Recently, the National Football League has faced two serious challenges to its hegemony in the sports arena. The public has been outraged by the misconduct of some football players away from the playing field. Although the Ray Rice incident filled the headlines, incidents of domestic violence perpetrated by players against spouses, girlfriends and even their children has been widespread. Perhaps it was always so, but we just didn't notice.
The NFL's second major issue has been the injuries inflicted on the players themselves by the game they love to play. Concussions have long been a serious problem for participants in tackle football, especially so when it is played with the speed and force of an NFL game. Although the NFL had long denied responsibility for these debilitating injuries, the evidence proved to be overwhelming. The average lifespan of an NFL player is reduced three years for every year he plays in the League. Repetitive brain trauma causes Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Between 2008 and 2010, postmortem evaluations of 12 former professional football players showed evidence of the disease. A report issued a few months ago showed that about 14 percent of all former football players ultimately will be diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and an equal number will develop at least moderate dementia.
Belatedly, the NFL has addressed both of these concerns. After tripping on itself regarding the suspension of Ray Rice, the League has now vowed to "get it right." There is every reason to believe that it will be able to do so. As part of this redemptive process, the League will certainly have to emphasize to its players the potential impact to themselves and to the enterprise that has made them wealthy of a continued failure to fulfill their obligations off the field. The League needs personal conduct rules that are both known and uniformly enforced. The sporting public will hold both the League and its players accountable for any future failures.
The NFL has addressed the concussion issues in a number of ways, including new sideline protocols and on-field rules of contact that will reduce the severity of head injuries. In response to a class action lawsuit brought by hundreds of retired players, the NFL stepped up to settle the matter. Although not yet finalized by the federal district court, the settlement seems likely to be able to offer to former players some of the financial resources they will need in facing life's challenges.
While the NFL has confronted these two significant issues, until now we have seen domestic violence and concussion injuries as separate and distinct problems. Recent reports suggest that they are not. A pathological study released last month by Boston University Medical Center directly connected CTE and domestic violence. Study of the brains of deceased football players discovered lesions on the anterior temporal lobe. This is the portion of the brain that is responsible for emotions and self-control. Damage to the frontal lobe can compromise its inhibiting effect. The result can be violent mood swings and aberrant behavior. This and other studies suggest that CTE may cause concussion victims to lose control when faced with extremely emotional situations, such as those that arise in a domestic violence situation.
Although there may be correlation between CTE and domestic violence, scientists are not ready to proclaim that the former causes the latter. Correlation is not causation. By definition, professional football players are more likely than most people to engage in high-risk behavior. It seems quite likely that numerous factors contribute to off-field violence. Nonetheless, the relationship between the injuries suffered on the field and those inflicted to others off the field is troubling.
It could be the case that the concussive damage NFL players suffer in games and in practices increases the risk that they will engage in domestic violence. Were that proven to a reasonable certainty, the National Football League would bear the moral, and perhaps legal, responsibility for creating that menace.