Jovan Belcher's Murder-Suicide Raises Questions of Traumatic Brain Injury in the NFL

FILE - In this Dec. 11, 2011, file photo, Kansas City Chiefs' Jovan Belcher sits on the sidelines during the third quarter of
FILE - In this Dec. 11, 2011, file photo, Kansas City Chiefs' Jovan Belcher sits on the sidelines during the third quarter of the NFL football game against the New York Jets in East Rutherford, N.J. Police say Belcher fatally shot his girlfriend early Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012, in Kansas City, Mo., then drove to Arrowhead Stadium and committed suicide in front of his coach and general manager. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)

Jovan Belcher, a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs shot and killed his girlfriend in front of his mother on Saturday morning (December 1, 2012), and then drove to the Chief's practice facility where he killed himself in front of head coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli in the parking lot. Belcher left behind a 3-month-old baby girl.

What makes this story especially troubling is that Belcher does not fit the typical profile for domestic violence -- not by a long shot. Before being drafted into the NFL, Belcher graduated with a degree in child development and family relations from the University of Maine. While at Maine Belcher joined the anti-violence group Male Athletes Against Violence. As a member of MAAV, Belcher would have signed a pledge which included these lines:

I pledge:
  • to educate myself on issues surrounding violence while developing personal beliefs against the use of violence
  • to be a positive role model for my community
  • to look honestly at my actions in regard to violence and make changes if necessary

Shocked at the news, Belcher's former University of Maine football coach Jack Cosgrove reflected, "I'm hard-pressed to find or recall a young man who had more of an impact in a positive way on his teammates and his football family in my time here. He's truly one of the great stories in the program's history."

Similarly, Belcher's former High School coach Ron Langella said,"He was a good athlete, but an even better person. An unbelievable role model."

So what went wrong? What could cause someone like Belcher to resort to such shocking acts of violence? What could turn such an inspiring role model into a killer?

One possible explanation is traumatic brain injury (TBI), a condition that frequently affects professional football players.

Traumatic brain injury can cause emotional, social, or behavioral problems and changes in personality including disinhibition, inability to control anger, and impulsiveness. Additionally, TBI appears to predispose survivors to psychiatric disorders including substance abuse and clinical depression. According to a study published in the Psychiatric Times, suicidal ideation is not uncommon, and rates of suicide after TBI are increased 2- to 3-fold.

All of this fits with reports surfacing in the aftermath by friends of Belcher claiming that the linebacker was drinking every day and taking painkillers while dealing with the effects of debilitating football-related head injuries.

The combination of traumatic brain injury, alcohol, and handguns make for a deadly combination that not only may be behind Belcher's murder-suicide, but has also been linked to an alarming trend of suicides and violent crime among soldiers returning from combat. Again, we find the same scenario: Good kids who suddenly "crack" and become violent.

While personal responsibility should always play an important role in this type of discussion, it is critical to understand that TBI impairs the brain's ability to make those kinds of moral choices. So we need to seriously ask: Did football injuries turn Belcher into a killer? If so, what needs to change in the NFL to avoid such tragedies in the future?

As Sports Illustrated reports, this past Wednesday -- ironically, just days before the tragic events of this weekend -- former Kansas City Chiefs players and Army leaders said that a change in culture regarding the risks of concussions must start at the top levels in sports and the military.

Their point was tragically underscored by the deadly events of this past Saturday. As more details surface, we will hopefully be able to form a better understanding of what happened, but we should be hesitant to write this off as a case of "one bad apple," avoiding the larger conversation we need to have. When it comes to sports and TBI, perhaps it's time we asked ourselves some tough questions about how much are we willing to sacrifice for our entertainment.

Derek Flood is the author of Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice and the Cross. Follow Derek on Twitter @theRebelGod.