Manhood, Football And Tragedy
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.
Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, sportswriter and professor of journalism Kevin Blackistone. They're all here in our Washington, D.C. studios. With us from Boston, he's trained as a doctor. He's now a health care consultant. He's also a contributor to the conservative magazine the National Review, Neil Minkoff.
Take it away, Jimi.
JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellows, welcome to the shop. How we doing?
ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.
KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Great.
NEIL MINKOFF: Hey, Jimi.
BLACKISTONE: What's happening?
IZRAEL: All right. Well, let's get it started, but we got some tough stories this week. Funeral services for Kansas City Chiefs football player Jovan Belcher and his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins were held this week. Belcher fatally shot Perkins last Saturday before committing suicide himself. Michel?
MARTIN: You know, the details of this are really - you know, obviously, all deaths are tragic, but painful, but the details of this are, I think, you know, rather harrowing. Belcher went to Arrowhead Stadium, shot himself in front of his coaches and their three month old daughter apparently was in the house, was present when Belcher took, you know, her mother's life.
And so the police are looking at what happened and, of course, it always raises questions about why this happened. The Chiefs head coach, Romeo Crennel, said this about Belcher during a press conference after Sunday's game.
ROMEO CRENNEL, HEAD COACH, KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: When any person has an issue or has problems, if they're not totally honest with you about their issues or their problems, then you can not give them the correct help.
IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Now, there have been some strong reactions to this. Some folks were angry that the Chiefs still played on Sunday, jeez. And then, of course, there's the back and forth debate about gun control and questions about whether this had anything to do with head injuries or mental health issues.
Kevin Blackistone, you're the sports journalist. You know what I'd like to see, Kevin?
BLACKISTONE: What's that?
IZRAEL: The NFL needs a venue for like a man's retreat where they do everything but talk about football.
BLACKISTONE: Well, you know, you'd be surprised, but they do that. I mean, when you're a rookie coming into the league, it's done. The NFLPA does that. There are groups within teams that do that.
IZRAEL: Regularly or just...
BLACKISTONE: No, regularly. They have regular programming. I mean, NFL players are not without programs to turn to if, in fact, they are in trouble. Now, the question may be about the culture of us as men and not just as football players and particularly black men and whether or not we are that willing to turn to someone and ask for help if we are having struggles. I think that's really the question. It's not just about the NFL. It's about us as a culture of men.
IZRAEL: Neil Minkoff, as a fan, but also as a doctor, do you see this as an isolated tragedy or does something about - does this say something about football itself?
MINKOFF: Well, I've been struggling with that a lot over the past few days, so I actually bothered to look a few things up. And, you know, the fact is that homicide and suicide are two of the three leading causes of death for men and women under the age of 35 in this country, regardless of creed or ethnicity or race or anything, that we seem to have changed our culture in a way so that life is safer than ever for those people until something becomes self-inflicted or cross-inflicted across people.
And, you know, I realize that there's been all this emphasis on the NFL and all this emphasis on head injuries. I think a lot of the head injury stuff, and especially short term, is way too early to weigh in on, so I'd like to step back a little bit and say what is it about our culture that leads to suicide and homicide being reasonably prevalent across all young adults?
IZRAEL: Arsalan Iftikhar, A train.
IFTIKHAR: Yeah. I mean, you know, there are so many, you know, facets to this tragedy that, you know, have been discussed. You know, what's interesting to me is that - and I think should be mentioned - is that there have been several, you know, high profile football players have committed suicide, you know, in not the too distant past. You know, we had former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, you know, who shot and killed himself.
You know, it's been interesting, the narrative that we're seeing in the media about this. You know, first and foremost, this was a murder. You know, Jovan Belcher shot Kasandra Perkins nine times in front of their three-month-old baby and even his mother was in the house, according to 911 tapes. This was a murder, first and foremost, and had Jovan Belcher not been a celebrity, had not been a professional athlete, this would probably have been on page B23 of any...
