Does The NFL Have A Crime Problem? It’s Complicated

Aaron Hernandez at a court hearing Wednesday. (Credit: AP)

The arrest of Aaron Hernandez on murder and gun charges Wednesday morning has sparked another conversation about crime in the National Football League, one that pops up seemingly every time the league experiences a rash of arrests. Hernandez’s was the 27th arrest of an NFL player since the Super Bowl in February; it was the first of two arrests relating to violent crime charges Wednesday alone.

The oft-repeated 27 arrests statistic has fed the idea that the NFL has a crime problem, but actual data would seem to refute that. The arrest rate for NFL players has averaged about 2.9 percent over the last decade, roughly a fourth the 10.8 percent arrest rate for males between the ages of 22 and 34 over the same period, according to economist Stephen Bronars. And over the last seven years, the NFL’s rate is dropping. After peaking at 64 in 2006, the number of arrests has steadily fallen since, Bronars found:

So why does the idea of the NFL’s “crime problem” persist? Part of it is that an arrested football player is an immediate media story. It drives news coverage for both sports and general news outlets, and there are a variety of angles: not only is the crime intriguing, but so is whether it will lead to suspensions or disciplinary action that could impact the player’s team or fantasy football owners. Every arrest, then, is ripe for a media feeding frenzy, and racial bias around a league where minorities make up 67 percent of players only feeds it more.

But the problem isn’t one of perception alone, particularly when it comes to domestic violence and sexual assault. NFL players may not commit such crimes at an equal rate to the general population, but in the past, they’ve been convicted of them far less often, as Slate’s Justin Peters wrote after Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend and then killed himself in December:

In a 1997 study, Northeastern University’s Jeffrey Benedict and Alan Klein found that the athletes in their sample who were charged with sexual assault were only convicted 31 percent of the time, compared with a 54 percent conviction rate for the general population. In 1995, Maryann Hudson at the Los Angeles Times found that athletes charged with domestic violence were only convicted 36 percent of the time, compared with a 77 percent general conviction rate. In a 2010 Harvard Law Review article, Bethany Withers wrote that “conviction rates for athletes are astonishingly low compared to the arrest statistics. Though there is evidence that the responsiveness of police and prosecution to sexual assault complaints involving athletes is favorable, there is an off-setting pro-athlete bias on the part of juries.”

What happens, then, is that the already-existing perception of a crime problem clashes with another perception — that the perpetrators aren’t being held accountable — and this second belief may be closer to reality. When fans can’t turn on a game without seeing someone who’s been arrested on the field, the idea that a crime problem exists is much easier to believe.

It’s good that the NFL gives players, particularly those like Michael Vick and others who have served their time and paid their penance, a second chance, and it’s important to remember that an arrest doesn’t always equal a conviction. It’s also good that the NFL’s arrest rate has improved, even if Roger Goodell’s decision to grant himself the power to impose suspensions and disciplinary actions sometimes seems arbitrary. But while it may not have a crime problem per se, a league whose teams, players, and actions have an outsized role in our society ought to be judged by a higher standard than the general population, particularly when it involves violent crimes, and never more so than when it involves domestic violence and sexual assault. The good news is that, if the suspensions and declining arrest rates are an indication, the NFL is both conscious of that and intent on improving even more.