Could NFL Concussion and Domestic Violence Issues Be Connected?

As the NFL works its way through dual scandal threads involving domestic abuse by several players and an increasing number of studies indicating that players are likely to suffer significant brain injuries over the course of their careers, some are asking whether the two problems may be linked.

“[S]tudies of severe traumatic brain injuries suggest that aggressive behavior might result after repeated concussions,” NBC News states in the premise of a recent report.

“Aggression is one of the most common aspects of severe TBI [traumatic brain injury],” Dr. Douglas Smith, a professor of neurosurgery and director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania, tells NBC.

“Generally aggression is thought to be linked to damage to the frontal lobes, which are responsible for executive function. The frontal lobes control things like restraint. Patients are disinhibited and can’t modulate their behavior in general, and that includes aggressive behavior.”

Violence, Concussions are Issues Plaguing Pro Football Ranks

NBC is looking into the matter as a follow-up to two other ongoing news stories involving the NFL:

  • Domestic violence scandals involving Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens, Greg Hardy of the Carolina Panthers, Ray McDonald of the San Francisco 49ers and Jonathan Dwyer of the Arizona Cardinals.
  • Concussions in football brought to the forefront, again, by a recent study identifying multiple cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head that steadily destroys cognitive functions and leads to mood problems. Another report revealed that the NFL itself believes that about three in 10 players will eventually suffer from at least moderate brain disease.

Any violent blow to the head can cause damage as the brain moves within the skull and is forced against its boney encasement. A concussion is a mild form of TBI that usually heals with a few weeks’ rest. More severe forms of TBI can cause a variety of functional losses in cognition, physical ability and emotional control.

Smith states in the NBC report that scientists have determined that repeated jolts to the brain, such as a pro football player suffers on a typical Sunday, can cause as much damage as one big blow to the head.

Experts Dispute Potential Link between Violent Behavior and Brain Injuries

Others quoted by NBC dispute the idea that concussions or brain damage suffered over the long-term lead to violence.

Dr. Julien Bailes, chairman of the department of neurosurgery at the NorthShore University HealthSystem and co-director of the NorthShore Neurological Institute told NBC that CTE has not been linked to violence.

David Hovda, a professor of neurosurgery and director of the Brain Injury Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, told NBC that the effect of repeated blows to the head is more like intoxication, leading to a loss of inhibition. The lack of inhibition in someone who is naturally aggressive could then allow violent tendencies to surface.

But, Hovda points out, given the millions of concussions that happen over the course of a year in accidents ranging from car crashes to falls and other accidents, violence would be rampant if concussions alone led to violence.

The issue, obviously, is one to closely monitor as more examine this potential link.