The fall from grace of Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez should be no surprise. Football is a violent game, war by other means (albeit with black-and-white-striped referees). Here we have young men, taught from an early age to be brutal and then handed extraordinary riches for acting savagely. Conceived of this way, the remarkable thing about the Hernandez saga is not the charge of one murder (and perhaps three), but that it doesn’t happen more frequently. The boundaries of civilization that constrain most people don’t apply to NFL athletes. They can do whatever they want, indulging in their darkest and most vicious impulses mostly without consequence.
There is a surface appeal to the above, and I suspect more than a few reading it are nodding their heads in agreement. But it is also, utterly, nonsense. According to crime reports, NFL pros are not, on the whole, more prone to behaving badly than the rest of us. If anything, they are more law-abiding. And from there should pop the balloon of commentary that has followed Hernandez, commentary that has struggled to find the meaning of it all, as if one arrest must somehow tell us something important and deep about sports and ourselves. It doesn’t. Hernandez is — allegedly — a bad man. There are bad people everywhere, in all walks of life. And some of them, it turns out, happen to be famous.
The myth about crime and professional athletes arises because it’s easy to find examples. New York Giants star Plaxico Burress went to prison in 2009 on a firearms charge. Last year Jovan Belcher, of the Kansas City Chiefs, murdered his girlfriend and then committed suicide. Even as media everywhere were intently focused on Hernandez, the Cleveland Browns were cutting rookie Ausar Walcott after he was charged with attempted murder. In fact, a shocking 29 NFL players have been arrested since the 2013 Super Bowl ended.
But anecdotes can hide truth, not reveal it. It seems as if NFL players are committing so many crimes because every time they do, they make the news. It’s the same kind of thinking that leads people to erroneously believe air travel is more dangerous than automobile. Every time a plane goes down we read about it. Car crashes go largely unreported.
Two researchers writing in the academic journal Chance (published by the American Statistical Association) several years ago went through reams of data about crime and NFL players. Their perhaps startling conclusion: The rate of arrests of pro athletes for assault and domestic violence was less than half that of the general population. In other words, the football players were not more violent and in truth were markedly less so. That finding applies to other crimes as well. NFL players commit property crimes at a far lesser rate than does everyone else (perhaps not unexpectedly, given their relatively high incomes). And despite the image of NFL players as wild and crazy partiers (over 624 have been arrested for drunken driving since 2000), the drunken driving arrest rate for pro footballers is about half of that for all young men ages 20 to 29.
Of course, in the high-profile, big-money world of professional sports, any incident by a player has the potential for disaster. Pro players, especially stars, are individual marketing machines, hawking everything from clothing to automobiles. One misstep has a far greater consequence for others when it is committed by a well-known athlete (no one, for example, is buying a jersey with my name on the back). So it makes sense that the Patriots and the NFL quickly cut their ties with Hernandez — and in all likelihood will in the future be even more careful in scrutinizing the backgrounds and temperaments of those they employ.
Still, it’s a far step from there to claiming that the arrest of Hernandez proves the Patriots have “lost their way” or that there’s some deep, festering problem in the NFL. The violence inherent in the game does not, it turns out, somehow spill over to players’ personal lives; what happens on the field stays on the field. Coaches like to tell their charges that sports “build character.” The lower arrest rate of NFL athletes gives those homilies a ring of truth.
Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org