This was a murder first and foremost. And had Jovan Belcher not been a celebrity, had not been a professional athlete, this would probably have been on page B23 of any, you know, of the Kansas City Star. And so I think that, you know, we have to talk about this and, you know, I was one of the people that was concerned that the Kansas City Chiefs played less than 24 hours later. You know, the Kansas City Chiefs are in, you know, no threat to, you know, make the playoffs. They could have postponed the game. But the NFL, you know, even after September 11th, they were considering playing that following Sunday until there was basically a coup by the New York Jets and other NFL teams saying that we need to take time off. And so, I think that people should really analyze, you know, the sort of cult of celebrity and sports fanhood that we all share but, you know, at times like this I think that there are much more important priorities.
BLACKISTONE: And I'm one of those people who I'm glad they played the game.
BLACKISTONE: And I'm glad they played the game because it created a forum and a platform for this issue that people don't like to talk about. And I was impressed by the fact that just as you pointed out, that the Kansas City Chiefs had a moment of silence and remembrance before the game, not for their player, whose name they did not mention...
BLACKISTONE: ...but for Cassandra Perkins and Zoe, the three-month-old baby, who is left without parents. And they had everybody think about the tragedy of domestic violence in this country. And so because of this, this is another incidence where I think sports has put a spotlight on a national issue that people don't like to deal with. And I hope that going forward the NFL will make this part of their platform.
MARTIN: Well, wait a minute. Did they have to play the game to put the spotlight on that? I mean these guys are at work, and if this is your workplace and something like this happened in your workplace to somebody you saw every day, do you really think it's appropriate to then do something that could be life altering for you...
MARTIN: ...and have a distraction like that? I mean, even if you are...
BLACKISTONE: Well, unfortunately, I have worked in a workplace where someone committed suicide and my recollection is that...
IFTIKHAR: At the workplace?
BLACKISTONE: No, not at the workplace.
BLACKISTONE: ...but a co-worker. And my recollection is everybody came into work the next day.
MARTIN: OK. But did you face harm yourself by being distracted? If you were a doctor, if you were about to perform surgery the next day, if you were about to - I mean - do something that you could physically harm yourself or harm someone else by being distracted, that's one of the questions that I have here. I mean Kevin, you know, we're in the same field. I mean I...
MARTIN: If you come in and you're distracted, you're going to hurt somebody or be hurt yourself. I think that's one standard that needs to be considered here, so...
BLACKISTONE: Well, I don't think - I don't know who else is going to be hurt by being at that stadium.
MARTIN: The players, by not being focused.
BLACKISTONE: But this is something that they do. This is how professional athletes are trained. They are trained to focus on the task at hand, their game and their performance.
MARTIN: But why doesn't that play into just exactly what you talked about, this culture of suppression where men aren't allowed to have feelings. Why isn't that exactly what you just talked about?
BLACKISTONE: But they did have feelings and they were hugging and they were crying. And one of the Kansas City Chiefs players is related by blood Cassandra Perkins. And so I do think that that happened.
IFTIKHAR: But also, don't you think that it shows how, you know, football is not only America's favorite sport, but it's also become a pseudo-religion...
IFTIKHAR: ...you know, in the sense that, you know, any given Sunday, no matter what happens; we're going to play the game. And I think that's one aspect that we have as a society to analyze, you know, moving forward in the future.
MARTIN: But it's not a religion. Could we just be clear about that? It's not the religion.
IFTIKHAR: To some people it is.
MARTIN: No it is not.
BLACKISTONE: Well, there is a, I think there's an aspect of religiosity to it, in terms that people do this on a regular basis as part of your routine. And, you know, in a very perverted sense, it has replaced going to church on Sunday for a lot of people.
MINKOFF: Yeah, I got to speak up in support Michel here. I think that we're conflating the difference between fanaticism and religion. And I, for one, agree with her that we need to keep those separate and that one may be a part of a fanatical fan base, and people who do this thing every Sunday and it part of their life, but to elevate it to that other level I think that's problematic and may indicate some other deeper problems of our society.
