Outrage is easy.
Consider the NFL’s hyperactive police blotter over the past month. Aaron Hernandez was led away from his North Attleboro, Mass., home in handcuffs, charged with first-degree murder and linked to everything short of Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance. Ex-Browns rookie Ausar Walcott allegedly punched a man outside a New Jersey nightclub and earned an attempted murder charge. Ahmad Brooks is accused of smacking teammate Lamar Divens over the head with a beer bottle three times. Joe Lefeged was arrested in Washington and charged with, among other things, possession of an unregistered semi-automatic pistol.
Cue the well-worn narrative about a league on a free-fall into a “Mad Max” world of criminality. Where two or three arrests are gathered, of course, so is an alarming trend.
The problem? It’s not true.
The play is predictable. Ginned-up rants on cable-television talk shows. Forget about the rest of the world’s ills from Baltimore to Baghdad. Instead, call for psychologists on sidelines, connect on-field violence to off-field catastrophe, blurt out any wacky plan to stop these out-of-control athletes, as the relentless media cycle slurps up the bluster masquerading as insight. Don’t forget to shout down anyone who disagrees.
The reality of the NFL’s imagined crime wave is different. There isn’t one. Outraged?
Over the past decade, the arrest rate for NFL players is 2.9 percent compared to 10.8 percent for males in the general population aged 22 to 34, according to a December study by economist Stephen Bronars.
That won’t carry another sky-is-falling segment on CNN.
Those numbers mirrored the findings of a study published in the statistics magazine Chance in 1999 that NFL players, even adjusted for race, were arrested at half the rate as the rest of the population.
“It is interesting that the NFL players,” the study read, “who do earn a living largely through the exercise of their physical strength — and who may even be seen to thrive on their violent encounters on the football field — still seem to have a lower [arrest] rate than the comparable general population. … Does their greater public visibility generate restraint? Do they realize they are much more vulnerable to an expensive civil suit? Was their time in college — even though many did not graduate — a restraining influence?”
Through December, player arrests had fallen 40 percent since commissioner Roger Goodell took over in 2006 and cracked down on off-field behavior.
Take this year’s run-ins with the law. A database compiled by U-T San Diego lists 31 arrests since February’s Super Bowl. Three players were free agents when arrested; another four had cases dropped or dismissed. Five others, including Hernandez and Walcott, were cut following their incident.
Three of the four players in the past month’s cases had extended prior issues with the law that made their problems, if not predictable, unsurprising.
Even the 28 arrests of players on active rosters is less than 1 percent of the almost 3,000 players currently in the league. One percent isn’t a trend or even a half-cocked rant. One percent is lavishing attention on the outliers — tragic as they may be — in a world where good behavior doesn’t generate headlines.