Covering the Bruises: Domestic Violence in the NFL

It was a day Ray Rice wishes he could forget. February 15, 2014. Rice and his fiancée, Janay Palmer, were in Atlantic City. After a night of drinking, the two entered an elevator at the Revel Casino. Both were highly intoxicated. Security footage from a camera in the elevator showed the two exchanging words.  In a moment of anger, Rice cold-cocked his soon-to-be wife with one swift, powerful punch to the face. It’s a moment he can never have back, one America will never forget. As if someone hit her with a ton of bricks, Janay dropped to the floor, knocked unconscious in an instant. She hit her head on the wall on the way down.

As her body lay on the ground, the elevator had reached its destination. The doors opened. The then-Baltimore Ravens’ running back dragged Janay’s limp body through the elevator doors and out into the hallway, where she would eventually receive medical attention. He hasn’t played in an NFL game since. Over two years removed from the incident, Rice remains unemployed by the league. While that elevator video from the Revel has been difficult for many people to watch, and represents some of the most reprehensible relationship behavior, domestic violence is a pressing issue for both America and its most popular sports league, yet continues to be an afterthought.

Like Ray Rice, Johnny Manziel appeared to have it all. Athletic talent, a Heisman Trophy as a freshman – he’s the youngest player to ever win the award – and an opportunity to play in the NFL. But as his popularity grew, so did Johnny’s ego. His affinity for partying is no secret. Throughout his college career and first two unsuccessful seasons as a Cleveland Brown, Manziel never shied away from the spotlight. While he hardly saw the playing field, he couldn’t stop making headlines off of it. Drug and alcohol-fueled binges became the norm. As his life looked increasingly like a rock star’s opposed to a professional athlete’s, Johnny Football the celebrity killed Johnny Manziel the football player. But for all of Manziel’s off-the-field controversies, there is one that stands above the rest in severity.

 

Manziel is accused by his ex-girlfirend, Colleen Crowley, of domestic violence.

According to Crowley, the two had broken up in December, 2015, following two years of dating. However, on the night of Jan. 29, 2016, Manziel wanted to talk.

He invited her up to his room at the Hotel ZaZa in Dallas. According to Crowley, they got into an argument, leading Manziel to hit her repeatedly. After dragging her by the hair and forcing her into a car, he slapped her head, rupturing an eardrum and causing temporary hearing loss in her left ear. The valet service didn’t react to the cries for help. On the drive to Fort Worth, Crowley said Manziel threatened to kill both of them. She was afraid for her safety and his. The incident was investigated by Dallas police and sent to a grand jury, where a decision remains pending.

Ray Rice had never been accused of character issues before. Drafted by the Baltimore Ravens out of Rutgers University in the second round as the 55th pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, he had been nothing short of a model player. No fines. No suspensions. No reason to worry. But because of that night, everything changed.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had the opportunity to make an example of Rice, to show the country that domestic violence towards women would not be tolerated.

He failed. Unexplainably, he initially suspended Ray Rice for two games. To put into sobering perspective, the league tried to suspend Tom Brady four games for allegedly deflating footballs. Apparently, the NFL cares more about PSI than protecting women.

 

If it were up to the NFL, Ray Rice would likely still be playing today. Most people wouldn’t even remember, let alone care, that he had a short suspension two years ago. But there was one unforeseen problem.The video. It was obtained from the Revel Casino and released by TMZ.  People were horrified. After a predictable public backlash, the NFL announced that it had suspended Rice indefinitely in September 2014. The images of a professional athlete as strong and powerful Rice knocking out his small, defenseless fiancée were horrific and hard to watch. He became a lightning rod for criticism, and rightfully so. But it wasn’t because of domestic violence that Ray Rice’s name will live in infamy –  not because he punched his wife. It’s because he got caught on tape. If TMZ had not released that video, people would not have been in an outrage. There would be no criticism of Roger Goodell, no one calling for a longer suspension. Rice would have served his two games and finished out his career as planned. This raises one burning question: What do people think domestic violence looks like? The women with black-eyes, bruises and broken bones didn’t do it to themselves. They did not magically appear.

Someone inflicted them. And it’s happening too often to countless women across the country who are incapable of defending themselves.

 

Johnny Manziel is lucky that there is no tape of his alleged crimes. It is almost unthinkable to recreate the images of him striking Crowley repeatedly, dragging her by the hair and hitting her so hard she became deaf for a short time. Hopefully, the NFL will learn from the public relations disaster that resulted from the mishandling of the Rice case and level a strong penalty against Manziel if he is found guilty.

The NFL is a league that prides itself on its image, one of the reasons a strict personal conduct policy has been enacted over the last decade or so.  But the actions of players reflect directly on the league. Instead of concentrating all its efforts on “protecting the shield,” the NFL needs to prioritize protecting women.

