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FEATURE | Winter 2015

Injustice League

The NFL has covered up domestic violence, head trauma and the possible connection between the two


Paul Oliver married his college sweetheart, Chelsea, whom he met when they were both top athletes at the University of Georgia. Chelsea’s game was volleyball, Paul’s football. They had two beautiful sons. On September 24, 2013, Paul, who had gone on to play safety for the San Diego Chargers, stood in front of his wife and children and said, “This is how miserable I am.” He then flashed a crooked smile and killed himself with a gunshot to the head. He was 29 years old.

In the months before his suicide, Paul, according to Chelsea, was a profoundly different person than the man she married. He complained of searing migraines. He would become forgetful. He felt frustrated and impatient over his inability to complete even the simplest tasks. And he started to be physically abusive. I met Chelsea Oliver a year after her husband’s death, and she described someone who had changed not just mentally but physically. As she said on the television program Real Sports on HBO, “After his last concussion I started to suspect that [his behavior was related to his football injuries]. I knew it wasn’t him, he’s never been [abusive].” She continued, “I was trying to protect my family from this monster that was not my husband.”

Following his death, a pathologist examined Oliver’s brain and determined that he was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that has been found in football players with a history of repetitive brain trauma. Now Chelsea is suing the National Football League (NFL) in a wrongful death suit, saying that the untreated concussions Paul endured as an NFL player irrevocably damaged his brain. She is also bringing to the surface something that NFL executives do not want to touch: the possible links between CTE and spousal abuse.

Until quite recently, the NFL didn’t want to talk at all about domestic abuse, let alone its possible connection to the high-impact aspect of football. Then the Ray Rice incident occurred, and abuse was all people wanted to talk about.

Rice, who was a star running back for the Baltimore Ravens, was seen in a February video dragging his unconscious fiancée, Janay Palmer, out of a hotel elevator. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, operating as the league always had, suspended Rice for just two games. Outrage over how the NFL handled—or didn’t handle—this case and others began to grow, and the outrage turned nuclear after the September release of a video showing the actual knockout punch by Rice. Since that moment, the NFL has been trying to change its protocols at a breakneck pace.

Since Goodell became league commissioner in 2006, there have been 56 domestic-violence arrests, but players have been suspended only a combined total of 13 games for such acts. Now the league has developed new protocols that call for a six-game ban for a first offense and lifetime ban for a second. The NFL has also established an owner-dominated nine-person committee (two women) to review all personal- conduct policies, with Arizona Cardinals boss Michael Bidwill, a former prosecutor, heading it up.

But still, does the league really “get” it when it comes to both domestic abuse and its connection with head trauma?

Although the league has tried to be more proactive about concussions, such as not letting players back into a game if they show signs of one, it still downplays football as a cause of CTE. But anecdotal and autopsy evidence suggest otherwise. Wives and partners of NFL players have recounted stories shockingly similar to Chelsea Oliver’s. The partners of Dave Duerson, Junior Seau and Ray Easterling—three players who committed suicide and were diagnosed posthumously with CTE—all tell of physical or emotional abuse. Their stories have a disturbing common thread: Their husbands, sometimes incrementally and other times dramatically, became “different people” in retirement. Gregarious men became depressed. Intelligent men became forgetful. Religious men became profane. Loving men became violent. These episodes tended to be followed by self-loathing and regret, both precursors to self-harm.

Researchers at Boston University’s Sports Legacy Institute agree there is more than a coincidental connection between the emerging stories about head injuries and domestic violence. They have found, after doing autopsies on dozens of brains of dead NFL players, that CTE often comes with lesions on the anterior temporal lobe of the brain, the area that governs impulse control.

Dr. Ann McKee, one of the medical investigators at the CTE Center at Boston University, one of the foremost concussion centers in the country, said, “There are plenty of variables that can lead to [domestic violence]. But we know that…CTE…leads to a short fuse. These guys used to be fine. …But now [they] are assaultive, they’re overreacting. They’re paranoid, they’re jealous.”

The executive director of the Sports Legacy Institute, Chris Nowinski, a Harvard graduate as well as a former professional wrestler who suffered a serious concussion himself, takes pains to say that there is no excuse for domestic violence. “But what we are saying,” he adds, “is that we have to acknowledge the fact that the seat of some of this behavior might be the damage that we’re doing to their brains.”

And that damage isn’t confined to players at the top level of football. It can also occur in young football players who will never play in the NFL. The latest science demonstrates that concussion syndromes show up in players as young as 9 years old. Suicides of college football players have shown CTE in people barely older than children. That makes it a much bigger problem than just one potentially affecting 2,500 NFL players annually, considering that more than 70,000 young men play in college, a million play high school football and non-scholastic youth football programs have nearly 4 million participants (although the numbers are dropping since the danger of concussions has gotten more publicity).

Loved ones become the collateral damage of CTE, which can lead to memory loss, paranoia, impulse-control problems, aggression, depression and, eventually, progressive dementia. As David Hovda of the Brain Injury Research Center at UCLA told NBC News, “I’ve always said that concussions, or mild traumatic brain injuries, don’t just happen to one person, they happen to the entire family.”

