Jovan Belcher, Adam Lanza and the “Manhood Crisis” at the Heart of Recent Tragedies: The Jackson Katz interview, part II
Part II of my interview with activist/scholar Jackson Katz. Part I can be read here. – CA
Kassandra Perkins with their three-month-old daughter Zoey (left) and Jovon Belcher (right)
Elite Daily photo
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I wanted to ask you about the tragic deaths of Kansas City Chiefs football player Jovan Belcher and his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins earlier this month. What was your reaction when you heard about the murder-suicide?
Of course I was sad to hear about yet another domestic violence tragedy. They happen all the time, though most of the time it’s just a local story, people hear about it, shrug their shoulders, and move on to the next news event. But I thought there was something about this one that made it stand out, even beyond the obvious fact that it involved a high-profile professional athlete. No one could pretend it was just a “private matter,” since Belcher killed himself in front of his coach and general manager, which means it spilled over directly into the workplace. It must have been — still must be — very traumatic for the individuals involved, not to mention for a whole lot of other people who knew the couple, his teammates, Chiefs fans, etc. Because it was just so tragic, including the orphaning of a three-month old, I thought it might spark an increased commitment from the League to address the issue of men’s violence against women more proactively than in the past.
What work have you done with the National Football League to prevent violence off the field?
My colleagues and I at the Mentors in Violence Prevention program have worked in various capacities with the NFL for 13 years. We’ve worked with the New England Patriots for all that time, and we’ve done trainings for about a quarter of NFL teams. In the area of domestic and sexual violence prevention, I think it’s fair to say that we have more experience than anyone in terms of working with pro football players, coaches, and front office staff.
The Belcher-Perkins murder-suicide was a big cultural moment, especially when you consider the immense national and international spotlight on the NFL and its players. It forced discussions about domestic violence – once again — into the wide world of sports discourse. But much of the commentary steered clear of talking about the gender factors at the root of most domestic violence. Instead, you heard a lot of talk about the possibility that Belcher had a brain injury from concussions, or some mental illness people weren’t aware of. Those topics deserve some investigation, but let’s get real. There are hundreds of murder-suicides every year in the United States, and the majority of them are men killing their girlfriends or wives and then killing themselves.
The question should be about why so many men do this, not why one NFL football player did it and what that might teach us about football. What does it teach us about how men are socialized and how that affects their ability to maintain (or not) healthy relationships? What role does the ideology of power and control as linked to manhood play in domestic violence – for average men on the factory floor and in office parks, not just in the rarified world of professional football?
So much of the discussion we should be having about these sorts of questions gets diverted to discussions about important but secondary factors. Take guns. The day after the murder-suicide Bob Costas read an excerpt from a column by Jason Whitlock on Sunday Night Football. Whitlock talked about guns and speculated about whether this would have happened if Belcher in his rage didn’t have easy access to a gun. Then Costas became the epicenter of a big debate about guns. I’m glad Costas raised the issue, but subsequently you had all these people complaining that he politicized a football game in an inappropriate way. Rush Limbaugh and other right-wingers attacked him. Limbaugh actually said something like “If he (Belcher) didn’t have a gun, he would’ve killed her with knives, he would have strangled her,” when we know from decades of research and experience in the field of domestic violence that the presence of guns in the home is a major factor for domestic violence lethality.
Chiefs Head Coach Romeo Crennel wipes a tear away during a moment of silence vs. Carolina Panthers. (Colin E. Braley/AP)
How should the NFL approach the incident? What would be an appropriate action to take?
At a minimum, there should be much more education and training for NFL players, coaches and front office staff on the issues of domestic and sexual violence prevention. There’s very little right now. Part of the reason has to do with the collective bargaining agreement between the players union and the league. There are certain restrictions the League has on mandated training. I think individual teams have more latitude.
So there are two different questions here: “What can the NFL do?” and “What can individual teams do?” The players union and NFL management have to come up with a better plan about what’s expected of all players, coaches and front office staff. For the teams it’s really a practical and strategic business decision. What is the appropriate level of training we should expect of our employees in this area? How can we prevent future tragedies? A key component of the business decision is a question about community relations and responsibility. NFL teams play a prominent role in their communities. How can they leverage that in a positive way to effect change on this persistent social problem? People pay attention to how NFL teams handle these sorts of matters. In part, that’s why we’re having this conversation.
Some people will say that it’s somewhat of a contradiction to be teaching nonviolence to football players, who are paid to play a violent sport.
I think it’s important that people know something about what we do in programs like the one I co-founded, Mentors in Violence Prevention. MVP is the first program in the domestic and sexual violence field to utilize the “bystander approach” to prevention. Our focus is not directly on men who are abusive. We don’t point our fingers at men and warn them to behave themselves. We focus on the responsibility of teammates, friends, colleagues, co-workers, and others to help create a peer culture climate where abusive behavior along a continuum is unacceptable, not only because it’s illegal, but because the peer culture doesn’t accept it.
