Almost immediately after Kansas City Chiefs lineback Jovan Belcher committed suicide outside the Chiefs’ practice facility — less than an hour after police say he murdered his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins in their home — discussion turned to the role concussions and brain trauma may have played in the deaths. That isn’t surprising, given that the link between football and long-term brain trauma has sparked a nationwide conversation about the safety of the men who play the game.
That’s an important discussion: protecting the men and boys who play football from long-term brain injuries sustained on the field is imperative. But because the manner in which he killed himself eliminated any chance doctors have of diagnosing chronic traumatic encepholopathy (CTE), concussions, or other brain trauma, we will never know for sure what role concussions played in the tragedy.
What is painfully evident though is that the murder of Kasandra Perkins was a blatant act of domestic violence, and the combination of that murder and Belcher’s ensuing suicide followed a path that is common in our country. And yet, while we seem willing to drift to the easy conversation (about concussions) or the politically charged conversation (about guns), we’re ignoring the painful truths about domestic violence and murder-suicides in American society. By focusing so intently on a conversation with no immediate answers, we’re missing the conversation that is so evident.
“We don’t have all of the details about whether or to what extent he’d been abusive before this, but when you pick up a gun and murder your girlfriend, that’s domestic violence,” Shaina Goodman, the public policy coordinator at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, told me. “This is what domestic violence homicide looks like.”
And sadly, it looks like that all too often. There are 12 murder-suicides a week in this country, according to one study, and most are domestic in nature. Three women a day are killed by intimate partners. 91 percent of domestic murders are committed by men, 88 percent involve a firearm. The most dangerous combination of killer in domestic abuse cases, according to David Adams, co-author of a report on domestic murders, is a “jealous substance abuser with a gun,” and such a combination “was present in about 40 percent of the killers” Adams interviewed for his study.
Is that Jovan Belcher? It’s hard to tell. In college, he punched out a glass window over a woman, according to crime reports from the University of Maine, and police were called to his college home another time over a dispute, though not violent in nature, with a woman. Other news reports have indicated that Belcher and Perkins were at a rocky point in their relationship, that he was visiting another woman he identified as his “girlfriend” to police, and that he exchanged text messages with a friend in which he called Perkins “crazy.” Belcher was a “heavy drinker,” intoxicated the night before the incident, and abused prescription pain medications, according to other reports.
I don’t think any of that proves that Belcher has a history of domestic violence, but according to Adams’ study (also authored by professors Jacquelyn C. Campbell and Richard Gelles), only 25 percent of murder-suicide incidents indicated previous cases of domestic violence in arrest records.
Whether Belcher fits the perfect profile of most men who commit murder-suicide or not, it’s more clear that this is a case of domestic violence than it is that concussions or brain injuries played a role. And this isn’t just about Jovan Belcher and Kasandra Perkins. It’s about all of the men who commit domestic homicides and all of the women who die in them each year in our country.
So while it’s important to continue exploring the link between football and brain injuries and the societal effects those brain injuries can have, using concussions as a catch-all explainer of Belcher and Perkins’ death strikes me as a convenient way to gloss over the tougher-to-handle fact that this may have simply been a case of domestic violence. By using concussions or CTE as such a catch-all, we miss the chance to explore the prevalence of domestic violence in our society and the mores, norms, and gender roles that make that violence so prevalent. We miss the opportunity to examine policies we could enact (like the Violence Against Women Act, which will come in front of Congress again this month) and societal changes we need to make to ensure that domestic violence — and murder-suicide — is less likely to occur in the future.
“Talking only about brain injuries makes it about the individual,” Goodman said. “To respond to this incident as only about mental health problems ignores the systemic, cultural level of domestic violence, the reality of what it looks like, and the serious prevalence of it. In the end, and in addition to whatever other important issues this incident raises, this is a domestic violence issue and it needs to be identified as such.”