They played a football game in Kansas City the other day.
Even as the headlines fade, the question remains.
Was it the right thing to do given the tragedy that happened 24 hours earlier?
There’s no playbook for this sort of grieving. A Chiefs player killed his girlfriend – the mother of their infant child – then turned the gun on himself in front of the head coach and the general manager. The second half of the murder-suicide took place at the team’s training complex, right next door to Arrowhead Stadium.
The next day, the Chiefs reported for work in that very stadium for a game against Carolina. Won it, too, for just their second victory of the season. Afterward, everyone talked about the cathartic effect of taking the field – as a team, as a family – in the face of such a heinous act.
But, really, was it proper to play on?
I was downright adamant on the day of the game. No way they should’ve kicked off. Even got into a spirited debate on social media with some friends.
Now, with a couple of days to reflect, time spent talking to several experts on grieving, I can see the value of playing what was a meaningless game in the standings between two teams going nowhere.
With one big caveat: Please recognize that lasting peace can’t be found between the lines.
All those who felt it was necessary to play, from GM Scott Pioli to coach Romeo Crennel to the 53rd man on the roster, need to man up in a different way in the days, weeks and months to come. For the rest of their lives, really, because this is something that will remain with all of them to some degree until their time is up.
Be sure to address what are surely feelings of sadness and anger, maybe even a little guilt. Take time to deal with the questions running through your own mind about why Jovan Belcher did what he did, even if deep down you know the odds of uncovering a logical answer to a senseless crime are slim at best.
“It takes time,” said Jay Wade, a psychology professor at Fordham University in New York, “to deal with whatever feelings are associated with this major thing that happened. You can’t just say, `Suck it up, go ahead and play the next game.’ On the one hand, I think it’s understandable they played the next day. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“But,” he added, “later on down the line, if you don’t take time to deal with that tragedy, that trauma you’ve experienced, it probably will affect you for a long time. No doubt.”
All athletes are taught to be strong, football players in particular. On every play, they are attempting to prove the guy across the line is weaker than they are.
But when it comes to dealing with Belcher’s crime, a little vulnerability will go a long way for these large men.
“Our culture still creates the mentality that `big boys don’t cry, big boys don’t talk about sensitive things,’” said James Overholser, who teaches psychology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and has been doing research on suicides for 25 years. “That’s the real problem. That’s what puts males at elevated risk of something like suicide.”
A couple of Atlanta Falcons players were asked Tuesday if they would’ve wanted to go ahead with the game under similar circumstances. There were no easy answers.
“That’s a tough call,” cornerback Dunta Robinson said. “I can’t even imagine that going on here and how I would respond as a player, but I think as players and as an organization, (the Chiefs) did what they thought was best for them. They went ahead and played the game. They won the football game, so hats off to them for the way they handled it.”
Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan went through a double-tragedy during his previous job in Denver. Less than two months apart in 2007, cornerback Darrent Williams was killed in a drive-by shooting and Damien Nash collapsed and died during a charity basketball game.
“People say, `Hey, maybe you can occupy your mind for at least a few hours and kind of get away from that grieving process if you can,’” Shanahan said. “But there’s not an easy way to deal with it. I’ve dealt with it a couple of times, and it’s as hard as it gets, especially when you’re very close to somebody. But it’s something you’ve got to work through, it’s part of life. Nobody likes it, but sometimes I think it’s therapeutic” to go ahead and play the game.
But the shared experience of sport can’t overshadow what the individual is going through. Todd Farchone, a research professor in the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University, said it’s easy to understand how everyone got on board with taking the field in Kansas City, even if that wasn’t necessarily the way every one of them would’ve handled it.
“I can imagine being a fly on the wall in that meeting and hearing all the different perspectives,” Farchone said. “Some people, as the decision was being made, probably wanted to do what’s best for the team. But people deal with grief in different ways. Some want to get back to work immediately and throw themselves into things they need to do. Others might want to go through a lengthier process, to deal with the loss immediately.”
After thinking this out, I realize my feelings on what was appropriate this past Sunday aren’t so cut and dried.
Really, there’s no right or wrong when it comes to grieving.
All I can say to the Chiefs is this: You won the game as a team, just don’t forget to take care of yourself.
Talk about it. Cry about it. Grieve about it.
That doesn’t make you weak.
That makes you a man.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
AP Sports Writers Joseph White in Ashburn, Va., George Henry in Flowery Branch, Ga., and Arnie Stapleton in Englewood, Colo., contributed to this report.