for professional sports players who become sudden celebrities and millionaires in a single day. They should get some kind of guidance, especially because they are usually young.

  29. What about all the NFL players (and other professional athletes for that matter) who DON’T kill (themselves or others)? And what about your average Joe that does? I think there is certainly a common theme in their lives, but I don’t think it’s money (more than enough or not enough) and I don’t think it’s sports. There are people in any career who make poor choices.

  30. Both stories are incredibly sad and tragic; young men with talent and promising futures submitting to corruption, violence and murder. It’s hard to compare any 2 stories, without knowing each player’s personal background, health and lifestyle. With so many different types of men in professional athletic leagues, I think there are bound to be some bad apples, some especially egregious. However, there are a staggering amount of domestic violence cases in the U.S. each year, only some cases are covered more than others. Whenever there are people with money, fame or notoriety involved, you will hear about it, whereas the “normal” victims do not get any press. Their families suffer in silence. I don’t think it’s a football thing, I think it’s a man and violence thing. #TRUTH

  31. Some of y’all need to shut up and stop disrespecting Jovan! I’m not saying what he did was right because it was not and kassandra didn’t deserve to die but she brought this on herself!! I’m an ex girlfriend of jovan and I’ve known her before she met jovan and she was a piece of work!! She cheated on him every chance she got and was a gold digger!! She also started fights with him all the time I wouldn’t be surprised if his daughter wasn’t really his or not! Jovan and I remained friends after we broke and once he was drafted by the chiefs and I’ve witnessed alot of her behavior and was a true gold digger!! Y’all can hate me for saying that but y’all didn’t know her I did and know the facts!!! She wasn’t a victim at all!!! He wasn’t violent a person or towards her at all she was the one that was violent towards him! And I had been with jovan for 3 years in college before he got into the NFL and he was never violent towards me or anyone else including any females!! So y’all need to stop defending for her because she was a slut and a hoe that was a gold digger!! Get a life!! RIP JOVAN I LOVE AND MISS YOU SO MUCH!!!!

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