What Do Arrests Data Really Say About NFL Players And Crime?

You can find all kinds of data about all the arrests in the NFL; tracking the alleged criminal behavior of football players has become something of a cottage industry unto itself. The San Diego Union-Tribune has a comprehensive database from 2000 to the present. Reddit user Mario Wolf has some charts on arrests sorted by team, division, and time of year. And The Sports Geeks offers a neat interactive timeline of all 664 incidents.

Context is a little harder to find. Six hundred sixty-four arrests seems like a lot. (Well, actually, given the news regarding Kaluka Maiava and Alfonzo Dennard within the last day, it's 666 arrests since January 2000. The NFL should root for one more arrest, ASAP.) That's a big, spooky number—big enough, especially when one of those 666 is Aaron Hernandez, to conclude the NFL has a Serious Problem. Does it?

To assess, we calculated the yearly arrest rate per 1,000 NFL players, by type of crime, based on 1,696 active players each season (53 roster spots multiplied by 32 teams). One note: Each NFL season has more active players than roster spots, so the arrest rate we've produced here is actually a little overstated.

By my count, the three most common charges in the NFL database were DUI, assault/battery (including domestic violence), and drug possession, with 72 percent of all incidents including at least one of these charges. Below, we compare the NFL arrest rates for these offenses, plus weapons charges, to the arrest rates for the country as a whole in 2010.

What Do Arrests Data Really Say About NFL Players And Crime?

At first glance, this looks not so great for the league. With 7.4 annual assault/battery/domestic charges per thousand players, the league saw 34 percent more arrests for these violent crimes than the general population; 8.3 annual DUI charges per thousand was 81 percent higher than the U.S. average; and 2.2 weapons charges per thousand was 324 percent (!) higher. NFL players faced only 4.2 drug charges per thousand, which was actually 20 percent lower than the U.S. as a whole.* (We can guess why: The NFL tests for recreational drugs during the season, so there's one good reason not to use them, and some drugs also make it awfully hard to compete at the highest athletic level.)

But comparing NFL players to the general population does us little good. NFL players are all adult men, and adult men are more likely to be arrested than the population at large. How do those numbers look?

What Do Arrests Data Really Say About NFL Players And Crime?

Compared with their peers, these players were 11 percent less likely to get a DUI (8.3 per thousand compared to 9.4 for adult males), 23 percent less likely to get an assault charge (7.4 vs. 9.6), and 59 percent less likely to get a drug charge (4.2 vs. 10.4). The NFL's problem is the one Bob Costas identified: NFL players were still more than twice as likely as the average man to face a weapons charge (2.2 vs. 1.0).

(One last note: The average NFL player is younger and blacker than the average American adult male, factors which make him even more likely to be arrested. We opted not to adjust for those factors, in favor of producing the most straightforward comparison.)

*73 percent of NFLers' drug arrests were for weed only, compared to a national average of around 50 percent.