Ray Rice and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy: #WhyIStayed

Ray Rice is an American football player who has been in the news this week for punching his fiancee in the face and knocking her unconscious in February of 2014. She later married him that March and continues to defend her husband to this day. Rice has been kicked out of the NFL after public backlash after a video of the assault was released and the public learned of the NFL’s lackluster reaction.

As a feminist, it outrages me that a such a physically imposing man would use such violence against a woman. When I was getting my degree in Women’s Studies, I read article after article about domestic violence – the statistics related to it, the fact that women are much more likely to be injured by it for obvious sexual-dimorphism related reasons, theories behind it, legislation such as VAWA, crisis shelters, and so on. So it’s easy for me to say, “What a monster. Just another man using violence to oppress and control a woman.”

But as a person studying to be a speech therapist with an emphasis on and clinical experience with brain injuries, and as the daughter of a parent who suffered a brain injury as well as repeated subconcussive traumas related to his employment, which literally involved getting kicked in the head hundreds of times. He wore a padded helmet, but helmets don’t do much to protect the brain from hitting the inside of the skull or suffering rotational torsion resulting in axonal microtearing, I just can’t get on the “Ray Rice is an evil abuser/Janay Rice is a typical helpless woman, economically dependant on her abuser” bandwagon. It’s just too ableist for me.

The NFL is, from my perspective, an organization that exists to pay relatively young, largely ethnic-minority men, obscene amounts of money in order to incur repeated head trauma for the amusement of fans. Repeated subconcussive traumas lead to a condition called Chronic Traumaticc Encephalopathy, or CTE. CTE is a form of early-onset dementia. So far, 33 NFL players have been diagnosed post-mortem with the condition. Because of the nature of the condition – microtears in neural axons resulting in the deposition/accumulation of something called Tau proteins in the damaged areas of the brain, such as areas controlling executive function, attention, memory, emotional regulation – basically, any cognitive function can be affected by CTE.

How many concussions does it take to get CTE? We don’t know. We do know that a 21 year old named Owen Thomas was diagnosed with CTE after he committed suicide. Until late last year, when UCLA developed a PET scan method that identified Tau protein deposition in 5 living former football players, CTE could only be diagnosed post-mortem via autopsy. At the moment, there’s no objective evidence that Ray Rice’s behavior is the result of CTE – it’s possible he’s just an evil stereotype, or that he has another mental illness – but it’s not that far-fetched, given his age and employment (he has been in the NFL for about 4 years). A quick google returned a list of numerous injuries to other parts of his body, implying collision forces that would be more than adequate to sustain subconcussive trauma.

So what does this mean for the Rice family? It offers another explanation as to why she is staying with him and why he had a violent outburst and attacked someone very close to him. If he were an elderly parent with dementia, I don’t think anyone would be saying Janay should abandon him because he’s clearly an abusive bastard. We understand that as people age, they experience cognitive decline, which can include aggression and confusion (especially at night – it’s called “sundowning”). What I’m saying is that Ray Rice deserves the same compassion as anyone else with a head injury, and Janay Rice deserves at least for us to hear her out and not assume she’s some poor battered wife who can’t leave because she’s ‘economically dependent’ on him. Sometimes people stay because they love their partner and don’t want to abandon them when they need support the most – when they develop a mental illness that affects their behavior.

Featured image is Ray and Janay Rice, holding hands and walking towards a press conference.

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Yessenia is a graduate student studying to be a speech therapist with an emphasis on traumatic brain injuries. She spends far too much time correcting the wrong people on the internet, lifting heavy things and training her cats. She's a proud internet atheist and trolls only for the greater good.

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