In the wake of Saturday's horrifying tragedies at Kansas City, you knew the pundits would get their laptops rolling. The first wave involved the decision to play the game; some said it was a terrible idea, while others advocated it as a proper method of healing. Once the game was in the books, talk turned to Bigger Issues, as in How Could This Happen? Concussions and head injuries will come under the microscope, as will the NFL's approaches to counseling depression. Sunday night, NBC commentator Bob Costas, echoing a column by Fox Sports' Jason Whitlock, took on another aspect of the tragedy: gun violence.
Costas quoted with approval from Whitlock's column, which states, in part:
Our current gun culture simply ensures that more and more domestic disputes will end in the ultimate tragedy, and that more convenience-store confrontations over loud music coming from a car will leave more teenage boys bloodied and dead.
In the coming days, Belcher's actions will be analyzed through the lens of concussions and head injuries. Who knows? Maybe brain damage triggered his violent overreaction to a fight with his girlfriend. What I believe is, if he didn't possess/own a gun, he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today.
That is the message I wish Chiefs players, professional athletes and all of us would focus on Sunday and moving forward. Handguns do not enhance our safety. They exacerbate our flaws, tempt us to escalate arguments, and bait us into embracing confrontation rather than avoiding it.
Gun control is, of course, a controversial issue, with such rabid belief on both sides that even politicians tend to steer clear of it. And politics are so laden with potential conflict that most sports commentators give anything remotely political a wide berth, as well. So when you've got gun control and politics jammed right in the middle of your football game, well, you can see how that might get a few people a touch upset. Social media and comment sections across the Internet boiled over on Sunday night with vitriol both against Costas for his views, and against NBC for permitting any kind of political commentary on its broadcast.
Personal view: I don't mind politics occasionally cropping up in my sports. It's my belief that no social or public interaction — sports, politics, entertainment, business — exists in a vacuum, and it's only natural that elements from one seep over into another. But I also recognize that there are plenty who look to sports as an escape from the harsh realities of everyday life, that a Cowboys-Eagles game is a safe and risk-free way to avoid the horrors of the world by focusing instead on the horrors of two mediocre NFC East franchises.
Tracking the prospects of your fantasy team's third receiver rather than the impact of social issues might not be advisable on a long-term basis, but it's perfectly normal and appropriate during a football game. Costas tried to make his viewers feel guilty for not being as outraged as he is, and that's an approach doomed to both failure and deserved scorn. We all perceive tragedy differently; nobody, least of all a sportscaster on a football game, ought to be telling us to "recalibrate our sense of proportion."
As for the validity of Whitlock's comments: He's framed them in such a way that arguing against them effectively puts the arguer in the position of advocating gun violence. The guns-are-the-primary-problem stance deliberately oversimplifies an emotionally and psychologically complex situation. In other words, Whitlock, and by association Costas, is painting this tragedy in primary colors as a means of advancing an agenda, and as we've seen in the most recent election season, people really don't like to be told what to think.
Pontificating on social issues is Whitlock and Costas' right, of course; both men have earned a public stage to air their beliefs, whether or not we agree with them. But oversimplification never holds up to even the most basic scrutiny. (There's also the troublesome, for Whitlock and Costas, fact that guns have, on occasion, saved lives in situations like these.)
Whitlock and Costas contend that if only Belcher didn't possess a gun, he and Perkins would still be alive. Really? It's the object and not the man that caused this tragedy? If that's the case, hey, confiscate every gun everywhere. Shoot, confiscate everything that could potentially be used as a weapon.
And if that tidy little solution is how we're working, then why stop at guns? Why not advocate for stricter regulations on what we see on TV and hear in music? Whitlock's beloved "The Wire" and cop shows broadcast on Costas' employer NBC feature violence as a key plot element. When Whitlock himself criticizes an organization or individual, he refers to it as "filling up the vacants" — a reference from "The Wire" to the way a Baltimore drug lord kills and disposes of the bodies of his enemies. Hmmm.
Might the attitudes that entertainers embody contribute to "more convenience-store confrontations over loud music coming from a car [that] will leave more teenage boys bloodied and dead"? Ban 'em all!
(Note, just so we're clear: All these arguments are deliberately absurd in the service of making a point.)
There's a place for discussion of the role that gun control could, and should, play in tragedies like this. There's also a way to frame it that doesn't come across as opportunistic and condescending, hurting the very cause you're trying to defend.
UPDATE: According to USA Today, Costas, said an NBC spokesman, "feels an unfortunate leap was taken that he was advocating taking away Second Amendment rights. He was not." NBC spokesman Greg Hughes noted, "In a short (on-air) time period he can cover only one aspect of a complicated issue. So he quoted (Whitlock) about the gun culture and an almost Wild West attitude in parts of this country. He is pro-sensible gun reform and pro-attitude adjustment on guns." Hughes further added that Costas is "in favor of people owning guns to hunt and carrying them in reasonably controlled circumstances."
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