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.
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.
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.
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.
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.