We discuss everything from guys making sexist and degrading comments about women to incidents of physical and sexual violence. We get practical and concrete: what can guys do if their teammate says or does something that degrades women? We compare that to racism: if you’re white and your teammate says something racist, what is your responsibility to say or do in response? What you do if a guy you know physically or emotionally abuses his girlfriend or wife? In the case of domestic violence, which usually takes place behind closed doors, how would you even know? What are some of the warning signs? What can you do – safely and supportively — to confront the abusive behavior, or interrupt it before it gets worse?
I can tell you this. When you get men in a room and open up some space for dialogue about this stuff, a lot of guys have a lot to say, as well as a lot to learn. We all do. This is not dry Power Point stuff. We talk about real life, including the struggles that many guys go through and have gone through. For example, a lot of players in the NFL come from families where there was domestic violence. They have mothers who are survivors. Some of their wives and girlfriends have gone through it. Some of these men feel passionately about not wanting to continue the cycle.
I think it’s in the self-interest of NFL teams to address these issues head-on, if you’ll forgive the unfortunate pun. If NFL teams had these kinds of programs for their employees more guys would be in a position to understand when something isn’t quite right with one of their teammates or fellow coaches. I’m not saying all incidents are preventable. But in domestic violence lethality reviews, it comes up frequently that points of intervention are frequently missed along the way by people around the perpetrator, as well as people around the victim. You can interrupt the process early on, but you’re not going to if you don’t at least talk about this stuff.
Let’s shift gears for a moment to the Newtown tragedy. In your mind, what are effective strategies for teaching boys about not “equaling the score,” or “not getting revenge?” What alternatives would you suggest?
This is really hard, because in a sense it is quite possible that Adam Lanza achieved his goal. He planned and carried out a horrific act that made a very strong statement. And from early reports, he took his own life, which means that he was in control right up to the end. If you look at quotes or written statements left behind by past rampage killers, many of them understand their homicidal outbursts – whether based directly in revenge fantasies or not — as assertive displays of manhood and power.
So when you look at Adam Lanza, whom people described as shy, introverted, or may have had Asperger’s Syndrome, all this stuff was happening beneath the surface that people didn’t know about. You can say he was a pathetic, troubled young man who led a disastrous life. But in the end his life was recognized and noticed, and his power was affirmed. I think it’s important for us to make it much, much harder for individuals like him to gain access to firearms, especially semi-automatic weapons with high capacity magazines. And of course the entire mental health system needs to be reassessed – though that would involve a significant shift in social priorities.
I know it’s an uphill fight, but one approach we need to adopt on a broad societal level is to teach boys and men that acknowledging their vulnerability – and getting help — is not a sign of weakness, but one of strength. Right now that message is still somewhat countercultural for boys and men.
People are asking President Barack Obama to take action after this tragic event. What does he need to do?
He needs to start taking more risks as a leader, first by standing up to the gun lobby and speaking out and advocating for much stronger gun regulations. He’s starting to do that now. Tens of millions of people are counting on him to do this. It’s not going to miraculously end gun violence in America, but there are steps in the right direction: a renewed assault weapons ban, a ban on high capacity magazines, closing the gun show loophole, and so on. Obama was elected in November with a strong majority of the vote. I think if he takes these kinds of stands – especially in the wake of Newtown, a lot of people will support him. There are even members of the NRA who will support him.
But on a cultural level, I would love to see the president initiate a national conversation on manhood and violence. Use his unparalleled platform to catalyze a conversation among men from every ethnic, racial and socioeconomic group about how we need to redefine manhood in this society in more life-affirming and nonviolent ways. We need more men speaking out — not only after horrific school shootings.
So The Starting Five website is from Philadelphia. Has MVP done any work with any Philadelphia sports teams?
Some years back we did some productive work with the Phillies. But there is so much more we could be doing with professional sports teams and leagues. I’m most interested in the leadership platform athletes and coaches have in male culture, and how pro sports teams can use their prominence and influence to set an example for how to address the issue of preventing men’s violence against women. For example, imagine what a powerful message pro football teams could send to athletic directors and high school football coaches if they put some of their resources — and the power and credibility of their brand – behind efforts to implement gender violence prevention programming? My MVP colleagues and I have been doing some of that in Vancouver, Canada, with the B.C. Lions of the Canadian Football League. The early results look very promising.
The most important work has to be institutionalized and systematic, rather than episodic responses to occasional incidents. Sadly, I think we’re still in a place as a society where schools, businesses, and pro sports teams address these issues reactively rather than proactively. One can only hope that after the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide, and the unspeakable tragedy at Newtown, we can begin to change that.
Thank you very much Jackson!
This interview is dedicated to the Sandy Hook Elementary School and the Kansas City Chiefs football team.
Telegraph U.K. photo