Dec 2, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; A Kansas City Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel on the sidelines against the Carolina Panthers in the second half at Arrowhead Stadium. Kansas City won the game 27-21. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL at a Crossroads

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As trying a week as it was for the Chiefs’ coaches, players and fans, it’s nothing compared to what the families of Kasandra Perkins and Jovan Belcher are going through, and worst of all, it’s nothing compared to the impact on baby Zoey, whose life has been altered tragically and forever. Belcher’s inexplicable and horrible act has set in motion a series of tidal waves that will change the course of families, friends, players, coaches and perhaps even this Chiefs franchise and the NFL.

This NFL season has been different to me, not because of how the Chiefs are doing, but because serious issues have dominated football news that aren’t about wins and losses or touchdowns and interceptions. This whole year has been marked by two health-related issues – the mental illness that numerous retired players now face, made stark by the suicide of Junior Seau, and perhaps related, the game-changing focus on concussions.

The murder of Perkins and orphaning of an infant by a football player is perhaps the third chapter in the book of the 2012 NFL season, and this book may change football forever. This book is about the culture of violence in America and in the sport today.

As fans, I know firsthand that the quickest way to stop a party is to talk about what’s wrong with the sport. To talk about concussions, mental illness, violence, domestic violence and guns is guaranteed to create uncomfortable silences, make enemies and turn ordinary human beings into soapbox pundits. So if you want to stop reading now, I won’t blame you.

But this year is the first I can remember in my forty years of being a diehard Chiefs fan that, in my quieter moments, has me questioning the game itself. Chapter one in this book was written when I read about Junior Seau this summer. I had what psychologists call cognitive dissonance – a feeling of discomfort that’s hard to pin down, when two conflicting feelings are in your brain at the same time. That cognitive dissonance is because we love football. We wouldn’t devote the hundreds of hours of time, mental energy and passion to our Chiefs if we didn’t. But I also have a little voice in my head saying, “the very thing I get enjoyment out of – the big hits, the on-the-field violence – may well be causing some serious, long-term issues for those providing that enjoyment to me.”

To be brutally honest, most times, I just turn that voice off whenever it rears its head. But this year, that voice keeps sounding off, a little bit louder each time. And while I didn’t appreciate Eric Winston’s infamous comments about Booing-gate, what stayed in my memory was when he said, “We are not gladiators and this is not the Roman Colosseum.”

Chapter two of this book is about concussions. Now, I really really dislike Roger Goodell, but if I am honest with myself, I have to give him props for the NFL’s aggressive effort this year to prevent and monitor concussions. I know you’ve seen what I’ve seen – more penalties and a more rigorous procedure for players who have a concussion before they can get back on the field. We’ve also seen fans, players and pundits saying Goodell is just protecting the owners from lawsuits, that Goodell has gone too far and that he’s a hypocrite because he also wants to create an 18-game season. All of those things probably have a bit of truth to them. But if you blow away the fog, the fact remains: attempting to reduce concussions in this already violent game is a good thing, and it’s better to err on the side of aggressive action on this issue because the task at hand is extraordinary. We’re not talking about creating easy tweaks to the game, like instant replay and new pass interference rules. We’re talking about the culture of the game, which is more dominant than any other single characteristic in defining how the game is played, and what is left of the players when this is all over.

The Perkins murder has added the third chapter to this book on the culture of violence, and this chapter is about guns. As happens often when high profile murders take place, a strident debate has already broken out about guns. All of us have heard the arguments on both sides of this gun issue so much we probably know them by heart, so let’s not re-hash them all here. I see it a lot like the concussion debate: there’s a lot of fog and a lot of agendas that have nothing to do with player safety. To me, it’s pretty simple and not very political: there are too many guns in America and when you add lots of guns to an already violent culture, more bad things happen.

This book that is being written about the 2012 NFL season is about saying out loud that the NFL has some serious, serious issues that threaten the future of this multi-billion dollar industry, and these issues are all related to the culture of violence that seems to be increasing in America and on the field.

Baby Zoey – the smallest in stature but the biggest victim here – is going to need all the help she can get and more, to one day comprehend what happened on December 1, 2012 and to learn, grow and, we all hope, succeed in her life in unimaginable and wonderful ways. Perhaps she will learn what we hope is true – that humans can be incredibly resilient, loving and generous, and even in ways that can overcome the heinous acts we are also capable of committing. Perhaps we will all think a new thought we haven’t had before about mental illness, concussions, violence, domestic violence and guns and the role we each may play in this culture of violence. There aren’t any right answers here at all, except that we must learn something new from this experience, or we will have failed as human beings to have empathy, to learn and to progress.

This Sunday, our Chiefs will play the Browns. This week is the toughest week for the Chiefs – funerals, time alone trying to make sense of what happened, and all the while, keeping their heads down and doing the work of playing football. The Chiefs will find a way to get through it, and as fans, we will support them, wonder how they are doing and go on with our own lives and jobs. And we will keep Zoey in our thoughts and prayers, with hope that she will succeed against the odds, growing up in this culture of violence that seems to be escalating, not diminishing.

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