Last night men scored and women hurt

Only a game? Super Bowl Sunday is the high point of the year for millions of American males and the low point for American females - it is when a record number get beaten to a pulp. By Daniel Jeffreys

The Dallas Cowboys had just scored a touchdown during last year's Super Bowl when Theresa Brandon's husband hit her with a beer bottle. With blood dripping from her torn scalp, the 27-year-old ran into the street outside her Pittsburgh home. A passing motorist took her to hospital, where she became the eighth victim of domestic violence admitted that day.

"The weekends always see an increase in assaults," says Toni Collins, of the Domestic Violence Project in Los Angeles. "But on Super Bowl Sunday there is typically a 50 per cent increase in calls to police and battered women shelters. That's well above the average."

The Super Bowl, the 31st playing of which took place last night between the Green Bay Packers and the New England Patriots, is a three-hour national celebration of American machismo. Fuelled by beer and testosterone, fans use it as an annual opportunity to get drunk and rowdy. Once they get home, small arguments can rapidly accelerate into big fights, with their wives and girlfriends falling foul of their frustration.

"We were arguing about the car," says Theresa. "I asked him to get it washed before Monday morning. He decided to make something of it and I guess he lost his temper." Like more than a third of domestic abuse victims, Theresa decided not to press charges. In return, her husband agreed to enter a treatment programme.

Toni Collins expects that by this morning, 3,000 women will have filed reports of battering. "There are other weekends in the year when abuse rises sharply, but Super Bowl Sunday is the example that sticks out."

This year, like the last two, Super Bowl commercial breaks included a spot appealing for men to be peaceable, while offering women advice on what to do if they were not. There was also something new, a telephone number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH). The service was introduced in February 1996 and is already having a revolutionary impact on the treatment and detection of abuse.

"It's a nationwide service which has been heavily advertised, and that means many more women are reporting abuse," says Gayle Phillips, a director of the NDVH. "A study in 1995 showed that only 14 per cent of women who are beaten by their spouses or boyfriends ever called the police, and before NDVH not every part of the country had its own hotline. Those areas that did were reliant on charity, and could not advertise widely."

The National Hotline is funded by the federal government and can advertise in the most coveted spots on network TV. "We ran one of our ads after a new episode of ER last year and the phones did not stop ringing for 24 hours," says Ms Phillips. "After a movie that featured an abusive relationship, we ran two spots and got more than 3,000 calls in two days."

One surprising aspect of the hotline calls is their class composition. The vast majority of domestic abuse cases pursued by the police involve "blue-collar" families. At NDVH they have seen a much higher percentage of middle-class women calling for help.

"Domestic violence in poorer homes more rapidly escalates to a pitch where hospitalisation is necessary," says Toni Collins. "In wealthier homes it can continue undetected for years; the wife risks losing much more in social esteem if the police are suddenly at her door, so she suffers in silence."

By the end of this year the NDVH expects to be receiving 10,000 calls a month. It has already reached an average of 7,500. That's a much bigger number than past figures for all the local abuse lines added together. "Women are telling us they feel a much greater responsiveness by the police and public to the issue of domestic violence," says Ms Phillips. "That's just as well, because the National Hotline has told us for the first time how big the problem has become. It's an epidemic."

In the US, in 1995, females aged 12 and older suffered almost 5 million violent attacks, according to the Justice Department's National Crime Victimization Survey. Nearly 75 per cent of those attacks were committed by offenders known to the victim, usually a husband, boyfriend or father. With the setting-up of the NDVH, the figures for 1996 and 1997 are likely to be much higher, suggesting that the US is suffering a plague of wife- beating.

Researchers at the Battered Women's Unit of New York's Pace University have identified economic adversity as the main cause of extreme domestic violence. "Job insecurity has soared," says the unit's director, Michael Dowd. "Wall Street has gone through the roof because of fatter profit margins, often achieved after firms forced employees to work harder with little improvement in their take-home pay. The result is a tired, insecure and poorly rewarded workforce, and that's bound to produce a marked increase in domestic tension."

So take a hard-working guy with too many bills to pay, fill him full of beer and let him watch men in shoulder pads knock hell out of each other for three hours. Shake, stir and send home to his wife. It's the kind of cocktail that has left Sonya Bailey permanently in hospital. "Her husband came home and beat her," says Bonnie Campbell, director of the White House Violence Against Women office. "He then tied her feet and ankles, after which he stuffed her into the trunk of their car. For the next six days he drove from bar to bar between Kentucky and West Virginia, occasionally taking her out for another beating."

Last November Sonya Bailey's husband became the first man convicted of interstate domestic violence, a new offence for which he was sentenced to life. "That's nothing compared to his wife's sentence," says Campbell. "She will never hear again, talk again, see again or walk again. Now that we are hearing from more abused women we must make sure men know that it's a crime, and that means mandatory arrest and harsher sentences."

The NDVH's Gayle Phillips supports that. "In the Eighties the police were reluctant to arrest or prosecute offenders," she says. "Many judges wondered out loud what the women had done to provoke their menfolk. As a result we tried to get women away from their husbands into shelters. In too many cases the husbands followed, and waited for an opportunity to strike again. Studies show that women who attempt to leave abusive relationships are five times more likely to be killed than those who remain. That can't happen if the assailants are locked away."

Despite the extra risk of assault if discovered, the NDVH does advise women who feel their life is in danger to prepare an "escape pack", which should include vital documents, a packed suitcase, emergency money and emergency telephone numbers.

Some prominent psychiatrists in the States, however, have begun to argue that mandatory arrest for domestic violence is the wrong answer, one that can even escalate the violence of more serious offenders. "Harsher penalties are not a panacea," says Dr Linda Mills, at the University of California in Los Angeles. "They are often threatening to the woman as well as the man, because she risks losing somebody who may be crucial to her for cultural, emotional and financial reasons. Ideally, abuse should be worked out within the relationship."

Which is what Theresa Brandon has been trying to do since Super Bowl Sunday last year. "Lots of my friends said I should leave," she says. "That's not so easy. We have a little boy and there aren't many jobs where I could earn enough to support him and me plus a child-minder. I've given my husband another chance."

Nobody concerned with preventing domestic abuse has yet suggested banning the Super Bowl, but various bodies have suggested that the National Football League, which runs the event, should help fund research and information campaigns, including free advertising space at the big game for the NDVH toll-free number. If the NDVH has received the anticipated surge in calls after Sunday's final whistle, that suggestion may become irresistible.

In the meantime, scientists will search for something that explains why the US is in the grip of its worst spate of domestic abuse in decades. The Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta, which usually studies epidemics such as the Ebola virus and Aids, now has 11 projects devoted to studying spousal abuse. It is to be hoped they will have some answers by the time next year's Super Bowl arrives n

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