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I’m a college football fan. Not really any other sports, but I love college football. This blog is going to be a tough read for some of you and I want to start off by saying I in no way condone the behavior of this man, but I do think that a lot of his story (and it’s unfortunate end) could have been different if he’d had better human connections in his life.

Former NFL player Lawrence Phillips died this week. He was found unresponsive in his prison cell and died later at a hospital in an apparent suicide.

By all accounts, Lawrence Phillips was an abuser. I am from Nebraska and I remember back in the 90’s when Phillips played football at the University of Nebraska there was a “joke” making the rounds about how the women of Nebraska felt safer every Saturday during game time because we knew where Lawrence Phillips was. He was suspended for several games due to physically assaulting his girlfriend, who also happened to be an athlete at Nebraska. He dragged her, by her hair, down three flights of stairs. He also assaulted another woman while he lived in Nebraska. He was serving 31 years in prison due to assault charges and for also driving his vehicle into a group of teens (and these are just the cases that were newsworthy). The day before the apparent suicide a judge determined that there was enough evidence to try Phillips for the death of his cellmate who was strangled earlier this year. If convicted, Lawrence Phillips was facing the death penalty.

I know it’s easy to think that it’s for the best that this man is dead and gone. It’s easy to think of it as less burden to the tax payers of California where he was incarcerated. I have no doubt that the victims of his violent crimes are breathing a sigh of relief, as are their family members. I get that, I really do.

My question though is this…what happened in Lawrence Phillips’ life that ended up with him unresponsive in a prison cell? He was born a beautiful little baby just like all of us. Where did his life veer so drastically off course?

I didn’t know him personally, but from what I have read about him, and from what I remember hearing about his story while he played for my team, this man was traumatized. Lawrence Phillips was bounced around in foster homes, group homes, etc. as a kid. Even before being removed from his mother’s care, he was witness to her being physically abused by more than one man. Not only was he witness to his mother’s abuse, but he was targeted by the men she brought into their lives. I read once that at the age of 11 or 12 Phillips was knocked unconscious by his mother’s boyfriend when he came to her aid while she was being beaten by the boyfriend. He had no positive male role model in his life before leaving his mother’s care. When he was in high school he started to play football – a sport at which he excelled. He had coaches at this point that were strong influences on the young Lawrence Phillips (so strong in fact that he regularly wrote them letters from prison). He caused trouble off the field, but the adults in his life were more apparently more concerned with him making the next big game than they were with trying to help him figure out why he resorted to violence. This happened at the collegiate level as well. As I mentioned, I’m a huge college football fan, but even I have a tough time wrapping my brain around how an athlete can have run-in after run-in with the law and still suit up for the game. Again and again the people around Lawrence Phillips did whatever they had to do in order for him to make the game and score the points.

Some of Phillips’ former team mates came under fire for expressing grief and sympathy at his death. Many people out there in the public believe he got what he deserved. And again, I cannot stress this enough…I do not condone violence; I do not mean to diminish the feelings of his victims or their families; and, I abhor domestic violence especially. However, Damon Benning (a friend of Lawrence Phillips’) perhaps said it best: “he was a hurt person. And hurt people…hurt people.” It’s probably easier to think of the Lawrence Phillips of the world as evil or bad or worthless, instead of thinking they are hurt. It’s probably easier to think that time in prison or death is exactly what they deserve instead of trying to dig deeper and understand what has caused a person to be violent, so incredibly violent.

Maybe it’s because we teach about trauma, but in my mind I keep wondering if someone – anyone – had helped this guy address his trauma is it possible that he would not have victimized others? Is it possible that he would have seen his value as a human being off the football field? Is it possible that he could have broken the cycle of abuse? Is it possible that Lawrence Phillips would not have ended his life at the age of 40 in a prison cell in California? I mean, let’s face it folks. If the 6th guy picked during the first round of the NFL draft can end up dead on a concrete floor in prison, what’s to keep others with not so bright futures from ending up there? This pattern will continue. The names may be different but the stories will be strikingly similar. That’s what scares me. That’s what frustrates me.

Nikki Wince – Faculty Supervisor

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