By Ken Reed

Given the high profile Adrian Peterson domestic violence case in the NFL (and several lower profile domestic violence cases in the league), speculation has risen regarding the possibility that one of the side effects of brain trauma is an increased tendency toward violence.

Let’s start with a surprising fact: NFL players have a lower arrest rate for domestic violence than the American male population at large in the 25-29 year-old category. The primary reason this seems surprising is because NFL players not only are public figures they are celebrities. NFL domestic violence arrests garner a ton of media attention. Meanwhile, if the lawyer down the hall in your office building is arrested for domestic violence you may never find out.

Nevertheless, NFL players aren’t off the hook just yet. Let’s keep looking at the numbers. Domestic violence arrests make up 48 percent of total arrests for violent crimes among NFL players, compared to an estimated 21 percent nationally for the 25-29 year-old demographic. In addition, relative to their income (top 1 percent) and poverty rate (0 percent), the domestic violence rate for NFL players is much higher than it is for their peers in the rest of society.

Now, let’s get back to the brain trauma/violence connection. A New Republic piece by Naomi Shavin had this to say regarding research examining the connection between brain trauma and violence:

“Countless studies over the years have looked at various populations with histories of both violence and of brain trauma. One famous study from 1986 looked at 15 death row inmates and found that all of them had experienced a traumatic head injury in childhood. A 1996 report looked at 279 Vietnam War Veterans who suffered penetrating brain injuries found that those with damage to a particular part of the frontal cortex demonstrated more aggression.”

However, none of the research completed to date is great when it comes to looking at NFL cases because there are so many variables to consider, according to Dr. Michael Wolf, a pediatrician specializing in sports medicine at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia and a faculty member at Drexel University School of Medicine. We simply don’t have a research study in this area that examines the behavior of NFL players.

Wolf says a better study in the brain trauma and violence area would involve following every kid who checks into an ER for a concussion for decades to see how their brains developed and to monitor violent behavior patterns.

Perhaps we could narrow it even further and do a similar study solely on football players who are diagnosed with a concussion at any point in time from the youth leagues through the NFL.

The bottom line is there are too many questions around brain injuries and football for the sport to survive long-term without some serious scientific research regarding how brain trauma in football impacts physical, mental, behavioral, and emotional health.

“If we leave questions unanswered, you’re gonna end up with parents making the broad decision not to allow kids to play,” says Wolf. “That’s how football will die—from the ground up.”

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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