Jovan Belcher Tragedy: Football Players and Trauma


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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.

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