Ray Rice, running back for the Baltimore Ravens, was recently arrested for savagely assaulting his wife and was subsequently suspended from the National Football League (NFL) indefinitely for his behavior. If the NFL is serious about addressing violence – domestic and otherwise – they need to adopt a system that detects those players likely to be violent and connect them with treatment that can effectively reduce aggression. The same type of health approach used by Cure Violence to address neighborhood violence can be used to address violence among NFL players.
Thus far, the NFL’s response has been to harshly penalize Rice, sending a message to other players and to the public that this type of behavior is not tolerated. This is an important step in establishing the norms that reject this type of destructive violence. However, punishment itself has proven ineffective at changing overall behavior – meaning that if there are other players in the NFL who are abusive, they are unlikely to seek help to stop violent behavior. Players may be more careful about engaging in violence in public, but without treatment, they will continue to be violent in private.
A health approach to violence intervention in the NFL would designate active or former players to seek out the players on each team who exhibit symptoms of being violent – either through talking to other players or by using established public health screening tools. Once identified, these players would then be assessed for issues they face that increase their risk of violence and proactively connected to services to alleviate violent tendencies and provide an ongoing support structure.
This health approach has been very successful in dealing with many types of violence. The program has reduced group violence in British juvenile prisons, sectarian violence in Iraq and Syria and street violence in more than 50 sites around the world. A similar approach in the NFL would prevent the type of brutal violence exhibited by Ray Rice. Punishment alone will not stop this from happening again. Violence will only cease if we acknowledge that those who are prone to behaving violently have issues that must be addressed to prevent violent behavior.