Asking the Right Right Question About Football – Why do Some NFL Players Abuse Their Partners?

The national press is buzzing after TMZ released a video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice’s barbaric assault of his then-fiancee, Janay Rice.  Much of the spotlight of the coverage shined on the NFL’s handling of the abuse, and perhaps even more time was spent yesterday questioning Ms. Rice’s decision to stay in her relationship with her husband.  These are certainly valid questions to ask, and there is something to be said about the raised “awareness” of domestic violence in the aftermath of its players deplorable acts of violence.  I would argue the discussion has been more valuable than any awareness raised by NFL teams wearing pink during breast cancer awareness month.

If we want to best-capitalize on the awareness raised by these acts of violence, however, the conversation needs to shift from harm reduction (“why did she stay?”) to harm prevention.  To illustrate: when faced with the prevalence of lung cancer, do we ask “Why does the cancer patient continue to smoke?”  Yes, to some extent, we do, but we first addressed the causal inquiry, “What causes cancer?”, and in order to prevent the next generation from becoming addicted to nicotine, millions have been invested and continue to be invested in educating the public (and particularly youth) about the harms of tobacco use, and legislative action has been taken to prevent the harms caused by tobacco use.

Domestic violence (or intimate partner violence), like lung cancer, is a public health issue.  This is not a novel or controversial statement.  According to a 2010 CDC report, one in four women and one in seven men have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner, and according to a 2003 report, the national costs of health services for intimate partner rape, physical assault, and stalking is nearly $4.1 billion.  The CDC’s website states:  “The goal is to stop IPV [intimate partner violence] before it begins. There is a lot to learn about how to prevent IPV.”

It is time that the health care community take the CDC’s statement seriously and work collaboratively across law, public health, and medicine to research, propose, and implement innovative solutions to this perpetual epidemic, that costs thousands of lives in the United States each year.  Unlike some other organizations aimed at addressing public health issues, organizations whose goal is to prevent domestic violence are often grossly under-funded.  Perhaps the most apropos inquiry or statement to put to the NFL, the NFL Player’s Union, or other public health institutions that agree that domestic violence prevention is important is one capture by a classic football film: “SHOW ME THE MONEY.”

[Ed. Note: This post reflects the author’s views only.  It does not necessarily represent the views of the Petrie-Flom Center or the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University.]

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