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HBO’s ‘Real Sports’ to examine link between brain injury and domestic violence

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What if the two issues that are the biggest bogeymen for the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell were actually linked?

That’s what “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” has promised to explore in a new episode of the show airing Oct. 21 on HBO.

The network released a preview Tuesday night of Jon Frankel speaking with Chelsea Oliver, the widow of Paul Oliver, a former safety for the San Diego Chargers who shot and killed himself in front of Chelsea and their two young sons last year. Before he killed himself, he had become unrecognizable, she said — abusive and threatening.

Paul Oliver had an advanced form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease linked with continued concussions or blows to the head. It’s associated with with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, paranoia, impulse control problems, aggression, depression and progressive dementia, according to the Sports Legacy Institute, an organization dedicated to studying, treating, and preventing brain trauma in athletes.

This is one of many reasons why the issue is more complicated than a zero-tolerance policy for a first time offense, as Dave Zirin of the Nation has noted. Prison isn’t exactly a corrective for traumatic brain injury. At the same time, there has to be care taken to ensure that CTE isn’t used to lessen the horror of domestic abuse — or as a fallback excuse.

But imagine if a woman was victimized by a partner who had CTE as a result of concussions sustained during his pro football career — something the league has tried its best to accept as little responsibility for as it possibly can. Would the NFL be liable for her injuries?

The only thing worse for the NFL than being found complicit in covering up or simply not caring about domestic abuse is if they could be held responsible for it. To wit, Chelsea Oliver and her sons are suing the NFL for wrongful death, citing the concussions her husband sustained that she says led to his suicide. She blamed those same concussions for the domestic abuse she endured. The Chargers, the New Orleans Saints and several helmet makers are named in the suit.

According to the suit, filed Monday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Oliver’s death was the “direct result of the injuries, depression and emotional suffering caused by repetitive head trauma and concussions suffered as a result of playing football, not properly appreciating football’s risks with respect to head trauma” and using substandard helmets, the Associated Press reported. The concussion lawsuit, settled, but not capped, at $675 million, does not apply to current football players. Oliver isn’t the first to sue the NFL for wrongful death in connection with CTE. The familes of Dave Duerson, who committed suicide in 2011, and Junior Seau, who killed himself in 2012, did the same. Both men had CTE.

This is why it’s important the issue of domestic abuse not be treated as a public-relations problem that can be solved with an ostentatious crackdown. It actually demands attention to the wives/girlfriends/partners who are on the receiving end of such abuse. One would imagine that, like Chelsea Oliver, there are others who noticed dramatic changes in their partners’ personalities and didn’t necessarily dismiss it as some sort of football mindset.

“These women may feel the same way that I did in the sense that this isn’t who this person is and I’m going to help them get through this,” Oliver said.

The NFL is accused of erecting a facade of concern when it comes to dealing with domestic violence and CTE rather than instituting meaningful changes. It’s waited until its hand was forced through public outcry, catalyzed by TMZ videos or concussion lawsuits or documentaries such as “League of Denial” that claim the NFL railroaded Bennet Omalu, the forensic neuropathologist who discovered CTE in the late Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster.

Its modus operandi, critics say, is one of  minimization and denial. When those are no longer viable options, they say, it institutes some sort of program or partnership that mollifies most critics without actually addressing the problem’s complexity. The latest evidence of this comes in the form of the NFL’s youth safety program, which was met with skepticism by none other than John Madden.

The league’s Heads Up Football program hosts events called Moms Football Safety Clinics supposedly to educate mothers about safety on the gridiron. They go through tackling drills, learn the best way to position the head to avoid injury and proper helmet fit.

“This is clearly a marketing program designed to get mothers comfortable with their kids playing football at a very young age, against the advice of a lot of doctors,” Chris Nowinski of the Sports Legacy Institute told WBUR’s “Here & Now.”

“And all due respect to the program, I don’t believe in it,” Madden said during an NFL Network roundtable with Goodell. He continued: “I’m a firm believer that there’s no way that a six-year-old should have a helmet on and learn a tackling drill,” Madden said. “There’s no way.  Or a seven-year-old or an eight-year-old. They’re not ready for it.  Take the helmets off kids. Take the helmet off young kids. Start at six years old, seven years old, eight years old, nine years old. They don’t need a helmet. They can play flag football. And with flag football you can get all the techniques. Why do we have to start with a six-year-old who was just potty trained a year ago and put a helmet on him and tackle? I have no idea. We’ll eventually get to tackling.”

To be clear, CTE isn’t a disease that affects only football players, but they are often its most visible victims. The NFL recently acknowledged that 3 in 10 former players will develop some form of debilitating brain condition, including Alzheimer’s, dementia, Lou Gehrig’s disease and Parkinson’s. The late WWE wrestler Chris Benoit was diagnosed with CTE after he murdered his wife and child, then killed himself in January 2007. Recently, the Brazilian soccer star Bellini was posthumously diagnosed with CTE as well.

It doesn’t take that many instances of getting your “bell rung” or becoming “punch drunk” to show signs of serious injury. Oliver experienced three major, diagnosed concussions, his widow told HBO.

Putting off tackling, as Madden suggested, could be a start, but will it be enough?