Don’t let Belcher off the hook

Coverage of the murder-suicide shouldn't have called it a "tragedy"; it was a crime

In her column, Minority Reports, Jennifer Vanasco analyzes how the mainstream media covers social minorities.

After NFL player Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, and then himself on Saturday, it seemed the media had one question: Why did he do it?

After all, said the first media reports, Belcher was not a bad guy. Surely, something tipped him over the edge. Something extraordinary must have happened to make Belcher kill his girlfriend and then commit suicide.

Maybe, the media speculated, it was too many concussions. Or perhaps it was steroids. Or stress combined with heavy drinking. Or maybe it was that his girlfriend was moneygrubbing and “lazy,” or that she had made him angry because she was out late the night before at a concert.

This was a guy that people liked and respected, a guy who played well on the field. So something wacky must have happened to make him do this, right?

No. Nothing wacky had to happen. Because this wasn’t extraordinary at all. This wasn’t a man-bites-dog event. This was a man killing his girlfriend. And that sort of domestic violence happens all the time. About 1.3 million women are physically assaulted by their partner each year, and nearly one-third of female homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

For black women who are pregnant or who are recent mothers, as Perkins was, the statistics are even worse. The CDC concluded that black women “had a maternal homicide risk about seven times that of white women. The disparity was even more striking at ages 25 to 29, with black women in that age group about 11 times as likely as white women to be killed,” said the Washington Post in 2005. (Perkins was 22, just younger than the demographic.)

One blogger, Gina McCauley at What About Our Daughters, raged that the media said “anything other than Jovan Belcher was a controlling bully who felt entitled to shoot his girlfriend. Because mind you, Mr. Belcher managed to not kill his mother who was in the next room. He managed to not kill his coach and the team manager. So were these some special ‘concussions’ that only affected the part of the brain that deals with girlfriends?”

She’s got that right. The issue here is not whether Jovan Belcher had a concussion or whether he was on steroids. It’s that Perkins was a victim of domestic violence, and somehow, in our society, we classify the result as a “tragedy,” not as a crime. Just check out the headlines saying so.

There were other, more mainstream voices who also pointed out that Perkins’s death was not only a “tragedy”—she was a victim of domestic violence. The New York Daily News’s Mike Lupica wrote, “Jovan Belcher had a chance for it to all end differently, at least for him, no matter what brought him to this moment outside Arrowhead Stadium. That is why the real tragedy here—the real victim—is a young woman named Kasandra Michelle Perkins… . You want to mourn somebody? Start with her.”

Good luck, said ESPN W’s Jemele Hill, who noted that “when it comes to acknowledging violence against women, the sports world is often mute.” CJR’s Justin Peters looks at the numbers in Slate, noting that “the NFL has a serious domestic violence problem … of the 32 NFL teams, 21 of them have had this year at least one player who’s been charged at some point with domestic violence or sexual assault.” He then clarified in a second piece that the rate of domestic violence in the NFL (about 2 percent) isn’t necessarily higher than in the country at large, but that the “NFL does have a problem in the inconsistency with which it treats offenders and minimizes their alleged crimes. NFL executives and coaches talk tough on domestic violence but don’t really follow through.”

But for reporters on deadline, it’s easier to write about Perkins’s murder as if it were a freak occurrence rather than part of a systemic football (or national) problem, because systemic problems are not as sexy to readers and they require a lot of contextualization and research. But in cases like this, we need to ( points out that Belcher had a history of anger when women didn’t do as he liked). Shining light on domestic violence lets victims know they are not alone and points them toward help; it also sends a signal to abusers that assaulting the women in their lives is not socially acceptable. We should not glorify Belcher by painting him as the victim of circumstance here.

The Boston Globe’s Christopher L. Gasper said it best: “Belcher wasn’t befallen by a tragedy. He was the perpetrator of one.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network's LGBT news site She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women's issues ran for 15 years.