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The Pain Game: CTE, Synthetic Marijuana and the Cost of Playing America’s Favorite Sport

The National Football League is the gold standard of professional sports. It is America’s game, a $13 billion behemoth that practically owns a day of the week.  To simply earn a roster spot in the league means you are in the top one percent of the top one percent of today’s athletes – the biggest, strongest and fastest that America has to offer. The NFL has the power to turn a nobody into a somebody; a pauper into a king. But there’s a cost. Football players make a conscious decision to trade their own physical well-being for money in a cold corpse-for-cash deal. With every snap, hit and tackle, they risk long-term health. While the relationship between pain and football is as old as the sport itself, the unseen consequences are dire and more significant than previously imagined.

By all accounts, Junior Seau was a good man. Beloved by his family and teammates, he was one of the most popular players in the league throughout his career which included stints with the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. Selected to the Pro Bowl twelve times, Seau retired after the 2009 season, his body broken from years of abuse at football’s expense. After a lifetime spent playing the game, it was time for him to move on. But while the damage to his body was immense, no one could have predicted that it paled in comparison to the unseen mutilation football inflicted on his brain. On May 2, 2012, Seau committed suicide. He shot himself in the chest, leaving his brain untouched.

After an autopsy, it was confirmed that Seau’s brain showcased similar symptoms to others that had undergone repeated head trauma. Although not confirmed, it is believed that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease found in people who have suffered repeated blows to the head. What is especially concerning about Seau, however, is that he had no officially documented concussions in his career. The qualities that made him an excellent football player and teammate – his warrior-like mentality to continue playing despite screams from his brain and body to stop – ultimately led to his untimely death.

Since its inception, football has become ingrained into our culture. As a sport, it is attractive because it rewards a quality Americans have always valued: toughness. To succeed, you have to have an inherent resiliency that most people, me included, can’t comprehend. Dealing with the pain of playing professional football on a daily basis is a struggle. From an early age, football players are trained to remain quiet and not complain; that no excuse is good enough to sit out. If you’re hurt, you’re weak. But the toughness that NFL franchises prize has resulted in players injecting harmful substances – one in particular – into their bodies: synthetic marijuana. Unlike its traditional counterpart, synthetic marijuana is not considered a banned substance under NFL rules.

This is perplexing, especially considering that regular marijuana use will generally garner a player a hefty fine and suspension, and the consequences increase for repeat offenders. This has opened a dangerous door for players, as the side-effects of synthetic cannabinoids are unknown and unpredictable. With relaxed rules, there has been a spike in players that have found themselves at the mercy of the drug’s side effects. A recent victim is Chandler Jones, a star defensive end who was recently traded from the New England Patriots to the Arizona Cardinals. In January, Jones appeared unannounced at a Foxboro police station at 7:40 a.m. Unusual? Absolutely.

But to make matters more bizarre, he was shirtless and disoriented.According to the TMZ report, “When cops sprinted toward Jones, he laid down on his stomach with his arms wide out – and told cops, “I’m Chandler Jones” … and that he had “been told” to come to the station. Cops say Jones was unable to provide them with an explanation about why he was there.” Soon after the initial encounter, paramedics were called, and Jones spent the night in the hospital.

The NFL is lagging behind the rest of America. Recreational marijuana is legal in Alaska, Colorado, Washington and Oregon, and is available for medicinal purposes in 23 states. It is irrational for the NFL to punish players for using a pain-relieving substance that is legal in the state in which they play, opting instead to let them risk the dangerous side-effects of the manufactured version. The league must investigate every available avenue to give its players the best medical treatment possible.

The warrior-like mentality and forced silence ingrained in football players is causing them to precariously take matters into their own hands. For some, this means taking synthetic marijuana in hopes of bypassing league rules. For others, the pain is so suffocating that they see no other choice than to take their own life. I can’t imagine the personal anguish that Junior Seau must have endured in his final years. There is no greater tragedy than a person who feels so hopelessly alone that they take it upon themselves to commit suicide. Stories like his are heartbreaking, yet are usually only known once it becomes too late.

Despite legitimate concerns about the well-being of its employees, the NFL has only grown in popularity. Nearly 112 million people watched the Denver Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 – roughly a third of the country’s population. Many people claim that the NFL is too big to fail. Others contend that health concerns will eventually catch up to football. Nevertheless, the National Football League remains America’s most popular sport. As long as players are willing to trade their health for a shot at playing at the highest level, the game will remain a socioeconomic monster. At the end of the day, the allure of football is a drug – one more powerful than the ones players are taking to mask the suffering that comes from playing the pain game.