Jovan Belcher Tragedy: Football Players and Trauma

Jovan Belcher murder suicide: Another football tragedy. Image by Jeffrey Beall

It’s happened again.  On December 1, Jovan Belcher of the Kansas City Chiefs shot his girlfriend, the mother of his child, and then publicly turned the gun on himself.

In May of 2012, Junior Seau of the San Diego Chargers died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  In February, 2011, Dave Duerson who formerly played with both the Chicago Bears and New York Giants took his own life.

Football stars rank high in the American pantheon. Why would these men, who seemingly had lived the American Dream, commit such acts?

Jovan Belcher Tragedy

Jovan Belcher played football for the Kansas City Chiefs, and USA Today reports that he was actually a member of the campus initiative, “Male Athletes Agains Violence” at the University of Maine.

On December 1, however, he killed Kasandra Perkins (the mother of his baby) and then went on to kill himself in front of his coach and general manager.

Link to Concussions and Brain Injury?

The Belcher tragedy raises questions about football and brain injury. After the Duerson suicide, the football player’s brain was examined by neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee, who found Duerson’s brain had three large holes.  McKee was quoted as saying, “I would assume that with this amount of damage the person was very cognitively impaired.

As early as 2010, the New York Times reported that head injuries and concussions were dangerous.  In that article, a 2007 study was cited that found that of the NFL players who had suffered a concussion, “20.2 percent said they had been found to have depression.”  Additionally, the New York Times article stated that Alzheimer’s disease is 19 times more common in football players.

Football causes brain injury – was the Belcher tragedy related? Image by Elvert Barnes.

The Culture of Violence

In addition to the potential for problems due to brain injury, there’s also a culture of aggressive behavior among football players. Martin Chase, a former NFL player who played eight seasons with various teams, has written about football’s ‘culture of violence.’

Chase writes, “The NFL does have programs to teach players how to behave off the field. The  problem is that by the time a player reaches the NFL, it is almost too late to  teach behavior control. By this time the player has spent more than half of his  life being taught to be physical and aggressive.”

Does Football Breed Violence?

Hearing that our most watched sport breeds family violence, depression, suicide and Alzheimer’s disease may be a hard swallow for many Americans raised to idolize the players and glory in the game.  Still, the statistics are hard to ignore – although they have been ignored for quite a long time already. Aggression and impulsivity have long been widely recognized consequence of brain injury. Fifteen years ago both pharmacologic and behavioral interventions were suggested in an article in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, but we’re still seeing stories like the Jovan Belcher murder/suicide in the news. It is no longer a question of why, but of what… what can the NFL and other football programs do to prevent future tragedy?


ESPN News. Jovan Belcher Kills Girlfriend, Himself(2012). Accessed December 2, 2012

ESPN News. Junior Seau Dies at 43. (2012). Accessed December 2, 2012.

Warner, P. At Maine, Belcher had been in group opposed to violence. (2012). Accessed December 2, 2012.

Chase, M. The NFL and Domestic Violence. ArticleBase. Accessed December 2, 2012.

New York Times. Head Injuries in Football(2010). Accessed December 2, 2012.

Hunt, M. NFL Player’s Autopsy Raises Questions. Journal Sentinel Online. Accessed December 2, 2012.

Plinkington, E. The NFL Star and the Brain Injuries that Destroyed Him. (2011). The Guardian. Accessed December 2, 2012.

Jacobson, R. Commentary: Aggression and impulsivity after head injury. (1997). Advances in Psychiatric Treatment. Accessed December 2, 2012.

Hammond, F. Irritability and Anger After Brain Injury. Blog on Brain Injury. Accessed December 2, 2012.

© Copyright 2012 Gina Putt, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Science
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  1. Gina PuttGina Putt says

    Lori’s point that training to react quickly may increase family violence is very intriguing. I also think that Beverly makes a good point as well. As a people, we need to know more about sports injuries and how to enjoy sports without putting players at psychological risk.

  2. APatriot1 says

    Why should anyone think being an NFL player would make them immune to physical and mental illness, domestic problems or emotional duress any less than the general population? We all bleed. We all cry as well as laugh. Whatever the cause for his domestic issues, perhaps he could have gotten help or resolved it without a tragic outcome if he didn’t have a gun in the house. The same can be said about so many others who don’t have the same public visibility. I can’t say it happens everyday, but domestic violence with fatal outcomes happens way too often during the holiday season.

  3. Beverly Rodriguez says

    I hope that when football players die of suicide the families decide to have the brain examined.
    Much damage doesn’t show up easily.

  4. lori says

    His impulsivity, nightly use of alcohol, pain medications may have been the causal trigger. His behavioral training to react quickly and violently in the work place while continually being positively reinforced for such behavior may have spilled over into his argument with his girlfriend while he was under this nightly influence that had not worn off by that tragic argumentative morning (for whatever reason due to argument qualifiers?)
    While it is true, TBI is not necessarily a regular and expected injury from the workforce of football, impulsive behavioral reactions of aggression while fearful, angry and defensive outside of the workforce may trigger explosive situations. Behavioral training and constancy can produce an extreme sense of guilt, self-pity, self-hatred when not achieving and may be equally more destructive off the field when the positive reinforcement has ceased. The player needs to return to where he last received positive reinforcement and encouragement at all costs, as is the training protocol.

  5. Ted says

    This article is still the “Featured” piece on the Google News Sports listing.

    I previously (mis-)took it as actual sports-commentary, but now, reading the author’s by-line, I see it is written from a professional academic, scientist’s viewpoint.

    Although head-injuries (brain-damage) in football is an important matter, and most are now glad to see it getting responsible attention, neither football nor the NFL franchise pioneered concussion-tolerance and resulting health/mental issues. Boxing, for example, makes the infliction of concussion the center-piece of the sport.

    Gun-deaths are of little use to gun-oppenents, because half of them are suicides, and guns are the tool-of-choice, for those who commit suicide. Brain-trauma is statistically of zero significance, in suicide epidemiology.

    Belcher and his partner, whom he murdered, had a ‘troubled’ relationship. This is one of the highest risk-factors anywhere. It is well-reported that they fought the night before, and continued in the morning. All cops know, average people know, “domestic violence” is really the scary condition, the set-up for tragedy.

    Belcher is described by his teammates in terms that do not suggest depression at all. His interpersonal behavior belied no changes or instabilities … as have been remarked upon, in the case of other NFL players with brain-deterioration.

    The NFL, and vigorous sports in general, is not a depravity that we need to denounce & defame. Aggression per se is not a pathology; it is a normal attribute of mammals; it varies between species, and individuals. But aggression generally-speaking is an evolved trait, not a sickness.

  6. Gina PuttGina Putt says

    Note that the article does not state that Belcher had brain injury, only that it is a possiblity given the statistics about the sport. Undiagnosed concussions are possible. The choice to commit suicide is most likely multifactorial. Drugs in the bloodstream; alcohol included might be contributing factors – we won’t know for a while.

  7. Ted says

    Other sports writers have commented that Jovan Belcher has no known concussion history.

    It is a good thing to recognize that mental problems are arising among NFL players who are known to have suffered brain-injuries. However, to imply that the mere participation in the sport should be linked to pathological behavior, in the absence of known injury or clinical data, is a whole different thing.

    The link between concussions and behavior-problems is legit and ought to be pursued. Trying to link behavior-problems to merely playing football, to aggression in general or to physicality … this is casting the net too-wildly, implies too much at too great a distance from the solid investigative base.

    How will you react, if it is found that marijuana residue is present in Mr. Belcher’s residence and personal effects? Will you then ascribe his murderous conduct to, say, “marijuana madness”?

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