WASHINGTON, December 4 (By Maria Young for RIA Novosti) - This past weekend’s murder-suicide committed by a professional American football player has sparked a renewed national debate about the gladiator-style violence that happens in packed stadiums every week before thousands of cheering fans – and the crimes involving players that take place off the field.
Linebacker Jovan Belcher was “not someone we’ve ever had an issue with, in any regard,” said Kansas City Chiefs Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Clark Hunt, after Belcher murdered his girlfriend, the mother of his infant daughter, and then killed himself Saturday morning in front of the team’s head coach and general manager.
The tragedy has brought questions about a culture of violence within the National Football League (NFL) and the speculation that perhaps Belcher’s violent behavior off the field stemmed from repeated head injuries on the field that fans have long since become accustomed to for NFL players.
In the aftermath of his death, US media reported that some of Belcher’s friends said he was drinking and taking painkillers to help with the effects of head injuries known in the most severe cases as traumatic brain injuries or TBIs, which scientific studies suggest can increase the risk of violence and suicide.
TBIs can lead to “lack of impulse control, depression, physical and verbal abuse, among other things,” said Dr. Robert Cantu, a leading neurosurgical expert on sports injuries and co-author of a study published this week which finds a link between head trauma and long-term, degenerative brain disease.
Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said NFL players could get as many as 100 concussions a year.
“When you get your bell rung, they consider that a concussion,” Polamalu said on the syndicated Dan Patrick Show.
But he admitted that he and other players often shrug off potentially dangerous injuries in the heat of a game.
"There's so much built up about team camaraderie and sacrifice, and football is such a tough man's game," he said. "I think that's why it's so popular, why so many blue-collar communities and people feel really attracted to it, because it's sort of a blue-collar struggle that football players go through in terms of the physicality of the game and the commitment you need."
The brain injuries could be a contributing factor to violence off the field, said Edward Hirt, professor of psychological and brain science at Indiana University.
“Another contributing factor is sort of a culture of the athlete being entitled, or given a license and put on a pedestal to take advantage of other people. That on some level may contribute beyond some of the physical factors,” he said.
"A three month old baby is now an orphan. Everything else is secondary,” said columnist Eric Golub, author of several books including “Ideological Violence” and a blogger for The Washington Times and Tygrrrr Express, in an email response to RIA Novosti.
“People who want to blame guns, football, violence in society, or anything else are just desperately seeking easy answers,” he said.
But it is hard to ignore the suicide of six NFL players in the last two years, and a string of arrests and violence that have long been part of the football culture.
In the old days of football, said ESPN senior sports writer Howard Bryant, “everyone winked and nudged” at some of the violations that occurred.
“We certainly expect players to be playing their utmost in a competitive environment like that, and if it’s necessary to be violent to knock a ball loose or something, we see that as something that is necessary and really it just epitomizes them doing something we admire,” said Hirt.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell cracked down hard on the New Orleans Saints when they were found to be paying “bounties” for inflicting injuries on opposing players.
And people were outraged when two coaches for 10-and-11-year-old boys were accused of paying the boys to knock their opponents out of the games.
And sometimes the violence that takes place on the field in the NFL could lead to trouble off the field.
Among the notable cases in recent years: Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault at a nightclub in the US state of Georgia.
Charges were later dropped.
Quarterback Michael Vick served 21 months in prison after pleading guilty in an illegal dogfighting investigation. He currently plays for the Philadelphia Eagles.
“There’s a sense that ‘hey, the guy may be a jerk, but he’s really good at this… let’s resolve it and get him back in the game,’” said Hirt.
All told, more than 500 NFL players have been arrested for everything from domestic violence to fighting in bars and gun possession since 2000, according to an analysis by the San Diego Union Tribune.
There have been at least 25 arrests this year.
But the NFL brought in $9.3 billion in revenue and drew an estimated 200 million television viewers last year. And efforts to make the game less violent haven’t always gone over well with fans or players.
A large segment of the NFL fan base thinks concussions and violence are “a necessary part of the game,” said sports writer Michael Schottey of the Bleacher Report, a national sports news website.
“Their battle cries are heard on social media and comment sections across the web each Sunday: ‘Why don’t you just put skirts on them?’ or ‘This isn’t the game it used to be!’” he wrote.
“They want the physical play out of it, kind of. They want like powder puff to where you can just run around and score points 'cause that's going to attract the fans,” complained Baltimore Raven player Ed Reed this week, after a $50,000 fine for a helmet-to-helmet hit in an earlier game.
“I understand you want to make money, but bending the rules and making the game different, you know, it's only going to make the game worse."
Commissioner Goodell, wrote ESPN’s Bryant, “is faced with the difficulty of selling football without pain… even as network cameras zoom in on every team’s pregame war dance… It doesn’t work.”
It’s not so different, he said, from Americans expressing outrage over violence “while supporting a gun culture glamorized by the cops, the criminals, the video games, television and the movies.”
Football is arguably America’s favorite national pastime, a game played out on youth pee wee fields and high school and college stadiums from coast to coast.
It is a culture that rewards violence and aggression on the field, and has often not expected players to take responsibility for their actions off the field, said Hirt.
“There is a socialization of athletes that gives them a sense of entitlement, where they’re put on a pedestal and don’t have to go to classes, have other people doing their college work for them,” added Hirt.
Something like the Belcher case, he said “shocks” people for a while. But generally, the consequences tend to disappear.
“We really have to ask ourselves if this is something that needs to change… and if so, how?” he said.