As the world pauses for Super Bowl Sunday, the Ms. Blog can’t help but also mention some non-sporting issues facing the National Football League: particularly domestic violence and its relationship to players’ traumatic head injuries. Here, an excerpt from the upcoming issue of Ms. magazine.
Paul Oliver married his college sweetheart, Chelsea, who 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 went on to play free 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 smiled 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.
Following his death, a pathologist examined Oliver’s brain and determined that he was suffering from “an advanced form” of 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 in a wrongful death suit, saying that the untreated concussions Paul endured as a National Football League (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.
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 infractions, with Arizona Cardinals boss Michael Bidwell, 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?
Researchers at Boston University’s Sports Legacy Institute, the foremost concussion center in the country, 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.
The executive director of the institute, Chris Nowinski, a Harvard graduate as well as a former professional wrestler who suffered numerous concussions himself, takes pains to say that there is no excuse for domestic violence. “But what we are saying,” he adds, “is 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 11 years old. That makes it a much bigger problem than just one potentially affecting 2,500 NFL players annually, considering that more than 60,000 young men play in college, a million play high school football land non-scholastic youth football programs have nearly 3 million participants (although the numbers are dropping since the danger of concussions has gotten more publicity).
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 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.