On Monday, ESPN’s Outside The Lines reported that former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, when he killed his girlfriend before committing suicide in December 2012. Belcher, only 25 at the time of his death, is one of dozens of deceased football players that have been found to have severe brain damage after doctors were able to study their brains. CTE is an early form of dementia and affects the mood and memory. Chris Benoit, a professional wrestler who also committed a murder-suicide, was also found to be suffering from CTE.
Last year, the NFL came to a settlement with retired players over head injuries that they had sustained. The settlement was for $765 million, with the determination of the awards for individual players based on the severity of their injuries. The NFL also agreed to set aside money for education, research and medical examinations. In typical NFL style, the league did not admit any guilt with the settlement. Instead, they hoped putting aside some money for old, debilitated players whose lives were wrecked would be enough to make the problem go away. The same went for certain rule changes on the field.
Well, fast forward a year and the league is dealing with the fallout of a rash of domestic violence incidents. Commissioner Roger Goodell is getting hit from all sides over the poor way he handled to Ray Rice situation. Before the dust could even settle after the Rice elevator tape was released to the public, the league had to deal with Adrian Peterson’s child abuse arrest and indictment, arrests of Jonathan Dwyer and Ray McDonald for domestic abuse and the realization that Greg Hardy was on the active roster for the Carolina Panthers despite already being convicted on a domestic abuse charge.
Eventually, it was going to come to pass that people would start putting two and two together and seeing that there might be some kind of link between the high-rate of domestic violence, abuse and suicides with current and former NFL players and the vicious hits to the head that the athletes take within the game itself. Since 2000, the NFL has seen 83 players arrested for domestic violence incidents. The league has also seen 12 former players commit suicide, usually violently, over the past 25 years. There have also been other incidents involving players where they’ve done damage to themselves and/or others. One notable case was former Pittsburgh Steeler offensive lineman Justin Strzelczyk, who died in a high-speed chase with police in 2004. It was discovered in 2007 that Strzelczyk suffered from CTE.
A few days ago, Bob Costas was on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnelland discussed head injuries and possible links to violent and destructive behavior. Per The Washington Post, Costas said the following:
You have to say that many of those who play an inherently violent and brutal game — not a rough and tough game — but a violent and brutal game, will not [be] able to confine that behavior to the field, especially with what we’re learning about head trauma.” “We already know about the long-range effects. The league itself acknowledges in lawsuits that a considerable percentage of players will have cognitive difficulties well before their peers as a group will, those who did not play football, when they get to middle age.” “But we also know this, that, short-term, impulse control and aggression are affected, especially by head trauma. And when you mix that with perhaps prescription drugs for pain or performance-enhancing drugs, throw alcohol into the mix and throw the violent culture of the NFL into the mix, some players are going to act in ways that they might not act were they not football players.”
Prior to the release of the findings related to Belcher, HBO announced that October 21st’s episode of Real Time with Bryant Gumbel will tackle the subject and look at possible links between the two. The show will feature Chelsea Oliver, the widow of Paul Oliver, a former NFL player who killed himself last year. In a preview of the episode, Chelsea discusses Paul’s mood changes prior to his suicide, explaining that he had become abusive and not like his previous self.
Monday night, after the report was released on Belcher (the report had actually been completed over nine months ago and was released by attorneys representing Belcher’s family), Lawrence O’Donnell used the revelations of Belcher’s death to speak about the potential links between brain trauma and violence.
Besides O’Donnell, there wasn’t much discussion devoted towards the news that Belcher suffered from CTE and the relation it had towards his violent actions and death. Sure, ESPN ran the story, with OTL doing wonderful reporting. However, with the network ramping up for its Monday Night Football broadcast, which just so happened to be in Kansas City, they needed to switch gears and discuss the more important story — the matchup between the Patriots and Chiefs. Which is exactly what the NFL wanted at that moment.
One notable exception was the Kansas City Star, who O’Donnell quoted for his Last Word segment.
“The Belcher finding legitimately rekindles many of the arguments that people inside and outside the NFL are having right now about the violence of the sport and how it affects players. Given the recent attention focused on domestic violence — from Belcher’s case to more recent incidents involving Ray Rice and other current NFL players — the CTE diagnosis for Belcher could become a critical turning point in this discussion. In short, as more is learned about the effects of concussions and other brain injuries suffered by men in the NFL, the more society is going to want to know what the NFL is doing to prevent that kind of damage. We’re seeing increasingly that the damage inflicted by being an NFL player can have tremendously negative effects on the rest of society. Women can be beaten or, as in the case of Belcher’s girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, can be killed.
CTE is a degenerative condition found in people who have suffered multiple concussions/repeated brain injury, and can cause severe impairment to motor skills, cognitive function and overall mental state. It has resulted in depression and suicide in some cases. Notable diagnoses of CTE include Hall of Famer Junior Seau, who also committed suicide in 2012, and former WWE World Champion Chris Benoit, who murdered his wife and son before taking his own life.
Nothing can erase the sadness created by the events surrounding the end of Belcher’s life, but the findings do provide some potential answers concerning Belcher’s mind state in his final days and what may have contributed to his decision to take the lives that he did. It also serves as a reminder that, despite the advances in the area of concussion research and treatment, there is still much to be done in the way of improving the culture in professional sports as it relates to head injuries and making things safer for players.
We’ll never know how exactly Belcher’s life would have turned out had he not been so gravely affected by years of repeated brain trauma, but we can learn from his story and make things better going forward. So, will the NFL actually do anything about this? Will they dive in and fully investigate this potential link? Or will they do what they prefer — ignore the problem and hope the paying public doesn’t care about it? Hopefully the NFL and other organizations, in sports and otherwise, can help make that happen.