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Optimum Performance: Is there a link between repeated head trauma and off-field violence among NFL players?

Last Friday, actuarial data related to the $785 million proposed settlement between the NFL and thousands of concussion lawsuits brought by former players was released. The New York Times reported the NFL “expects nearly a third of retired players to develop long term cognitive problems, and that the conditions are likely to emerge at notably younger ages than in the general population.”

The newspaper “showed that players younger than 50 had a 0.8 percent change of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia, compared with less than 0.1 percent for the general population.”

With age, the statistics are worse: “For players age 50 to 54, the rate was 1.4 percent, compared with less than 0.1 percent for the general population,” the Times reported.

It appears that “money can’t buy you love,” and in this case, $785 million cannot restore brain function either. At the same time this information was released, the NFL was embroiled in a domestic abuse controversy sparked by the release of a video involving Baltimore running back Ray Rice punching unconscious his then-fiancée (she is now his wife), and the inadequate response by the NFL.

Add the indictment Sept. 11 of Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson for allegedly abusing his 4-year-old son, and you have turmoil in and around the professional gridiron.

Earlier in the week, Peterson was cleared by the Vikings to practice in anticipation of playing against the Saints in their home opener this Sunday. However, more than 24 hours later, the team reversed its decision under public and sponsor pressure and suspended Peterson, until his legal issues have been resolved.

In another New York Times story, the newspaper reported there have been “713 instances in which pro football players have had a run-in with the law that was reported by the news media.”

USA Today maintains a database that tracks NFL players, who have been subject to arrests, charges, and citations greater than a traffic ticket.

The statistics show that of the 713 incidents, 202 have been for driving under influence, 88 for assault and battery, 85 for domestic violence, 82 for drugs, and … you get the picture.

However, the Times reported “2014 is on track to be the year with the fewest arrests of N.F.L. players on record,” and “the arrest rate is lower than the national average for men in that age range.”

Based on the number of players arrested, cited, or charged with a crime between January 2000 and September 2014, the team with the most was the Minnesota Vikings with 44. The League average was 22. The New Orleans Saints had 20, with the St. Louis Rams having the lowest to date at 11.

It raises the question as to whether or not the repeated head trauma experienced by active NFL players would have any cause or effect on the commission of off- field violence.

“Currently,” notes Gregory Stewart, MD, Co – Executive Director of the Tulane University Center for Sport and an expert in concussion management, “there are no data to suggest that cumulative brain trauma suffered by NFL players causes them to commit acts of violence or fail to understand the difference between right and wrong.”

In fact, Stewart cites a study conducted by Alfred Blumstein and Jeff Benedict, which states that NFL players are half as likely to commit domestic violence as men in their 20s in the general population.

Yet, there may be compounding issues that might work together to trigger a violent act. “The head traumas are not likely to cause aggressive behavior or abuse in themselves,” says Robert Geffner, Ph.D, Diplomate in Clinical Neuropsychology and past President of the Trauma Psychology Division of the American Psychological Association.

“However,” notes Geffner, “the areas of the brain that are often affected by such traumas can: reduce inhibitions, lead to more impulsive behaviors, affect reasoning ability, and can produce more aggressive behavior at times.  When such traumas occur in combination with prior attitudes that condone abusive, controlling, or aggressive behaviors, it can increase the likelihood of abusive actions.”

Maybe those offending NFL players now have the basis for a criminal defense besides just stupidity, which I am not quite sure if that defense will hold up in a court of law.

“Today clinical researchers,” according to Stewart, “Are challenged with the complex task to collect and analyze data that defines the neurological, mental health, and orthopedic issues of NFL players and any long- term effects of these issues.

Until then, the brain damage and broken body parts with continue to be part of the NFL game.

Mackie Shilstone, a regular contributor to | The Times-Picayune, has been involved in the wellness sports performance industry for nearly 40 years. He is currently the fitness coach for Serena Williams, has trained numerous other professional athletes and consulted a litany of professional sports franchises. He is St. Charles Parish Hospital’s Fitness and Wellness expert. Contact him at