MARTIN: Well, I guess there's a lot to talk about here and I think there's things that we still need to talk about too, which Neil, one of the things you mentioned, which is that the fact of who chooses to take his or her own life and who doesn't. And there is a lot of variation; you know, in that and all, the whole question of why some people choose to take other people way along with themselves. I mean there's a large body of evidence that, you know, when you have violent confrontations, that what they're really trying to do is they're trying to create a suicidal situation. You know what I mean? So I don't know that the way we think about this is necessarily, and the way we generally reflexively talk about it is really as expansive and as intelligent as it could be is what, is I guess I'm saying here. I guess I'm talking to myself and letting everybody listen, but I just think there's a lot more to know about all of this on this stuff...
MARTIN: ...and we as if there's no knowable facts about mental health and you know what? There really are. There really are. Anyway, let's...
MINKOFF: But I think a big issue here...
MARTIN: Go ahead, Neil.
MINKOFF: ...is that there's this tremendous effort - we've kind of touched on this before - but there's this tremendous effort, and I think it cuts across multiple cultures - to keep mental health separate and private. And there's still this incredible belief of concern about all the stigma around, depression or other mental health issues. And there may be different pressures and different cultures, but I believe - as a clinical professional - that I see this all across the board, and we still haven't done enough to make sure that people think of mental health as another disease that they're not guilty of, like if they had diabetes.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to our weekly Barbershop roundtable. We're joined by Neil Minkoff, that's who was speaking just now. He's trained as a doctor. He's now a health care consultant and a contributor to National Review. Also with us, writer Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, sports writer and professor of journalism, Kevin Blackistone.
Back to you, Jimi.
IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Now we've got to move on to yet another, another tragic story. Now everybody sitting here knows what The Post is known for. The New York Post, they're known for pushing boundaries in journalism. But the paper sparked outrage by running a front-page photo of a man who was about to be hit and killed by a subway train. The cover read: Doomed. Pushed On a Subway Track, This Man Is about To Die.
MARTIN: And the man has a name. His name is Ki Suk Han. He seems to have been pushed onto the tracks during an argument with another man. And I'm still not clear - frankly, I'm not sure the authorities are clear - on exactly what precipitated this. And the photo shows him trying to climb off the tracks. Now a lot of anger has been directed at the Post, as Jimi said, but also at the photographer who took the picture. His name is R. Umar Abbasi, and people have asked him why didn't he just put his camera down to help the man. And Abbasi talked to "The Today Show" host Matt Lauer about this. This is what he said.
MATT LAUER: Was there nothing you could have done? You couldn't have gotten - don't you think you could of, or someone else have gotten there and helped this poor man off the tracks?
R. UMAR ABBASI: The people who were standing close to him, they could have. They could have moved and grabbed him and pulled him out. Nobody made an effort.
IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Yeah, he makes a great point. I think his picture was less a picture, certainly respect to the man who lost his life, but it's also a picture of our indifference and the way we live now, where we - he was on the tracks for what some people said was 90 seconds, but certainly a full minute, so somebody could've lent him a hand. It's sad, but, I don't know, he's a journalist and he did his job.
BLACKISTONE: Yeah. And part of his explanation was he was flashing his camera's light...
BLACKISTONE: ...at the conductor to try and get his attention as he was running towards this man. At least this guy was approaching. And as you just pointed out Jimi, there were people standing there who did absolutely nothing.
BLACKISTONE: And even more disgusting than that, after the event, there were people crowding around taking pictures of it with their cell phone cameras. This is disgusting.
IZRAEL: Kevin Blackistone, you make a great point. Neil Minkoff, you were worked up about this earlier in the week. You know, talk to us about it. What set you off?
MINKOFF: Well, I mean I think a big part of it is that, you know, some of it may have to do with my background or my training or having been, you know, involved in emergency room care or something, but it is immoral not to run forward. It is everything that we should be as a people, as a species should involve the empathy to move forward and attempt to help, even if that attempt is futile, to do what you can in that situation. And, you know, I agree with what's been said. Like I'm not thrilled with the idea of these pictures, but to me the sin is the apathy of the close bystanders.
