So when actual tragedy touches the sport—as it did last Saturday when Kansas Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend, then drove to Arrowhead stadium and shot himself in front of General Manager Scott Pioli, Head Coach Romeo Crennel, and Linebackers Coach Gary Gibbs—it seems foolish to write about teams or games at all; the contrast between the action contained on the field and the narrative beyond has moved from merely uncomfortable to vertiginous.
And yet the action on the field continues. The day after the murder-suicide, the Chiefs hosted the Panthers in a match-up that, on any other Sunday, might have prompted little more than a few giggles from most NFL fans. This was, after all, a meeting between a 1-10 Chiefs team that didn’t hold a lead in regulation until Nov. 11—their lone victory before last weekend’s game, in week three against the Saints, came in overtime—and a 3-8 Panthers team that had lost 12 straight coin tosses (they lost their 13th on Sunday).
But the mood at Arrowhead was understandably solemn; the game began with a moment of silence for the victims of domestic violence. (As Justin Peters points out on Slate’s crime blog, the number of current NFL players who have been charged with domestic abuse or sexual assault suggests that the league might want to address the issue less symbolically.) It ended in an unexpected 27-21 Chiefs victory, as many on the team struggled to, in quarterback Brady Quinn’s words “just get through the rest of today.”
To say that the Panthers have disappointed this year is an understatement. After Cam Newton’s 4,000-plus passing yards, 706 rushing yards, and 35 combined passing/rushing touchdowns during 2011’s Rookie of the Year performance (those are all-around stats only Michael Vick has ever equaled), fans during the pre-season were freely airing Super Bowl hopes. Sports writers blithely tempted fate by writing entire articles speculating about all that would have to go wrong for the Panthers to go, say, 5-11.
Now, with only four games left, fans know they would be lucky to get to five wins this season; the Panthers’ ability to keep losing—even when Newton posts a QB rating of 121.2, throwing for three touchdowns and no interceptions, as he did against the Chiefs—is the most impressive thing about the team.
So it made sense that it was Carolina on the road in Kansas City last weekend, playing a game no one really wanted them to win. It was of a piece with a season that included an inexplicable 22-23 loss to the Bears in Chicago—the Panthers dominated for most of the game, sacking QB Jay Cutler six times, recovering two fumbles, and accumulating a total of 416 yards, almost twice what the Bears were able to muster, only to watch Robbie Gould’s game-winning field goal soar through the uprights as time ran out—the week after a humiliatingly close loss at home to the Cowboys, which itself followed similarly narrow defeats against Atlanta and Seattle.
For Rob Green Jr. of the Charlotte Observer, “It’s tempting to say this was the worst of the Panthers’ nine losses this season.” But would he have felt good about a win?
It’s almost impossible to separate the narrative that surrounds football games from the action within: One always reads the one onto the other, even when the juxtaposition is inappropriate, horrifying. Which is how a terrible crime becomes part of one football team’s bad-luck season, part of another’s uplifting, improbable win, part of a sports column—even when it has no business in any of these.