There is an unspoken question lurking behind the NFL domestic violence cover-up saga that has emerged over the last month. It is whether the brutality of the game, particularly head injuries, plays a role in the prevalence of players committing acts of violence against women. The NFL has a vested interest in not having this discussion. On head injuries, as the title of the award-winning book said so clearly, it remains “a league of denial.” If, in the name of public relations, the owners won’t have a discussion about the connection between their sport and horrific post-concussive syndromes like ALS and early-onset dementia, are they really going to talk about links between head injuries and domestic violence? The sports media are largely in denial about this topic as well, as there was not one question in Roger Goodell’s instantly infamous Friday press conference about whether the league would investigate whether brain injuries could be the bridge between the violence at work and the violence at home.
Yet many domestic violence advocates are also—understandably—not thrilled with this line of discussion. Partner abuse occurs in all walks of life, all professions and among all income groups, and post-concussive syndromes are almost always not a part of those stories. Additionally, to blame it on concussions seems to be excusing domestic violence and denying the fact that NFL players have agency and choice before becoming abusers. This resistance is very understandable. But attempting to explore and explain the shockingly high rates of domestic violence in the NFL is not the same as excusing it.
So is there a connection? As my friend Ruth, who is a DV counselor, says, “When it comes to domestic violence, it is extremely difficult to generalize across the board, in the NFL or otherwise.” In other words, every case is distinct, reflecting the interpersonal relationships of the parties involved. But there are factors that appear to show themselves in the football cases with alarming regularity. Some of these factors are high rates of stress, a culture of entitlement for sports stars that predates their life in the NFL, and an inability to turn off the violence of the game once the pads are off. This is when we see the most toxic part of the sport’s hyper-masculinist culture poison the relationships between the men who play the game—as well as the men who own teams—and the women in their lives. But among many players, this question of the role of head injuries still lingers in the background.
Dan Diamond over at Forbes is one of the few journalists I have seen explore these links in detail. In one piece, he cites a “disturbing new report” that shows “3 in 10 NFL players suffer from at least moderate brain disease.” Diamond then details many examples of former players who were found in their autopsies to have the repetitive post-concussive syndromes known as CTE, and were also arrested at some point or another for domestic violence. He writes:
The key issue is whether suffering repeated head trauma lowers a person’s self-control. And while many pro football players haven’t been diagnosed with concussions in the NFL, nearly all of them have been playing football since they were young and suffered repetitive, frequent blows that can add up over time. And researchers know that those concussions can change a person. Even a pillar of the community.