Last week, the NFL suspended Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for two games over an incident in which Rice was charged with knocking his fiancee (now wife) unconscious during an altercation in a New Jersey casino. Many have criticized this suspension as too lenient, particularly compared to the usual four-game suspension handed down for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Whether Rice’s punishment is fair touches on a number of delicate issues, including the NFL’s history and role in punishing off-field conduct, as well as its authority and obligations under the collective bargaining agreement.
But Rice’s offense — he pleaded not guilty and instead will participate in a pretrial intervention program — is indicative of a larger pattern in arrests of NFL players; they have been particularly prone to domestic violence arrests.
Although there seems to be an endless stream of stories about NFL player arrests and misconduct, this is largely because there are a lot of NFL players (and they’re famous). At the league’s peak (during training camps), there are about 2,560 players attached to NFL teams (limit 80 each). As I’ll show, arrest rates among NFL players are quite low compared to national averages for men in their age range — but there are some types of crimes that trail the pack significantly.
This data was tricky to work with. For NFL arrests, the most comprehensive source I could find was the USA Today NFL Arrests Database, which goes back to 2000 and is updated through the present (I calculated rates based on the 2,560 players per year estimate). For national arrest trends, I used the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Arrest Data Analysis Tool to find the arrest rates per 100,000 for the male population in the 25-to-29 age group (this group is the most similar to the NFL as a whole, where the average team age varies from 25 to 27 years old). The difficulty is that the two sources code offenses differently, so I had to make several grouping choices. There’s a full explanation of my methodology at the end of this piece.
As you would expect from a much more affluent group (e.g. the poverty rate among NFL players is zero), NFL players have much lower arrest rates than average — basically across the board:
The most common arrests among the general public are for drug-related offenses and DUIs. The most common among NFL players is DUI, with assault a distant second. Overall, NFL players’ arrest rate is just 13 percent of the national average. But this isn’t distributed evenly across crimes in the slightest:
Note that murder scores relatively high, but the raw numbers are extremely low (there are two in the database, though a third case — domestic in nature — resulted in suicide). But there are 83 domestic violence arrests, making it by far the NFL’s worst category — with a relative arrest rate of 55.4 percent.
Although this is still lower than the national average, it’s extremely high relative to expectations. That 55.4 percent is more than four times worse than the league’s arrest rate for all offenses (13 percent), and domestic violence accounts for 48 percent of arrests for violent crimes among NFL players, compared to our estimated 21 percent nationally.
Moreover, relative to the income level (top 1 percent) and poverty rate (0 percent) of NFL players, the domestic violence arrest rate is downright extraordinary. According to a 2002 Bureau of Justice Statistics Report covering 1993 to 1998, the domestic victimization rate for women in households with income greater than $75,000 (3.3 per 100,000) was about 39 percent of the overall rate (8.4 per 100,000), and less than 20 percent of the rate for women ages 20 to 34. That report doesn’t include cross-tabs, and it’s a little out of date (more current data is harder to find because more recent BJS reports on the issue do not include income breakdowns), but that sub-20 percent relative victimization among high-income households is consistent with the NFL’s 13 percent relative arrest rate overall (arrest disparities between income levels are probably even greater than victimization rates).
Indeed, perhaps the question of how the NFL should “police” its players is the wrong analogy entirely. This situation may be more akin to tort law than criminal law: If the NFL is capable of reducing any harm its players are causing — whether through harsher suspensions or other policies targeting behavior — it may have a legal (or at least moral) duty to do so.
Methodology: Now, I’m not experienced working with crime data, so I apologize if I grouped things unconventionally:
- Assault: The BJS statistics make a distinction between aggravated assault and regular assault (the NFL data does not), but they don’t break out battery, attempted murder or manslaughter (NFL data does). So I’ve grouped all of these under “assaults” on both sides.
- Sex offenses: The BJS statistics break down sex crimes into rape and non-rape, while the NFL arrest data is broken down by assault and non-assault. Therefore, I’ve combined those categories on each side into “sex offenses.”
- Gun-related: Because the BJS data specifically says its gun data is of the carrying/possession variety, I’ve combined other types of gun offenses in the NFL data with their respective crimes instead of in their own group.
- Prostitution-related: The NFL data breaks out pimping and solicitation, and the BJS summary data doesn’t, so I’ve combined these into “prostitution-related.”
- Disorderly conduct: In the NFL data, it appears that some “disorderly conduct”-type crimes are listed individually, and some aren’t. I took my best guess and included everything that sounded like disorderly conduct, including: alcohol-related crimes, resisting arrest, criminal mischief, disturbing the peace, evading police and public intoxication.
- Drugs: There were 11 cases in which a player was arrested in connection with something nonviolent while in possession of both drugs and guns. Because it was unclear to me whether all of those guns were illegal or not, I grouped these as drug offenses.
- Domestic violence: The BJS summary data bunches domestic crimes with their respective counterparts. Because the vast majority of these are assault cases, I’ve broken down its assault data into domestic and nondomestic, based on another BJS report which states that approximately 21 percent of violent crimes are domestic. (How exactly that translates into arrests is very tricky; I tried calculating it from the huge National Incident-Based Reporting System data set myself and got a tentative number closer to 15 percent, but to be conservative, I’ve stuck with the 21 percent baseline for purposes of this analysis).
- Finally, note, of course, I’m not saying that all of the players arrested are guilty, and only a small number are ever prosecuted or disciplined (which is also true to varying degrees for the general public).