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Concussions and Domestic Violence: Study the Links

Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League, by his own analysis has received justifiable criticism for the NFL’s incoherent policies on domestic violence, and for his own errors in the case of Ray Rice, the Baltimore Ravens running back caught on video knocking out his wife.

In addition to Rice, Jonathan Dwyer, the Arizona Cardinals running back, was arrested over allegations that he head-butted his 27-year-old wife; Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald have also recently faced charges, sparking a media frenzy.

Goodell has scrambled like a quarterback desperately trying to avoid a sack. He’s apologized, created a VP for Social Responsibility position, named three women to be outside consultants, and promised a new conduct policy for the League. He’s set up the former FBI director Robert Mueller, now an attorney close to the NFL, to run an allegedly independent review on how the Ray Rice matter was handled, agreeing that no one “should take my word.” When asked whether he should resign or be sacked, Goodell responded no, “because I have acknowledged my mistake.”

But the mistakes keep coming. It is bizarre, for example, that Goodell’s “consultants” are all white, and exclude experts who are also former players or wives of players who may offer great insight into what needs to be done.

Why is the NFL sticking with Goodell? He is a good man caught in a storm of change and transformation. It is not his fault, but it is his responsibility to negotiate these winds of change. There are those who worry that the recent furor about domestic violence cases will get linked to the shocking reports that NFL players have a 30 percent chance of Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Do repeated concussions — trauma of the brain — contribute to the outbursts of domestic violence? The NFL has just initialed an agreement to settle a class-action concussion case with NFL players for $765 million. This, as Dan Diamond of Forbes magazine points out, is less than 0.5 percent of the annual revenue of the league. Players who can prove their injury can receive a maximum payout of about $20,000 a year for 30 years, while the league gets to bury news about concussions and brain damage to players.

Now the domestic violence scandals threaten to expose a settlement that was a steal for the NFL.

The reality, despite all the publicity, is that arrest rates for NFL players are far below those for men of their age. But domestic violence arrests for NFL players are high for men of their age and affluence.

Do repeated traumas to the brain weaken self-control and trigger irrational rage? Diamond has investigated this and discovered that many experts warily acknowledge a possible link.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy — CTE — results from damage to the brain’s frontal lobe. Diamond cites examples of players who ended up with CTE getting arrested for domestic violence. Junior Seau, diagnosed with CTE, was arrested for domestic violence after he retired, and he later committed suicide at 43. All-Pro safety Dave Duerson suffered from CTE and was arrested for domestic violence. Before he, too, committed suicide, he was self-aware enough to write an analysis of his aberrant behavior and leave his brain to science to study the impact of his football experience.

Pam Webster, wife of Pittsburgh Steeler Hall of Famer Mike Webster, who suffered from CTE, reported that it was as if “the governor on his anger was gone.” Describing how Webster destroyed his football pictures in a rage, she said, “It wasn’t Mike. Mike would never have done this.”

The NFL is — bizarrely — a tax-exempt organization, granted a monopoly over TV revenues, with its billionaire owners lavishly subsidized by cities to help build their stadiums.

This public trust should require the NFL to ensure that its players are treated fairly, that their mental health is not simply a cost of doing business. Protecting the concussion settlement should not get in the way of an in-depth investigation about the connection between brain trauma, rage and domestic violence.

Goodell says he doesn’t expect anyone to take his “word” on these matters. His integrity and transparency really matter. It is time for the NFL to open its records and to finance a serious independent study on the possible connection between concussions, rage and domestic violence.

Jesse Jackson is the founder of Rainbow/PUSH.

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Jesse Jackson is the founder of Rainbow/PUSH.

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