NFL arrests overhyped
James Alan Fox 6:18 p.m. EDT
September 27, 2015
football players less criminal than general population.
With the ink
barely dry on its federal appeal to reinstate Tom Brady’s suspension for
“more probabl(y) than not” being “generally aware” of footballs being
purposely deflated, the NFL revealed last week that the marquee
quarterback’s jersey is the top seller this season. Apparently, a
significant share of the fan base believes Brady is innocent, or at least
was treated unjustly.
Meanwhile, the attention has shifted to more
important debates over the suitability of talented but troubled players when
they are implicated in actual crimes and misdemeanors. In early August, for
example, the San Francisco 49ers released Aldon Smith, an accomplished pass
rusher with a long history of lawbreaking, immediately after his latest
arrest for hit and run, DUI and vandalism. Smith’s free agency didn’t last
long, however, before the Oakland Raiders seized the opportunity, signing
the linebacker to a contract worth as much as $8 million.
“Aldon is an
extremely talented young player,” noted Jack Del Rio, Oakland head coach.
“We welcome him to the Raiders family and expect him to bring his best every
day and be a great teammate.”
“I’m just excited to be (part of) an
organization who looks out for their players,” Smith said after his first
game as a Raider, calling it “a fresh start.”
Meanwhile, the larger
question is whether off-the-field misbehavior is indeed a significant
problem for the NFL, or just hype. After all, every move of high-profile
athletes is scrutinized for potential headline fodder.
stream of stories about domestic violence allegations involving Ray Rice and
Ray McDonald, as well as about other crimes and other offenders, CNN,CBS and
Sporting News recently featured the surprising claim that the perception of
rampant criminality among NFL athletes is misguided.
A new study by
criminologists at the University of Texas-Dallas reported that NFL players
actually have a lower arrest rate than the general population of males ages
Upon closer scrutiny, the finding is not unexpected. NFL players
are rarely implicated in property crimes, which make up the (ahem, Detroit)
lion’s share of arrests. Why would a pro athlete who drives a Mercedes steal
a car? Why would someone earning six or seven figures shoplift?
comes to physical and sexual assault, however, NFL players do not fare as
The concern for off-the-field aggression is hardly new. From 2004
to 2007, arrests of NFL players for violent crimes spiked upward. In 2008,
the NFL implemented a policypunishing teams for having multiple suspensions.
Besides losing the services of banished players, the franchise would forfeit
part of the unpaid salaries.
To some, financial disincentives are
inadequate. “The only way to get the attention of teams inclined to roll the
dice on the Ray McDonalds of the world,” wrote Mike Florio atPro Football
Talk, “will be to attach the loss of future draft picks when a player with a
propensity for getting into trouble gets into trouble.”
approach discounts reclamation projects who thrived when given the chance.
What would have become of Carolina’s Cam Newton, Denver’s Aqib Talib, or
Pittsburgh’s Michael Vick had they been permanently barred from football or
considered untouchable by all 32 teams?
After Aaron Hernandez’s arrest on
murder charges, the New England Patriots were sharply criticized for having
signed the player to a long-term contract despite the reckless and ruthless
lifestyle away from the game that ultimately led to his murder conviction.
However, teams should be encouraged to take a chance on troubled athletes.
Many will make the most of the opportunity.
In 2013, the Patriots signed
undrafted wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins even with his lengthy history of
youthful transgressions that included seven arrests for drugs and armed
robbery. After surviving final cuts, Thompkins reflected on how playing
football was his salvation.
“I’m living in the moment … trying not to
look in my rearview mirror,” said the fleet-footed receiver. “I don’t only
love football, but I feel like I need football in my life.”
success story, there are others that turn out badly. When that happens, the
only one to blame is the disgraced athlete, not the organization that
believed in second chances.James Alan Fox, a member of the USA
TODAY Board of Contributors, is a criminologist at Northeastern University