We’ve all read the news, and the hearts of Packer Nation go out to Chiefs Nation today: a tragedy of epic proportions in any venue cut close to the Chiefs organization, and thusly, close to the hearts of their fans and a nation whose collective hearts beat in time with the NFL.
The story of linebacker Jovan Belcher’s violent and dramatic murder-suicide will continue to unfold over the next few days, even as the Chiefs tee it up and play their game today against the long, dark shadow that’s been cast over an organization already beset by “controversies”–a losing streak, calls for the coach and GM’s heads, fan discontent.
But let’s face it: these controversies are political in nature, fictions created by fan emotions and business models. And all pale in comparison to the sudden blast of reality that ended in Arrowhead Stadium’s parking lot yesterday.
A tragedy like this–and any tragedy, really–forces people to re-evaluate their priorities somehow. What’s really and truly important in our lives, and what have we been giving too much attention to. What are the “little things” that have been sucking away our time, energy, focus, and money, when it should be spent on the “big, important things”?
And at a time like this, I chose to ponder my long-held belief that, as fans, we’ve been too highly dismissive of the people that hide behind the jersey. We look at players like we’re looking in a meat market, able to toss people away just like fat on the edge of the steak. It bothers me when a kid has spent his whole life dreaming of playing in the NFL, and as we make our “Final 53″ predictions we just toss names aside, as disposable as a used Dixie cup.
There’s that incessant need we have to view our superstars as human beings, the paparazzi-like obsession to know all about Clay Matthews or Aaron Rodgers, dissipates as you move down the depth chart. My feelings have gravitated towards wanting to give all players a level of consideration and respect, even if they don’t make the final roster, or even when they screw up on the field and have been tarred and feathered by the fan base as a result.
That’s somebody’s kid, somebody’s brother, and potentially somebody’s father. And as fans, we can be brutal, or even worse, brutally dismissive.
But this tragedy reminds me of the dark underbelly of getting to know players on a more personal level. In reality, you really don’t know who they are. We want to believe what their agents and the Packers’ marketers want us to believe: they are charity-donating, sick-child-visiting role models for your kids. And many of them are wonderful people. And several of them are not.
Perhaps one of the toughest lessons we’ve learned on getting “too close” to a player is the parable of Brett Favre. He was an open book, with his triumphs and personal tragedies laid bare to the bone for us fans to enjoy. We saw him go through painkiller rehab, the death of his father, and the ups and downs of his life, and believed we shared in it with him. We thought he loved us personally as much as we loved him. But when the dark underside of Favre’s nature shone through in 2008, it affected fans deeply. To this day, there is still deep hurt and division among Packer fans, especially those who invested so heavily in “Brett Favre The Person” that they still feel betrayed on a personal level.
In the end, Favre made a business decision, the kind of decision we wouldn’t think twice about if Chris Akin or Lamont Hollinquist moved teams and wanted “revenge” against the team that had released him.
By the time you read this, more information will likely be released about what kind of person Jovan Belcher is, stuff we really didn’t care or want to know before the murder. Perhaps a case will be made for mental illness by his coaches and teammates. Or, the family of his girlfriend will make claims of an abusive, controlling monster. Belcher’s family and former coaches will undoubtedly paint a picture of a wonderful young man who was put under a pressure cooker that was too much for him.
And we will be left to try and understand it. For Chiefs fans, it will be compounded greatly by the impact it has on their already floundering team. Perhaps it will pull them together. Or, perhaps this is a shadow that will hang over this franchise for years.
In the end, fans should take the time to consider how personal they want to be with their players. It’s a human emotion, with the belief that because you follow their Twitter accounts (and perhaps once or twice, they respond to you) that you share some sort of bond. In the end, you don’t really know who they are. They might be as noble and humble as Bart Starr. Or, they might be the train wreck that was Randy Moss.
The more we find out about Jovan Belcher, the more we’re probably going to find out that he had issues that we really didn’t want to know about. We just wanted to see our players go out on the gridiron and battle for wins. In the end, that’s what we really treasure as football fans.
There’s a reason players like Aaron Rodgers and Charles Woodson keep low profiles and hold their private lives close to the vest. They’ve seen the Parable of Favre, and know that just because the fans want to know everything about you now doesn’t mean it won’t come back to bite you later. Certainly, the curse of celebrity has shown us, time and time again, that stalkers truly believe they have a two-way relationship with the person they obsess over. They don’t. And neither do we.
Our attempts to become closer and closer to players has its dark side, both for them and for us. Sometimes it takes a tragedy such as this to remind us that players keep the fans at arms length for a reason. Usually it is because they want their privacy and safety. Sometimes it is because they prefer their superhero image over their own failings in real life, and don’t want us to know.
But I will tell you one thing: there’s something to be said for that meat market, and simply valuing players based on what they do on the field. Instead of wishing to be closer to the players, we should spend our time hoping they are receiving whatever support and help they need from those actually in the position to provide it to them.
In the end, what else can we fans actually do?
C.D. Angeli is a longtime Packer fan and feature writer and CheeseheadTV.com. You can listen to him on Cheesehead Radio at PackersTalk.com and follow him on Twitter at @TundraVision.