The recent revelations concerning domestic violence among National Football League players–and the league’s now-obvious attempt to cover up at least one of those incidents–have created a media storm in recent weeks.
Journalists and citizens alike have condemned the actions of the players involved, expressed sympathy for the victims, and demanded some form of justice. They want players punished. They want a new standard of behavior from all men. They want those in positions of power in the NFL to resign.
All of these demands have merit. Domestic violence is unacceptable in any form and under any circumstances. The damage is life-altering, not just for the immediate victims in a family, but for the generations that follow.
What the NFL, and, to my knowledge, no one else is saying, is this: the NFL players who commit violent acts on their spouses and children may not be responsible for their actions. Why? Because they may be suffering from brain damage.
In a disturbing Frontline documentary on PBS entitled League of Denial, neurologists have conducted research on former professional football players and their high rate of brain disease. The statistics and conclusions they draw related to repeated blows to the head and resulting concussions are beyond coincidence. There’s really no debating the fact that playing American football for an extended period of time contributes substantially to reduced brain function.
The evidence in this documentary shines a harsh light on the behavioral issues that plague a large number of former NFL players. Suicide, depression, and memory loss lead the long list of symptoms that were once a mystery to the players and their suffering, bewildered families.
Now, everyone knows. The NFL has settled a lawsuit with former players about the issue. More litigation is sure to follow. How much of this information will be broadcast, printed, or discussed in a media world that makes its daily bread from weekly high school, college, and professional football games is not known.
But this new information does bring other issues to the forefront: if brain damage and its inherent behavioral problems plague a majority of retired NFL players, it probably affects active players. Does this possible brain damage contribute to domestic violence? Should NFL players accused of domestic violence be required undergo a brain scan and qualified medical diagnosis? Do these player deserve our compassion as much as our condemnation?
There are no easy answers to these questions. The players who’ve been accused of violence against their spouses and children may simply be short-tempered, muscle-bound punks who use violence as an effective and convenient tool. They may lack verbal and interpersonal skills to express their emotions. They may have been victims of abuse themselves and haven’t had the counseling or self-awareness to break the vicious cycle.
They may be a father, like mine, who, slapped me across the face during heated argument when I was a child. He stormed out of the room and left my crying on the bed, physically unhurt but devastated. A few minutes later, he returned. He sat down on my bed and apologized. With tears in his eyes, he asked me to forgive him and told me it would never happen again. It never did, and I loved him dearly until he died, forty years later.
Human beings are complicated. I would suggest, even with the most damning of evidence, that we be slow to judge, but evenhanded in our administration of justice. Famous athletes should get the same punishment, if found guilty, as a welder or a waitress. They should also get help.
We should also consider all the factors that might contribute to domestic violence, and brain damage from playing American football may be one of those factors.