Perhaps the NFL should start watermarking its player contracts with a skull and crossbones or, at the very least, a warning from the surgeon general.
Following Tuesday night’s “Real Sports” report on the link between domestic violence and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the brain disease brought about by repeated concussions, there’s a question of whether such a gesture would seem remotely adequate as a warning of possible prognosis of the disease.
HBO revealed the results of a 2013 study of brains of CTE victims conducted by Boston University, which, in tandem with the Sports Legacy Institute, specializes in studying the disease. The study of 33 men, authored by Robert Stern, found that more than 50 percent had never been violent prior to sustaining head injuries.
In just five years of playing in the NFL, Paul Oliver suffered three major concussions — and that was enough to radically alter his personality and turn him into someone his wife Chelsea, did not recognize.
She called him a monster.
“His behavior started to change and one example was we got in an argument and he shattered all our phones so I couldn’t call the police and locked all the doors,” Oliver told Jon Frankel of “Real Sports.” “He told me if I got up off the couch that he would slam my head into the floor.”
When understood as rarefied-but-horrific instances, they’re troubling, but easier to write off. He was a bad guy. An exception. An anomaly.
But Oliver’s experience with domestic violence as an NFL wife wasn’t an exception. Her experience with an enraged partner who sabotaged any effort to contact law enforcement echoed that of Dewan Smith-Williams, estranged wife of former NFL offensive lineman Wally Williams. Like Oliver, Smith-Williams was one of the few women willing to come forward. She gave an account to The Washington Post of an episode with her husband: “I called the police and he snatched the phone from me,” Smith-Williams. “I called from other phones, and he would do the same.”
Oliver, Smith-Williams and Mary Ann Easterling — Ray Easterling’s widow — are just a few of the women comprising a sorority whose members were muscled into the shadows by the NFL, they maintain.
Over and over, they cite the NFL’s culture of silence which prioritizes the league, its success, revenue, and reputation above all else. It’s encapsulated in one telling phrase that has come to follow commissioner Roger Goodell’s handling of the crises that were dominating discussions of the league: “Protect the shield.”
Sure, he was doing his best to “protect the shield,” but at what cost? And to whom?
HBO Sports spoke to 10 NFL wives who said their previously peaceful husbands became violent after repeated head trauma, but they didn’t want to speak on camera. Chris Nowinski of the Sports Legacy Institute told Frankel he hears from them. They found Easterling. They found Smith-Williams.
And their stories are disturbingly similar.
Asked to provide a sampling of the e-mails he gets from player wives, Nowinski responded: “I’m scared for my life. My husband played 12 years of football and he was a loving man and now he has been stalking me and he’s been violent with me — fifty exclamation points — help me. It’s dozens of these e-mails come in all the time. We’ll see violence going forward because we’re sending very big, very brain damaged people out into the community.”
What now? As it stands, women feel they’re risking their safety by coming forward. They don’t feel supported or even heard by the NFL or their own communities. Will the NFL construct a mechanism to allow women to safely report domestic violence and suspicions their partners may have CTE? Well, first it has to be willing acknowledge that such a link exists.
“One on one, wives will share that,” Easterling said. “When they know there’s not a possibility of being threatened, they will share it out of earshot of their husbands.”
Then there’s the question of punishment. Is it ethical to punish a person for behaving in a way that is out of their control? In the case of CTE, incarceration doesn’t do anything to solve the source of the violence. Involuntary actions are undeterred by the threat of jail time.
“We’re not saying that what they’re doing is not wrong and they shouldn’t be punished like anybody else, but what we are saying is that we have to acknowledge the fact that the seat of some of this behavior might be the damage that we’re doing to their brains,” Nowinski said.
Ann McKee of Boston University told “Real Sports” when she received Oliver’s brain, it contained lesions in the anterior temporal lobe. “Those areas are the parts of the brain that are concerned with emotionality and assaultiveness and ability to control ourselves,” she said.
“You mean that as the disease progressed, he lost the ability to control himself?” Frankel asked.
“Yeah,” McKee said. “That’s a pattern we’ve seen over and over again.”
Then there’s the matter of those yet to enter the NFL, but who, as high school and college athletes, have already been identified and groomed for a football career.
How do you get an 18 or a 22-year-old to understand that a chance to convert a childhood passion into paydirt poses a danger not just to his body, but possibly to the very essence of who he is? On top of that, he’s expected to weigh the fact that said decision not only affects him, but a family he may not even be able to conceive of one day having.
All of that is now up for consideration for prospects still in the stages of advanced adolescence. And who, when they’re young and invincible, wants to believe that suicide or Lou Gehrig’s disease or Alzheimer’s is part of their future? After all, they’ve arrived at this juncture because they’ve lived their lives as exceptions, genetic freaks of nature faced with the opportunity to cash in the chip that makes them special.
If you’re a wide receiver on the precipice of a life that comes with more money than you’ve ever seen before, is it so far of a stretch to think: Maybe I can outrun this, too?
And if you can’t, is there any amount of money that makes it worthwhile?