We’ll likely never know whether the most recent murder/suicide tragedy in Kansas City involving a prominent NFL player can be tied to brain trauma from too many hard hits.
But the perception that there is a link — bolstered coincidentally by a Boston University study released today — causes enough of a crisis for the major contact sports, including the NFL, NHL and NCAA football. The potential is also resonating down to the high-school and pee-wee hockey and football levels.
Chiefs’ linebacker Jovan Belcher fatally shot his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, the mother of their 3-month-old daughter, Zoey, on Saturday morning before driving to Arrowhead Stadium and taking his own life in front of his head coach and general manager. The NFL at least has a serious domestic violence problem on its hands, and the causes may go to the root of the game.
As Slate noted today:
There are approximately 1700 active players in the NFL, and by my count, about 2 percent of them have faced abuse or violence charges. I’m not sure how this compares to the general population, though I’d be interested to find out. I do know that, according to a very recent report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the overall national rate of intimate partner violence declined by 64 percent from 1994 to 2010. I would be very, very surprised if the NFL is matching this trend.
And, what if a significant percentage of these cases stem from brain damage over a career. Even though only a tiny percentage of football and hockey players reach the pros, most of them have played since their teen years or earlier. Practice after practice, game after game, the hits over 20 years add up.
Just as significantly, there is no direct evidence that sports trauma leads people to domestic violence, suicide or even violent behavior. There are millions of athletes who’ve given and taken hits on a playing field who have never been accused of a crime. But the issue at the base of this crisis for the leagues is that the perception is growing that brain damage suffered in sports is prevalent and significant and the leagues are not taking it as seriously as they should.
The media focused so far on the not inconsequential role that access to handguns had on this case and many others like it. But that’s a societal issue no single league can match up against.
The NFL has a commission studying the data. Other leagues seem to be getting off the couch and focusing somewhat on the challenges. But for the average fan, this is a faraway nuisance that interferes with their top 10 plays on ESPN. Until the leagues step up and take responsibility and offer leadership on the subject, there will be many more tragedies like Jovan Belcher and Kasandra Perkins.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.