Before asking why, ask whether

For some reason, I can’t resist hate-listening to Frank Deford’s sports commentaries on NPR’s morning edition, despite the facts that (a) I’m not much of a sports fan and (b) he has an  incredibly irritating, self-important style, intended primarily to convince the listener of his own erudition.

(Incidentally, Deford is going to share a stage with our own University of Richmond President, Ed Ayers, as a recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Medal from President Obama. Congratulations, President Ayers!)

From his latest:

More recently, we’ve tended to excuse the virtual cavalcade of criminal actions committed by players away from the gridiron. Why, 29 NFL players have been arrested just since the Super Bowl … We need to somehow clean the Aegean stables of the stink of violence.

(Speaking of pointless erudition, and leaving myself open to pot-kettle comparisons, let me note that I suspect that an editor, rather than Deford himself, is to blame for writing “Aegean” instead of “Augean.” Deford pronounces the word with a clear “Au” sound.)

Deford starts from the premise that NFL players are thugs and criminals, based on this evidence, but he never asks the obvious question: Is 29 a large number of arrests? There are, after all, a lot of NFL players.

The answer, it turns out, is no. NFL players get arrested about half as often as the US population as a whole. If you compare to men of similar ages to NFL players, instead of to the population as a whole, the difference is much greater: NFL players are arrested about 1/5 as often as their peers. The BBC programme More Or Less has the details.

In short, we seem to be in the middle of a moral panic over NFL players’ thuggery at the moment, despite the fact that the players are disproportionately law-abiding. Odd.

Of course, this comparison isn’t perfect. For one thing, NFL players are all rich (once they’ve got their contracts — not necessarily before that, of course), and crime tends to be concentrated among the poor. If you compare arrest rates for NFL players to arrest rates for people with similar incomes, presumably you’d get a different answer.

Also, the data used by More Or Less concerns all arrests. Since the chief concern seems to be whether NFL players are disproportionately violent, it might be more relevant to look at just arrests for violent crimes. Let’s give it a try.

Combining FBI and census data, it looks like about 0.5% of young men (20-35) are arrested for a violent crime per year. There are a total of over 1600 NFL players, so if NFL players are typical of their age cohort, you’d expect about 8 players per year to be arrested for a violent crime. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune’s NFL Arrests Database, the actual number is quite close to this. I can’t quite tell exactly, because I don’t have the legal expertise to know exactly which arrests are “violent crimes” according to the FBI’s definition, but looking at the past year and counting borderline cases, I can’t make the number come out above 10.

So there’s certainly not significant evidence that NFL players are more violent than their peers based on this data set.

This is not, of course, to excuse anybody’s bad behavior. In particular, the largest category of arrests (both for NFL players and young men as a whole) are for drunk driving, which is not counted as a violent crime by the FBI but is still an appalling thing to do. But when considering what to do about problems like this, it’s better to do it on the basis of actual data rather than deciding that a certain population is disproportionately violent based on confirmation bias.

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Ted Bunn

I am an associate professor of physics at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!