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Guns, Games and Gender

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

“Don’t tell me to act like a man,” Landry Clarke told Tyra Collette on the popular television show Friday Night Lights. “Because if that’s your definition of a man, then that’s extremely sad.”

On Saturday morning, December 1, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot and killed Kasandra Perkins, his 22-year-old girlfriend and the mother of his three-month-old child, before driving to the Chiefs’ practice facility and shooting himself in front of Romeo Crennel, head coach and former New England Patriots defensive coordinator, and Scott Pioli, general manager and former Patriots player personnel director. Belcher was 25 years old.

The following day, amid a flurry of criticism, the Chiefs game against the Carolina Panthers was played as scheduled. And that night, in what has since become the gun commentary heard ‘round the sports world, Bob Costas—whose longevity as a sports commentator is belied by his youthful appearance—used his weekly Football Night in America halftime spot to address concerns about gun violence in the wake of Belcher’s tragic murder-suicide.

“In the coming days, Jovan Belcher’s actions and their possible connection to football will be analyzed,” Costas said, then offered an extended quote from current Fox Sports and former Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock: “‘Here... is what I believe. If Jovan Belcher didn’t possess a gun, he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today.’”

Igniting the proverbial powder keg, Costas’ commentary started up a furious debate over the nature of gun ownership, its links or lack thereof to violence in America, and the prerogative of television personalities to speak to such issues during the broadcast of a football game. The ensuing national discussion was conducted everywhere from Fox and Friends to National Public Radio, with everyone from Ted Nugent to Keith Olbermann chiming in.

But while many have focused on the Belcher event as a gun issue, others are viewing the tragedy as the latest in a long line of incidents that speak more to the gendered nature of violence in our society, and football’s role within that dynamic.

In the past year, four former or current NFL players have committed suicide with a handgun—an unfortunate pattern that began last May with retired Patriots linebacker Junior Seau. All those tragic events followed the death of Dave Duerson, the Chicago Bear who shot himself in the chest so that coroners could examine his brain for a link between severe depression and a post-concussive disease.

“There is so much we don’t know about why Jovan Belcher did what he did,” Dave Zirin writes in The Nation. “There are things we do know, however … We know that violence against women and alienation from loving relationships is a proven product of playing this violent game. We also know that concussions and head injuries have been linked to domestic violence, mental illness, and suicide.”

One of the studies to which Zirin refers is Contact Sports and Violence Against Women, a report that was published by the Feminist Majority Foundation.

“A recent study of student-athletes at ten Division I universities showed that while male athletes made up only 3.3 percent of the male university population, they were 19 percent of the students reported for sexual assault,” the report reads. “Of the male student-athletes reported for sexual assaults, 67 percent were football or basketball players.”

Sport in Society’s executive director Dan Lebowitz, however, suggests that the issue lies more with males and male athletes in general than only with those playing football.

“This is an issue of men’s violence against women, not just football players being too violent,” Lebowitz said in a recent Reuters article. “If you look at how many NFL players commit gender violence in proportion to the overall population, the percentage falls in line with the general population, three to five percent.”

Sport in Society, based at Northeastern University, aims to create “a just world through the power of sport,” its mission statement reads.

“I try to take it out of the realm of sport … [and] think about the way we acculturate [sic] young boys in this country and our whole view of manhood,” Lebowitz continues, adding that “we don’t have a healthy concept of what manhood is. ... How do we make a healthier sport, and how do we make a healthier man? How do we engage in a real conversation about respect for women’s rights and freedoms?”

Unfortunately, regardless of the answers to his questions, we will likely have more occasions from the sports world, and the NFL in particular, to consider these issues.•

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