A Message to the NFL -- The Creation of Heroes and Its Perils: Power Management vs. Anger Management

06/19/2015 09:10 am ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016

There is much misunderstanding of what causes domestic violence in NFL players and other athletes. The common cause given is "loss of control" and the solution offered is anger management therapy. This sounds reasonable enough until you add drug abuse, prostitution, murder, DUI and sex offense to the dirty laundry list of some famous athletes. But it's important to clarify rather than excuse, that NFL players fall below the national average on each of the offenses listed when compared with other males in the same age range.

In my 30 years of clinical neuropsychology practice I have seen a striking similarity between war veterans and famous athletes who have problems with domestic violence. I argue that more than anger and hostility, the culprit is abuse of power. Why is it important to reexamine the causes of this set of unwanted conduct? Because, in my professional opinion, we are missing the boat when we use anger management as treatment of choice. Although anger may be involved in acts of violence in the general male population, the violence I see in famous athletes and combat veterans is more complicated.

While I am well aware of how poverty, dysfunctional family, propensity for substance abuse, childhood trauma, and other unhealthy upbringing as well as head injuries may lead to domestic violence in general, famous athletes and war veterans in particular, are exposed to a unique condition that can mask the cause: Culturally encouraged and admired aggression. In other words, domestic violence in the general population is highly related to anger, but in my clinical experience with these specific populations, "abuse of power" is the main cause to be recognized and treated.

Soldiers are given authority to kill their enemy in the name of love for their country: God-like power during hostile conditions. The implied marching order is that your country is counting on you to win battles using authorized power over life and death. Additionally, successful fulfillment of this lethal power is rewarded with hero status. And although athletes are not given the authority to kill, they are hired and trained to aggressively win games that are compensated with huge financial gains and adoration from fans. So what does this all mean?

These two unique groups of heroes are given close to unlimited power and admiration for their aggressiveness assuming they can shift roles from hostile conditions to peaceful homes without any collateral damage. And although not all admired athletes and honored war veterans have problems disconnecting from their privileged positions, those who engage in domestic violence and other destructive conduct are seen as being angry rather than unable or unwilling to redirect their power. In other words, although anger may be involved in domestic violence, the goal should be learning how to discriminate between functional aggression in the field, and antisocial behavior at home.

Consequently, the focus shifts from anger management to power management.

In my mindbody model of power management I teach how to change roles based on situational demands:

  • Learning to shift from aggressive warrior in the battlefield and sports arena to reasonable partner at home.
  • Transitioning from seeking admiration for aggressive behavior to practicing tolerance with family members and adoring fans.
  • Learning to experience the difference between the weakness of arrogance and the power of humbleness.
  • Learning how to differentiate between functional aggression and assertiveness: setting emotional limits at home without resorting to violence.
  • Learning to transition from a sense of entitlement to a humble acceptance of hero status: moving from arrogance to gratefulness.
  • Learning pro social power: respected role model vs. abuser. Rather than relinquishing power, redirecting from aggression in the field to empathy at home.
  • Learning from other heroes who gain power and admiration for their humility and moral conduct.
  • Giving permission to respected family members and trusted friends to gently point out when they notice role reversals from sensible to hostile: safeguard against relapse to abusing power. In anticipation for the argument that these teachings may strip warriors and athletes of the necessary aggression needed to do their jobs effectively, I can assure concerned critics that after mentoring many highly decorated war veterans and accomplished, trophy-recipient athletes, the power management I propose increases awareness to decide when to be functionally aggressive and when to be truly grateful for the gift of hero status. I should caution however, that because power is learned with the mind and assimilated with the body, my experiential method is more than simply shifting labels. It's based on learning the mindbody code that can change how we embody our aggression and empathy as pathways to power.