Commentary

Chiefs, Cowboys, NFL play on

What kind of tragedy would actually cause pro football to pause for a day?

Updated: December 10, 2012, 5:12 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

They keep playing games in the NFL, everything else be damned, and something about it doesn't feel right. There's no clear, obvious way to deal with unexpected tragedy, but it's tough to see playing games as the right one. Couldn't they give it a day, maybe? Twenty-four hours to allow the players to collect their thoughts and think about something other than offensive tendencies and game plans? There might not be one answer that fits every occasion, but there must be a more humane one that fits the past two weeks.

Two different circumstances, two tragedies: The Chiefs' Jovan Belcher killed himself in front of the coach and general manager in the parking lot of the team's facility after murdering the mother of his child; early Saturday morning, Cowboys defensive lineman Josh Brent allegedly drove drunk and killed his friend and teammate Jerry Brown.

One common decision: The show must go on.

When you become an employee of the NFL or one of its many subsidiaries, do you check your humanity at the door?

[+] EnlargeCowboys
AP Photo/James D SmithThe Cowboys and fans took a moment of silence Sunday and then the game went on.

It's hard to fathom that two teams can have players die in successive weeks and the most we get is Cowboys coach Jason Garrett giving out a game ball to a dead player's mother and Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel saying what he saw when one of his players committed suicide in front of him "wasn't pretty." These coaches were placed in horrible situations -- nothing they could have said would have been big enough for the moment -- and that's the problem right there. The moment was too big for games and words. Garrett proved that; you mean you're going to stand there and talk about a game ball?

But it obviously didn't affect them too much, right? To hear and read about it, it might even have helped their on-field performance. They both won, and, as long as these teams keep winning -- Chiefs over Panthers, Cowboys over Bengals -- the trumpet blowers in the media can continue to marvel at how these highly trained athletes and coaches can Overcome Distractions and Put Distractions Aside, which makes death sound like a botched pass-interference call or a bad snap on third-and-long.

Everything's a potential storyline, after all, and ease of use is always welcome. Myth-making has always been the path of least resistance.

Set aside for a moment the Larger Issues -- domestic violence, drunken driving, gun culture -- raised by the two cases. What if you decided that playing was the wrong decision and you wanted to sit out? What if you played for the Chiefs or the Cowboys and you decided you were too upset or conflicted or zoned out to run onto the field and put your brain at risk for three hours? Would that decision be respected on the sideline and in the front office or Roger Goodell's office?

Why do they play? It's what they would have wanted. This is a trusty crutch, always available to be presented without fear of contradiction. It's a great way for a team or a league to keep responsibility at arm's length, to palm the decision off on some nebulous, unprovable and irrelevant bit of magical thinking.

It's what you say when you don't want to deal with reality.

It seems we're all trying to sift through this together. It's presumptuous to tell someone how he or she should grieve. Nobody knows whether shutting down the business for a day, maybe allowing the players and coaches to meet for a couple of hours to sort things out, would serve to reduce the chances of another preventable tragedy. It would, however, suggest there are real human beings running a real human enterprise that cares for its workers.

When Darryl Kile died in June 2002, the Cardinals-Cubs game at Wrigley Field was canceled. The same thing happened for the A's-Angels game when Nick Adenhart died in 2009. These weren't hard decisions. And yes, it's easier to make up a baseball game, but would the world have been changed materially if Panthers-Chiefs had been played on Monday night, just out of respect, or if the same thing had happened with Cowboys-Bengals?

There's no denying that football engenders a strange type of coarseness in its followers that makes it easier for the league to keep to its schedule. (The NFL, remember, didn't want to cancel games after 9/11 until Bud Selig canceled the MLB schedule and it became obvious it was the only proper decision.) Raiders coach Dennis Allen left the team last week to return to Texas to be with his dying father. The Raiders had a game on Thursday against the Broncos, and many Raiders fans took to message boards and radio shows to criticize Allen for a lack of commitment to the team. Amazingly, among a certain percentage of the population, this was seen as an example of misplaced priorities. Are some people -- even a small percentage -- that callous? Are games that important?

When Allen is finished coaching, do you think he'll regret missing practice, or will he think he should have stayed another day or two to be with his family?

Bears cornerback Charles Tillman had his manhood questioned when he suggested he might miss a game to be present at the birth of his child. One prominent NFL media personality even suggested that players should take the schedule into consideration when they go about the business of conceiving their children.

The level of self-importance in the NFL -- and its ability to persuade its courtiers to promote it -- is truly astounding.

Still, there's a troubling question sitting out there, one nobody wants to answer:

What kind of individual or teamwide tragedy would it take to cancel a game?

Let's hope we never have to find out.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE