No, Seriously, the NFL Really Does Have a Domestic Violence Problem

Roger Goodell
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

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On Monday, two days after Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend and then committed suicide, I wrote about domestic violence and the NFL. In that post, I looked at a San Diego Union-Tribune database of NFL arrest records and searched for incidents domestic violence or sexual assault. I found that 21 of 32 NFL teams, at one point this year, had employed a player with a domestic violence or sexual assault charge on his record.

That’s a pretty striking factoid, but it doesn’t necessarily mean anything statistically. I estimated that about 2 percent of rostered NFL players in 2012 have been charged with an intimate violence crime. (This estimate assumes the standard 53-man roster.) How do NFL players stack up to the public at large?

The data are inconclusive. The most recent year for which the Bureau of Justice Statistics has comprehensive arrest data is 2010. That year, according to the Union-Tribune database, 8 NFL players were charged with intimate violence crimes, which equates to 4.7 players out of 1000. (The numbers are similar for 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009.) According to the BJS Arrest Data Analysis Tool, in 2010, approximately 600 out of every 100,000 men—6 out of 1,000—were arrested for “other assaults,” a category that includes but is not limited to non-rape intimate violence crimes. This includes all men, not just those in the NFL age bracket; it also includes all assaults, not just intimate violence assaults.

There’s no single source that contains indisputable numbers on domestic violence and its perpetrators. (Discrepancies can occur based on survey methodology and other factors.) The recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report “Intimate Partner Violence, 1993-2010” found that, from 2009 to 2010, 5.9 out of 1,000 women fell victim to intimate violence crimes—defined as rape, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, or simple assault committed by a current or former spouse or significant other. (The data were derived from the National Crime Victimization Survey, the most authoritative source in existence for information about the nature of crime incidents.) Two out of 1000 married women were victims of those sorts of crimes. However, the report also includes incidents that were never reported to the police. Another BJS report found that about 46 percent of intimate partner crimes from 2006-2010 were never reported.

Obviously, the NFL arrests database doesn’t include crimes that weren’t reported to the police, which makes it hard to compare NFL arrests against the NCVS statistics. What has been shown in research is that professional athletes are much less likely to be convicted of intimate violence crimes than are non-athletes. 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.”

Does the NFL have a domestic violence problem? Perhaps not, if you strictly interpret that question to mean, Can you prove conclusively that the rate of domestic violence charges against NFL players exceed the national average? But that’s an excessively narrow interpretation. The NFL does have a problem in the inconsistency with which it treats offenders and minimizes their alleged crimes. NFL executives and coaches talk tough on domestic violence but don’t really follow through. On Monday, I mentioned that 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh told his players that he will forgive them for anything except striking a woman. Well, in 2008, Ahmad Brooks literally punched a woman in the face, allegedly giving her a black eye and causing her to black out. Brooks is now starting for the 49ers. In a recent story about Brooks’ outstanding play, the assault is referred to euphemistically as “past troubles.” (For what it’s worth, the woman Brooks allegedly punched was a stranger he encountered on the street, so let’s count this as “violence against women” rather than “intimate violence.”)

Teams have an incentive to hire and play the best players, regardless of how they behave off the field. The courts don’t seem to be doling out justice, either. So who’s going to take responsibility?

It needs to be Commissioner Roger Goodell, who recently expressed the need for the NFL “to do some things to combat this problem.” What should he do? In the next CBA, the NFL should codify specific player behavior guidelines that establish clear disciplinary consequences for domestic violence.

Of course, you don’t want to subject a player to unwarranted punishment if the charges against him are eventually dismissed. But in her Harvard Law Review article, Bethany Withers suggests that disciplinary bodies can examine 911 calls and police incident reports to establish a pattern of abusive behavior. She notes that the police had made seven domestic dispute-related visits to former Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall’s house before he first stood trial. Marshall was eventually acquitted in that case “despite the fact that seven photographs of the mouth, face, neck, eye, and thigh of Rasheedah Watley, the alleged victim, taken on two different occasions were entered as evidence of Marshall’s guilt,” Withers writes. This March, Marshall was accused of punching a woman at a nightclub. (His attorney claimed in May that the receiver has been cleared of those charges, but the NYPD disagreed with that characterization.) [Update, 10 p.m.: The NYPD has confirmed to me that the Marshall case is still ongoing.]

What sort of punishment has Marshall gotten from the NFL? The receiver was suspended for three games by Goodell in 2008, but it was reduced to one game on appeal. To put that into perspective, players who take Adderall get suspended for four games. Does the NFL have a problem with violence against women? From where I sit, the answer is obvious.