Sports Law • Risk Management

October 11, 2010: Head Injuries and Criminal Behavior

Should an athlete who commits a crime be treated differently in court? How about if it is an athlete who sustained a head injury from playing in a contact sport and whose judgment was impaired due to the trauma of the head injury? The connection between head injuries and criminal behavior is not so tenuous.

An article in The New York Times (“The Times”) by Alan Schwarz published July 26, 2010 explained how the National Football League (“NFL”) released a poster to warn professional football players of the possibility of concussions. The NFL, however, is not the only group addressing concussions and head injuries. As explained in my September 23, 2010 blog “Concussion Discussion in Congress Ramps Up,” Congress is considering passing legislation to set standards for when youth athletes can return to sports following a head injury. Therefore, head injuries in sports are a recognized problem.

Yet another group affected by head injuries are the soldiers in the military. Many soldiers training domestically and fighting abroad sustain traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. Too often those injured soldiers return home and commit crimes. Judge Ronald Crowder in Colorado Springs recognized the connection between brain injuries and criminal behavior and thus launched a Veteran’s Court which offers alternatives to jail for the criminal acts of those soldiers diagnosed with head injuries.

So consider a contact sport, like football. Football is a sport in which many heads are knocked together, which sometimes may cause concussions or other trauma to the brain. Also, some players, like some soldiers, commit crimes. Since the court in Colorado Springs recognizes how a head injury can negatively impact a person’s behavior, it seems reasonable to infer that an athlete who incurs a similar head injury might also have impaired judgment and as a result of the impairment, commit a crime.

Accordingly, athletes who have sustained head injuries and subsequently engage in criminal behavior should be offered treatment and considered for an alternative punishment to jail or to heavy fines. It is possible that some athletes, who are being shuttled through the criminal system, may have legitimate injuries caused from sports, which may explain their criminal behavior. These injured athletes who we revere on the field, deserve some consideration for odd behavior off the field. In the future, the courts and even the athletic leagues should first consider if there has been any trauma to the brain of an athlete who is charged with a crime before doling out the punishment.