Tackling the Problem of Domestic Violence

by Sean Philpott-Jones, Director of the Center for Bioethics and Clinical Leadership

The National Football League is in for a rough season, both on and off the field. In the past month, for example, America’s most popular sport has been rocked by allegations that league officials and team owners willfully ignored evidence that the Baltimore Raven’s star running back Ray Rice beat his then-fiancée unconscious in an Atlantic City elevator.

All-pro defensive end Greg Hardy of the Carolina Panthers and defensive lineman Ray McDonald of the San Francisco 49ers face similar allegations. Most recently, Minnesota Vikings’ Adrian Peterson was charged with criminal child abuse after whipping his four-year-old son with a wooden switch and a leather belt.

In response, beleaguered NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell promised to overhaul the organization’s policies on personal conduct, making it easier to penalize players harshly for egregious off-field behaviors, including domestic violence and child abuse. Commissioner Goodell also introduced a new initiative that would require all players and league staff to participate in regular educational programs on domestic violence and sexual abuse.

Unfortunately for Mr. Goodell, much of this is “too little, too late.” A growing number of women’s organizations and domestic violence advocacy groups are calling for his resignation. A number of commercial sponsors are also distancing themselves from the NFL, which makes Roger’s continued tenure as NFL Commissioner increasingly unlikely.

A number of pundits have also weighed in, not just on the question of Mr. Goodell’s career prospects but also on whether or not the recent spate of domestic and child abuse causes is directly linked to misogynistic and violent culture of professional football. Some of these armchair quarterbacks have linked the so-called “epidemic” of domestic violence in the NFL to increasing awareness of the physical and mental toll that football takes on professional (and even amateur) athletes.

Many players, for example, use anabolic steroids illicitly in order to get a competitive boost. It is well known that abuse of these drugs can lead to uncontrolled aggression and violent behavior (colloquially called ‘roid rage’).

Similarly, head injuries – particularly concussions – are also a common occurrence in high-speed contact sports like football. Players with a history of repeated concussive head injuries are at increased risk of developing a progressive neurodegenerative disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), symptoms of which include mood and behavioral changes, dementia, tremors, impaired speech, and deafness. Actuarial experts hired by the NFL itself now estimate that as many as one-in-three professional football player will develop CTE or other long-term cognitive problems in their lifetime.

But it is important to remember that correlation is not causation. For instance, there is no definitive link between CTE and domestic violence in the NFL or other sports leagues. More importantly, despite the current spotlight on Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, there is no link between professional football and domestic violence.

This is not to say that domestic violence is not a big problem in the NFL. Since 2000, nearly 100 players have been arrested or changed with domestic violence or child abuse. But this rate is actually slightly less than the US national average.

So despite what most Americans think, the NFL is not suffering from a “widespread epidemic of domestic violence”. Rather, it is the country overall that is in the midst of an outbreak.

At some point in their life, nearly a quarter of all women and 8% of all men will be the victim of a physical or sexual assault by a romantic partner or personal acquaintance. Many more will be the victim of more insidious forms of violence, including verbal, emotional and psychological abuse. Rates of abuse are particularly high among racial, ethnic and sexual minorities.

Similarly, over 10% of children will be abused or neglected by the time they are 18 years old. Over 6% will be raped or sexually assaulted by a family member. An estimated 1,500 children in the US die annually as a result of abuse or neglect.

This is the real tragedy, and the one that we need to address. In many ways, the spotlight on the NFL may do just that. In the past couple of weeks we’ve seen an increase in public discussion and debate about the problem of domestic violence. Victims of abuse – including celebrities like Meredith Vieira and Sarah Hyland – have also gone public with their stories on television, in the press, and via Twitter chats using the hash tags #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft.

But increasing public awareness and discussion of the problem is just the start. We also need to reform relevant local and state laws to make the perpetrators of domestic violence or child abuse more accountable for their crimes. In many states, for example, a man can go to jail for up to five years for abusing his dog, but spend less than a month in jail for beating his wife, girlfriend or daughter. Existing abuse laws also often lack protections for gay, lesbian or transgendered individuals, even though these groups are at higher risk for physical abuse or sexual assault.

The epidemic of domestic violence and child abuse in the US will not end until the nation as a whole tackles this rampant problem head on.

[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on September 25, 2014, and is available on the WAMC website. The contents of this post are solely the responsibility of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]

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