Domestic violence much bigger than NFL

“I got it wrong….”  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell uttered those words at his press conference on Friday, Sept. 19.  Although Commissioner Goodell’s remorse for the NFL’s inconsistent handling of the recent domestic allegations against NFL players is commendable, neither Commissioner Goodell nor the NFL is the root cause of the players’ – and certainly not our nation’s – domestic violence crisis.  If only the problem of domestic violence could be solved by the NFL’s creation of new standards and a robust task force.  Instead, domestic violence runs much deeper than any one organization, any particular sport, any specific race, or any socioeconomic class.

Domestic violence, typically defined as physical, emotional, sexual or psychological abuse between two persons presently or previously occupying an intimate relationship (also commonly referred to as intimate partner violence), has plagued our country, and the world, for centuries.  In 1765, William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England noted that the law allowed a husband to “give his wife moderate correction.”  Fast forward almost sixty years, and in 1824 the Mississippi Supreme Court, in Bradley v. State, acknowledged a husband’s right to exercise “moderate chastisement” against his wife, without being subject to “vexatious prosecutions.”  It was not until 1871 that Mississippi’s neighboring state Alabama became the first state to negate a husband’s legal right to physically abuse his wife.   But it took almost another century, until the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s, for domestic abuse to become part of the national debate, no longer being solely recognized as a family matter to be dealt with privately.

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Today, domestic violence affects approximately one in three women according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.  Women capture the primary focus of the domestic violence debate because they represent an overwhelming proportion of domestic abuse victims.  Other than victims predominantly being women, domestic violence does not discriminate.  It strikes all races, ages, and socioeconomic groups. Perhaps not surprising, domestic violence touches all parts of the globe.  One-third of all women in the world will at some point in their lives endure an abusive relationship. 

Based upon the nation’s recent focus on allegations of domestic abuse by NFL players, one might presuppose that the rate of domestic abuse committed by the players was more than the national average.  After all, the game of football engenders close-contact force and intensity on the football field, and players’ ability to quell these emotions off the field may appear dubious.  Yet, some statistics belie this presumption.  Using USA Today’s NFL Arrest Database dating back to 2000, Benjamin Morris at FiveThirtyEight.com determined that the NFL’s domestic violence rate was only 55.4 percent of the national average, a statistically significant difference  (Morris’s comparison of the NFL’s domestic violence rate to the top one-percent income earners predictably determined that the NFL had a higher incidence rate, but such comparison does not take into account the socioeconomically different background of NFL players contrasted with the top one-percent).  Morris’s NFL domestic violence rate to national average calculation comports with a 1999 study by criminologist Alfred Blumstein and best-selling author Jeff Benedict, who found that the criminal violence rate (which included domestic violence)  among NFL players was 50 percent lower than the general population.

Even when presented with such statistics, commentators suspect that either the game of football or the NFL’s ostensibly lenient domestic violence penalties are to blame for the high-profile prevalence of domestic violence.  Yet determining why particular men decide to abuse their intimate partners is complex, without one definitive source typically being identified.  Different theories have developed through the years, ranging from sociological to environmental.  For example, some studies have shown that an individual who witnesses or suffers abuse as a child is more likely to be an abuser as an adult.  Other studies have found that abusers characteristically suffer from pathological personality disorders.  Yet other studies blame society and its portrayal of the stereotypical role of women as submissive to their husband – the patriarchal model.  More recently, researchers have considered whether head injuries play a role, especially in physical contact sports such as football, the theory being that significant blows to a player’s head causes physiological change that ultimately results in a predisposition to abuse.  This latter theory has yet to be confirmed, but will likely regain attention due to the recent NFL domestic violence frenzy.

Why abusers abuse is complicated.  Although it is easy and perhaps comforting to blame Commissioner Goodell and the NFL – after all, a problem is less daunting if its cause is identifiable – the true root of domestic violence will be subverted if blame is misplaced on the these actors.  Commissioner Goodell has, maybe unwittingly, brought domestic violence to the national stage and given its victims, many of whom fearfully continue in the shadows of this epidemic, a chance to have their voices heard.  A primary difficulty of solving the domestic violence dilemma is encouraging victims of abuse to come forward and report their abuse, rather than enduring the emotional and physical pain of their tumultuous relationship.  At the recent press conference, Commissioner Goodell reported that the National Domestic Violence Hotline, a group the NFL will now support, had received 84 percent more calls in the prior week than typical weeks.  Not a coincidence.  Now that domestic violence is receiving the nation-wide attention it warrants, hopefully substantial resolution can be achieved.     

Gonzales is former Counsel to the President and Attorney General under the George W. Bush administration. He is currently the dean and Doyle Rogers Distinguished Professor of Law at Belmont University College of Law. Black is a law professor at Belmont University College of Law where she teaches Family Law.