MARTIN: Back I have to ask...
MINKOFF: And I don't understand it.
MARTIN: But Neil, you know, I have to ask you, you are trained as an emergency physician to run toward. And first responders, that's why they're called first responders, are trained to run toward. You know, Anderson Cooper on CNN's program had an interview with the man who did save somebody in 2009, jumped down on the tracks to rescue somebody. And he asked him how do you feel about what just happened here? And he said I do not judge anyone because you don't know what you - you do not know what you would do in that situation. He said I am trained as a dancer and an actor. I am trained to catch people when they fall. So he said, as a person who'd been in that situation, he felt that it was wrong to judge people on something like that when you don't know yourself what you would do.
IFTIKHAR: You know, what bothers me the most about this whole, you know, tragic scenario is the fact that you were a lot of people on that platform. And reports that I had read said that the people, including the photographer on the platform, moved to the other side of the platform when they saw the panhandler being belligerent with this gentleman. It's hard for me to believe that two or three grown men or grown people could not have, you know, tried to have one person help the guy while two people, you know, confronted the panhandler to make sure that, you know, he didn't push the second guy down. I mean it's just, it baffles, you know, it baffles my mind. You know, even the photographer, OK; you want to do your job? Take one photo, put your camera down and then go help or...
MARTIN: Can I ask you though, Arsalan, forgive me, have you ever been tested in that way yourself, so that you can judge what others would do? Can you judge someone fairly? Have you ever been in a situation where you were called upon to intervene at possible harm to yourself?
IFTIKHAR: Not at possible harm to myself but there, you know, I've been at an international airport once when somebody was having an epileptic seizure on the marble floor and I helped to mobilize the guy. I mean I didn't do anything that, the guy just went up and when he got up he left and I walked to my flight. I mean this is, you know, this mob mentality of like oh, well, nobody's going to do anything so I'm not going to do anything either. You know, I think there a lot of people saw that picture that thought to themselves and, I wish I was on that platform to help that guy.
MARTIN: Jimi, I mean Jimi, do you want to tie a bow on this?
IZRAEL: I don't know. I mean bus crazies; you've got to leave them alone, man. Bus train crazies, you got to leave, you can't be Superman. I mean...
IFTIKHAR: That's why said take two of three people.
MINKOFF: I mean I respect. But we're all cut out, we all don't have S's on our chest, man. And the truth of the matter is you just never know. I mean until you're in that situation you really don't know.
MARTIN: Kevin, I have to ask you finally, before we let you go...
MARTIN: ...as the journalism professor in the house, do you think that The Post should have published this picture?
BLACKISTONE: No. I don't think they should have, unless the story was really about the people who were standing there. But unfortunately, you know, we've turned into a voyeuristic society and we, you know, the case that we talked about in Kansas City just before this included people airing the audio reports from the police of Belcher shooting himself. You know, we had Fox News a couple of months ago, show, live on television, the suicide of a man who was jumping out of a car who was being chased by police. So this is unfortunately, passing as journalism these days and it's very unfortunate.
MARTIN: Well, more here to talk about too. Thank you all for taking on these topics. It's not easy to talk about. Thank you all for that.
That was Kevin Blackistone speaking just now. He's a sports columnist and a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. Jimi Izrael is a writer and culture critic. He's also adjunct or faster of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College. Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney and founder of themuslimguy.com. They were all here with me in Washington, D.C. With us from Boston, Neil Minkoff. He's trained as a doctor. He's a health care consultant and a contributor to the conservative outlet the National Review.
BLACKISTONE: Thank you.
MINKOFF: Thanks a lot. Good weekend, all.
IZRAEL: Yup, yup.
MARTIN: And remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our new Barbershop Podcast. That's in the iTunes store or at NPR.org. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.
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