Is the NFL’s ‘Crime Epidemic’ Real?

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The late University of Chicago sociologist W.I. Thomas once said, “‘if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” That cautionary note is worth keeping in mind as we head into a new football season—a season that is blemished by the perceptions of many Americans that the NFL not only stands for the National Football League, but the “National Felon League.”

The flurry of stories this year about NFL players who have fallen afoul of the criminal law accounts in large part for that perception. A large number of disillusioned fans (not to mention sports commentators) appear to believe that one of our favorite pastimes has also become a haven for criminal activity—in a proportion far greater than the general population.

While no one would dispute the gravity of the offenses reportedly committed by individual players—nor the serious questions they have raised about the due diligence performed by coaches and managers—are the conclusions many have reached about the extent to which violence on the field is reflected in the actions of players off the field justified?

Should we be concerned that our football stars, powered perhaps by their sense of impunity or invincibility, are somehow more prone to criminal activity than the rest of us?

Up until recently, we didn’t have the requisite data to address this question.

But a new study, co-authored by myself and two colleagues at Florida State University—Wanda Leal and Marc Gertz—should bring some of those earlier perceptions back to reality, and hopefully allow us to focus on the genuine issues raised by those individual players whose off-the-field behavior is unacceptable.

We were able to produce a preliminary (albeit imperfect) comparison of arrest rates among NFL players compared to the arrest rates among males age 20-39 in the U.S. general population for the period 2000-2013, using two databases compiled together by Brent Schrotenboer of USA Today and Merrie Monteagudo of the San Diego Tribune. Although the data are not perfect, they provide the only publicly available information to date on arrests in the NFL. We then obtained comparable arrest rate figures from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s national-level summary arrest tables for that same period.

The full study is available for purchase at the Journal of Criminal Justice. A summary of our report is also available here, and several news sources have also ran stories on it including CNN, Reuters/New York Times, CBS Sports, Sporting News, and the Huffington Post.

We examined four different arrest rates: property crime, public order crime, violent crime, and total crime (which was a summation of the previous three crime categories). Unfortunately, we could not conduct any analysis on domestic violence, because the FBI national arrest rate tables do not isolate this crime type.

With that in mind, and adjusting the arrests by the relevant population in each of the two groups, we arrived at the following conclusions.

First, between 2000-2013, the U.S. general population of males aged 20-39 had a significantly higher total arrest rate than NFL players. In fact, these differences were about one and a half to two times higher. Second, for both public order violations and property crimes, once again, the U.S. general population had higher arrest rates.

Third, the findings regarding violence were mixed. In six of the 14 yearly comparisons, the NFL data showed a significantly higher violent arrest rate than the U.S. general population.

Importantly, however, the trend has been decreasing since the middle 2000s.

So, what do we take away from this?

It depends, of course, on how one looks at the half-filled glass. In most ways, the NFL crime rate “problem” is more myth than reality. At the same time, though, there are some important differences that we detected with respect to violence, as NFL players had significantly higher rates than the general population in six of the fourteen years we compared. Although our data do not permit us to examine why this may have been the case, because we did not examine individual-level predictors of crime, we think that there are some important messages that readers and those in the League office should consider.

For starters, the NFL should continue to provide training to rookies and schedule booster sessions to veterans regarding conduct on and off the field. As well, the League could lead the way in studying this problem by collecting the type of data we report on in our work, conduct the requite analysis, and then be transparent about its findings.

In an age where any type of statistic is available on any player and team, it would seem simple enough to do. For readers of The Crime Report and the public at large, there needs to be some reconsideration of the crime “epidemic” in the NFL.

The majority of NFL players do not commit crime. In fact, a great many of these players do much good in their communities, such as establishing foundations, creating scholarships, building homes, and so forth. Sadly, we often lose sight of the good that these players do in their communities.

Going forward, we hope that researchers improve upon our preliminary work in at least three ways. First, attempts should be made to compare domestic violence incidents as best as possible (unfortunately, the FBI summary arrests tables do not permit such a comparison) among NFL players and other comparison groups. Second, find ways to compare the crime rates in other major professional sports, such as baseball, hockey and basketball, in order to see how the NFL fares to its counterparts. Third, consider the extent to which income figures into the comparisons.

At a time where news and videos travel at the speed of light, we need to step back every once in a while and remind ourselves that all information is useful to some degree; but at the end of the day, bits and tweets of information do not paint a complete picture.

Alex Piquero, PhD., is Ashbel Smith Professor of Criminology and associate dean for graduate programs in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas. He welcomes your comments.

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