UNDERSTANDABLY, AS THE NFL IS FINALLY CONFRONTING DECADES of ignoring or covering up instances of domestic violence among its players, there is great concern about placing the blame for this violence on brain injuries. After all, the NFL doesn’t want to be sued every time a player cannot keep the violence of his sport contained on the field. It’s also important not to blame all domestic violence on head trauma.

“How do we explain the cases of interpersonal violence that don’t involve concussions?” asks a domestic-violence counselor in Washington, D.C., who wants to be identified as Ruth. “For that matter, how do we explain all the people who suffer from concussions who don’t hurt their families?” By putting the spotlight on CTE as the connective tissue between football and domestic violence, we must be careful not to remove all agency and personal responsibility from the abusers.

It might stand to reason that if CTE is as common as we fear, rates of domestic-violence arrests in the NFL would far outpace that of society at large. Yet the opposite appears to be the case: The rate of domestic-violence arrests for all American men ages 25 to 29 (the median age for NFL players) is about twice that of the rate for NFL players. The statistic is deceptive, however.

For one thing, arrest rates for domestic violence among the most affluent in the U.S.—which include NFL players—are already far lower than those in less affluent income groups. More significantly, the arrest rate for domestic violence among NFL players is higher by far than for other types of crimes. As Benjamin Morris of FiveThirtyEight points out, “domestic violence accounts for 48 percent of arrests for violent crimes among NFL players, compared to our estimated 21 percent nationally.”

And then there is the question of how many NFL athletes may escape arrest for domestic violence or other crimes. According to a damning New York Times exposé, the league may be subtly, or not so subtly, colluding with law enforcement to keep such crimes quiet. As the Times explains, “NFL teams, which have their own robust security operations, often form close relationships with local law enforcement agencies, say people familiar with the procedures. Teams routinely employ off-duty officers to be uniformed escorts or to help with security, paying them, providing perks and covering costs for them to travel to away games. When allegations of crimes such as domestic violence arise, the bond between officers and team security officials can favor the player while leaving the accuser feeling isolated.”

Isolated is a tame word for it. The stories listed by the Times are chilling in the ways they leave women faced not only with a physically imposing partner but a police force inclined to make it all go away.

The NFL has been described as having a “concussion epidemic,” but it might be better characterized as a cover-up epidemic—downplaying CTE, ignoring domestic violence (until now) and providing no support for family members caught in this twin trap. So what about Commissioner Roger Goodell’s recent “get tough on domestic violence” protocols—how effective can they be if they ignore head injuries as a possible cause?

The fear is also that, by having the NFL now say it will end the playing careers of those suspected of domestic abuse, Goodell has gone from wearing blinders to sporting the cowboy hat as the self-appointed “savior” of women trapped in violent relationships. These seemingly contradictory roles—the person in authority who ignores domestic violence, and the person who acts as savior of the abused—are seen by many domestic-violence counselors as dangerous twin images of one another. As interpersonal-violence activist Anais Surkin said to me, “The cycle of violence will never end unless the survivors claim agency for themselves. Our role is to support them in this process. Selfappointed saviors can bring tragedy.”

In other words, by playing the savior the NFL might earn public-relations points, but it also risks creating a revictimizing system that drains power from survivors attempting to figure out a way to seize control of their own lives and map out a plan to be safe. Instead, the power now rests with Goodell to end the careers, the economic opportunities and the public lives of those suspected of abuse. This will not only disincentivize some survivors from coming forward but could also create dangerous situations for those attempting to negotiate how best to leave abusive partners. The survivor needs to figure out—with assistance, if desired—how to remain safe, either by staying in or ending these relationships. It’s important to note that at least 55 percent of domestic-violence homicides were perpetrated after victims had already left the abusive relationship.

The job of Roger Goodell and the NFL cannot be to complicate this process. When Goodell announced the league’s new “personal conduct policy” in December, the grand conclusion after months of scandal was that the NFL was just not heavyhanded enough. But if ignoring the problem is unconscionable, and playing the savior might make a terrible situation even worse, then what actions can the NFL take?

Here is where the links between the physical violence of the sport, brain injuries and the spillover effect become important to confront. The starting point has to be the safety and agency of survivors of domestic violence, so above all other concerns the NFL has to tell the truth. This means publicly acknowledging that the connection between brain injuries and domestic violence is a real thing. This means educating the partners of current and former NFL players about the very warning signs that Chelsea Oliver and so many other women saw but did not identify as dangerous, and setting up avenues such as confidential counselors and hotlines for both family members and players so they can receive assistance before any harm is wrought.

The NFL, with all of its wealth and cultural capital, could be a major force in educating the public about the realities of domestic violence as well as the dangers inherent in their sport. This might not be good business, but morally it has to happen. People and families have the right to enter the hard-battering world of football with their eyes wide open. Otherwise the tragedies that struck the family of Chelsea Oliver and others will be replicated.

DAVE ZIRIN is the sports editor at The Nation magazine. He is the author of eight books on the politics of sports, including Brazil’s Dance With the Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy.

Reprinted from the Winter issue of Ms. To have this issue delivered straight to your door, Apple, or Android device, join the Ms. Community.

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