Skip to main content

Manhood, football and suicide

By Kevin Powell, Special to CNN
December 4, 2012 -- Updated 0120 GMT (0920 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend, then shot himself in front of team's staff, police say
  • Kevin Powell: We don't know what drove him to these desperate acts
  • Powell: In my own life, I fell into depression, thoughts of suicide after setbacks
  • He says we have to teach men to find ways to cope with life's challenges

Editor's note: Kevin Powell is an activist, public speaker and author or editor of 11 books, including "Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and the Ghost of Dr. King: Blogs and Essays." E-mail him at kevin@kevinpowell.net, or follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell. Join him for a live chat on Twitter from 12:30-1 p.m. ET on Tuesday @CNNOpinion about his column.

(CNN) -- My cousin Aaron abruptly typed me the news while we were texting back and forth about other matters: a Kansas City Chiefs football player killed his girlfriend, then went to the team's practice facility and committed suicide in front of his head coach and general manager. Left behind was the couple's 3-month-old daughter, who was in another room when her mother was shot multiple times. Like so many Americans, we were stunned.

We would learn later that player was Jovan Belcher, 25-year-old starting linebacker for the Chiefs, a man and an athlete spoken of in the highest regard by everyone from his high school teammates and coaches to his fellow professional football players. They, too, were stunned.

Kevin Powell
Kevin Powell

Indeed, what would lead a man who, by all accounts, loved family, friends and football and had overcome great odds to make the National Football League as an undrafted pick out of the University of Maine to take such shocking actions? A man raised by a single mother, he had achieved so much in such a short period that he had widely been considered a great role model for what could be done through hard work, grit and determination.

A gun control halftime show: Should Bob Costas have spoken out on Belcher suicide?

Since the killing and suicide are so fresh, so recent, we do not really know what might have driven Belcher to such extreme and horrific actions.

NFL player kills girlfriend, himself
Tiki Barber: Chiefs seeking 'normalcy'
Jovan Belcher had advanced from an undrafted free agent linebacker to NFL starter for the Kansas City Chiefs and played in every game since 2009. On Saturday, December 1, 2012, the 25-year-old star allegedly killed his girlfriend, then drove to the Chiefs' practice facility and took his own life. After the tragedy, teammate Tony Moeaki tweeted, "One of everyone's favorite teammates including one of mine." Here's a look at his career with the Chiefs and tragic end: Jovan Belcher had advanced from an undrafted free agent linebacker to NFL starter for the Kansas City Chiefs and played in every game since 2009. On Saturday, December 1, 2012, the 25-year-old star allegedly killed his girlfriend, then drove to the Chiefs' practice facility and took his own life. After the tragedy, teammate Tony Moeaki tweeted, "One of everyone's favorite teammates including one of mine." Here's a look at his career with the Chiefs and tragic end:
'One of everyone's favorite teammates'
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
>
>>
Photos: Jovan Belcher, Kansas City Chiefs Photos: Jovan Belcher, Kansas City Chiefs

But the knee-jerk reactions have been rampant on the social networks. "Coward" is a term being used to describe Belcher. But that is too easy, far too simplistic, and name-calling never solves a problem.

Belcher was a man living in the supersized macho world of football, a world in which many of us American males reside, be it football or not. Too many of us have been taught manhood in a way that is not healthy. Be tough, men do not cry, man up -- these are the things I've heard my entire life, and I now cringe when I hear this relayed to boys or younger men by teachers, coaches, fathers, mentors and leaders.

Or we use derogatory and sexist or homophobic words to describe men or boys who do not meet the "normal" of what a male is supposed to be. Some of these male authority figures mean well, or are simply repeating what they were socialized to be or to do, and do not realize that they are unwittingly teaching that manhood has little room to express hurt, disappointment and sorrow.

Yes, they had been arguing, Belcher and his girlfriend, but in my work as an activist, including around gender violence prevention, I've seen the tragic pattern across our nation of men who, in the heat of rage, have killed their girlfriends, wives or lovers, as if they had no other vocabulary or emotion to deal with the disagreement or the break-up.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



We cannot forget Kasandra Perkins in this story. Because when men behave in this manner, it also says, bluntly, that the life of a woman is of no value whatsoever. Just the fact that much of the media has focused on Belcher and barely mentions Perkins by name speaks to this truth.

In the late 1990s, after achieving some level of success from my years on MTV's "The Real World" and as a feature writer for Quincy Jones' Vibe magazine, I descended into a dark period that included excessive drinking, painful bouts with anxiety, stress and depression, and, yes, I thought often of committing suicide.

I had been fired from Vibe. I had a terrible time coping with life back then, and I kept much of it to myself because we live in a world where men are not encouraged to express the hurts we feel.

News: NFL Chiefs play after murder-suicide

That is the problem for so many of us. We do not talk about much of anything, except sports, women and sex. Everything else is routinely ignored. Or repressed. Until we explode.

What eventually helped me get through those dark years, years that too were riddled with violence -- toward myself, toward others -- in various forms, was a renewed commitment to my spiritual foundation, a return to therapy in a very serious and consistent way, and surrounding myself with people, including men, who were willing and able to give me the safe space to talk about anything and everything.

For the past several years, I have privately advised and counseled several professional and amateur athletes, and entertainers, all men, all grappling with very warped definitions of manhood. The recurring theme over and over is fear of expressing themselves fully, fear of letting others down, fear of not being the tough and rugged men they were told they had to be. And on the inside so many of them are damaged as a result. The very definition of manhood they've embraced is more an emotional prison than anything else.

This is probably why the one scene that is locked in for me is of Belcher thanking his coach and general manager for what they did for him. Then walking away and shooting himself in the head.

We must struggle, harder than ever, as men, as boys, as a nation, to reach the point where a heart-to-heart conversation is the first and only option, not a gun, not gun violence. The lives of Jovan Belcher and Kasandra Perkins will have been in vain completely if we do not go deeper within ourselves to teach and show our sons, our husbands, our boyfriends, our fathers, our men and boys, that there is another way.

Interested in talking with Kevin Powell? Join him for a live chat on Twitter from 12:30-1 p.m. ET on Tuesday @CNNOpinion about his column. Tweet your questions or comments by using the hashtag #JovanBelcher and mentioning @CNNOpinion.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kevin Powell.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1225 GMT (2025 HKT)
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1128 GMT (1928 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1730 GMT (0130 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT