HEAD INJURIES IN FOOTBALL PART III: DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
Is there a connection between the brutality of football, and particularly head injuries, and the prevalence of player’s committing violence against women? At this point, we can only speculate. One thing is certain, however, the NFL has a vested interest in avoiding the subject. Given its shameful and probably criminal denial that concussions could leave permanent brain damage, and its tardy, insensitive, inconsistent and patronizing response to the issue of player domestic violence, it is extremely doubtful the league will launch a serious investigation of a possible connection between head injuries and acts of domestic violence—at least as long as the revenue-driven, denial artist Roger Goodell remains commissioner.
A possible link between the brutality of football and acts of domestic violence deserves immediate scientific and medical attention, far more than it is currently being given. Some think this neglect is because it is a difficult subject to study. A multitude of factors could contribute to domestic violence, including stress, anger, and substance abuse– things related to the presence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)– but also family history, genetics, and the machismo culture of football, making it difficult to isolate cause and effect. This complexity, however, is not mainly why there has been relatively little scientific interest in the issue. No individual or organization has stepped forward to provide funding for research. To this point, there has been little media attention and abuse victim advocacy groups have not warmed to the subject.
Investigative journalism and coverage in the mass media kindled scientific interest in studying football brain injuries and also expanded public awareness of the problem. This ultimately led the NFL to institute changes to mitigate head injuries. Unfortunately there currently appears to be little media interest in whether brain injuries could be a bridge between violence on the football field and violent attacks against women. (One exception is sports journalist David Zirin who has been following the story, and from whom I drew ideas for this essay.) At Roger Goodell’s now infamous press conference about player domestic violence, no journalist asked him whether the league would investigate whether such violence might be linked to brain injuries. This lack of curiosity is similar to the situation before Dr. Bennet Omalu published his first paper on concussions causing permanent brain damage (See previous post, Head Injuries in Football: The NFL Fumbles).
One might think that domestic violence advocates would command center stage in calling for research on whether head hits in football might be connected to domestic violence, but this has also not been the case. Partner abuse is a common phenomenon in America, occurring throughout all class, demographic, racial and ethnic groups where head injuries are not common. Many domestic abuse victim advocates worry that that singling out post-concussive syndrome as a causal link to abuse excuses personal responsibility in committing acts of violence. The problem, many argue, doesn’t stem from a form of insanity in which perpetrators are not responsible for their actions; rather, it reflects a pattern of behavior inherent in our machismo culture. They maintain abuse is a matter of choice made more likely by cultural dispositions. Accordingly victim advocates have resisted focusing the discourse on head injuries.
Indifference from the NFL, the media, and victim’s advocates notwithstanding, the high incidence of domestic violence committed by NFL players suggests this is not mere coincidence. Common sense says that both the macho culture of football and the presence of CTE are connected to a higher incidence of acts of violence away from the playing field. Football is such a highly stressful and brutal sport, it makes sense that many players find it difficult turning off the violence when the game is over. This is something many players have simply not learned how to manage.
Most NFL players in their years of playing football, stretching back to high school and college, operated in an insulated world of entitlement which allowed them to follow a different set of rules than the average person. Sheltered and protected by parents, coaches, administrators, and agents, many have not had to face the consequences of bad choices, including acts of violence. When indiscretions are repeatedly covered up, it is understandable why NFL players might feel less inclined to worry about sanctions that might result from a criminal or abusive action. They might thus be less deterred by red light signals that stop the rest of us.
With regard to brain damage from head collisions, there is abundant evidence that one of the behavioral manifestations of post-concussive brain disorder is a tendency to become easily frustrated and quick to anger, accompanied by fits of rage and violence. Wife and partner beatings were common among retired players whose autopsies revealed the presence of CTE. Many had been arrested for domestic violence.
But what has this to do with current players? Possibly a great deal. In citing a disturbing report that “3 in 10 NFL players suffer from at least moderate brain disease,” Dan Diamond wrote in Forbes that this might help explain the prevalence of domestic violence. He suspects that repeated head trauma lowers a person’s self control, making the person do things he would not otherwise do. Interviews with wives of former and current players has led David Zirin to a similar suspicion.
Zirin quotes Matt Chaney, author of Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football, as telling him he believes “football brain injuries lead many players to violence they wouldn’t otherwise have committed, ranging from domestic cases to random acts…. I think brain injuries, after studying the topic as we all have in recent years, now explains much about the perplexing cases of violence and other irrational behavior among football players I’ve known.”
This of course does not prove there is in fact a causal link between concussions and domestic violence, but it does raise enough suspicion to warrant further scientific inquiry. There’s a great deal at stake having to do with how the game of football is played, how families weigh the decision to allow their children to play football, and how women in relationships with players are treated. It also raises serious questions about the mysteries of CTE, how it might be lessened, or if anything can be done before abuse takes place.
These questions are critically important. It is unfortunate the NFL does not seem to agree and will likely turn a blind eye to a possible connection between brain disease, domestic violence and sexual assault. Worse yet, if scientific evidence surfaces pointing to a connection, the league will likely take action to counter and discredit the evidence, as it did with research on the long-term effects of concussions.
Expect the league to step up penalties for player domestic abuse (like it did for Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson), preach piously about its proactive actions, and morally pontificate, but words and punishment alone will not solve the problem. Nor will the NFL Player Association’s howling at Commissioner Goodell’s autocratic and heavy-handed approach. Both sides need to sit down and come up with ways to mitigate the violent football culture and educate and rehabilitate, rather than simply punish, players who commit acts of violence off the field. Until then, we can expect repeated stories of women and children being battered by football players. Given the current nature of the game and ever-watchful eye of internet and social media, this is almost a certainty.
For further insights from The Professor, please visit his webpage.