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Amy Donaldson: To play or not to play after tragedy?

Published: Sunday, Dec. 2 2012 8:07 p.m. MST

In this Sept. 16, 2012, file photo, Kansas City Chiefs' Jovan Belcher (59) stands on the sidelines during an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park, N.Y. Police say Belcher fatally shot his girlfriend early Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012, in Kansas City, Mo., then drove to Arrowhead Stadium and committed suicide in front of his coach and general manager. (AP Photo/Bill Wippert, File)

Bill Wippert, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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No one wants to suffer.

The desperate need to heal after a tragedy is a vital instinct as it keeps us from refusing to give up when sadness and loss threaten to consume not just the life we had, but who we are.

But just as valuable is the ability to acknowledge and feel the pain. The inability to appreciate the reality of a situation can be just as debilitating as giving up when life is dark.

It is a delicate balance between moving on and denial, between dealing with the pain and wallowing in sorrow.

The coverage of the Kansas City Chief's linebacker Jovan Belcher's decision to kill his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, and then shoot himself in front of his coach and the team's general manager at the stadium where he'd played professional football for the last four years, illustrates that dilemma.

Just 24 hours after Belcher's murder-suicide, the team played a football game in that same stadium. The question becomes, was that the right thing to do? Was it a way to honor our resilience as human beings? Or was it an attempt to brush past a horrifying reality?

Friends, former teammates and coaches repeated the same shocked sentiment — no one saw this coming. No one suspected Belcher was capable of such a heinous act.

Across the league, team managers and coaches used the tragedy as an opportunity to talk to players and offer them help if they were struggling. One team even mentioned hiring a psychiatrist full-time to work with players and coaches.

But will anyone take advantage of those opportunities if the culture encourages athletes to play through pain — physical or emotional? We already know players are reluctant to admit physical injuries, even life-altering problems like concussions, because it may adversely affect their careers.

So will it be any different if the ailment is a mental illness or an emotional issue?

Keep in mind, sports is a universe where those who play with pain are revered, admired, even glorified. No one ever held out the guy who sought counseling after a particularly painful divorce as an example of leadership and courage.

The NFL, like most sports leagues, has a history of being reluctant to cancel games. The weekend after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, the AFL canceled games, but the NFL did not. Most recently, the league asked the Giants and Pittsburgh to play in New Jersey after superstorm Sandy killed more than 100 people, left thousands homeless and millions without power.

It took a terrorist attack in 2001 to convince us to cancel our games.

But in Kansas City, the players wanted to play Sunday. Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn was asked if playing the game was the right thing to do, and despite leading his team to a win, his answer is ambiguous.

“I think everyone is just so shocked at what had taken place, being who it was and being what had happened," Quinn told the Kansas City Star. "I think people are still trying to digest everything let alone think about playing a game. It’s tough to put into words.

“It’s hard mostly because I keep thinking about what I could have done to stop this. … And then we’re all thinking about his daughter, three or four months old and without a parent. It’s hard to not allow the emotions of the situation to creep into your head with the game this close. But we’re going to do the best we can to concentrate on the task at hand.”

But should they? Should we ask this of them? Is this the best way to move on? Or is it the best way to brush it under the rug? And is our constant desire to play through pain only reinforcing the culture that rewards those who show no weakness?

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