Does the NFL Have a Crime Problem?

The horrific crimes committed by NFL players in the past ten days have prompted many to ask a logical question: Does the NFL have a crime problem?  The tragic murder of Kassandra Perkins by Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Javon Belcher, who committed suicide in front of coaches and team personnel, cast a pall over last weekend’s games.  This weekend Josh Brent was arrested for drunk-driving and manslaughter for a car accident that killed Cowboys teammate Jerry Brown.  While police are still investigating why Belcher killed the mother of his young daughter and took his own life, Brent had been arrested in college for drunk-driving making the tragic accident that killed Brown even more senseless and depressing.  All NFL players should not be painted with a broad brush, despite the inexcusable actions of Belcher and Brent.  NFL players are arrested about one-fourth as often as men age 22 to 34 in the general population.

Over the past decade there have been 489 arrests of NFL players for offenses more serious than speeding (and lesser traffic violations).  These data are based on the San Diego Union Tribune’s arrests database for NFL players that I update with a recent story by Fox Sports.  On average this amounts to one arrest per 35 players per year, or about 1.5 arrests per team per year.  The arrest rate for NFL players has averaged about 2.9% compared to 10.8% for men age 22 to 34 (based on FBI crime data by age for men in 2009).  Commissioner Roger Goodell is not satisfied with an arrest rate that is merely below the average for men in the U.S.  As the graph below indicates arrests of NFL players were increasing until Goodell became commissioner in 2006.  Since then the number of NFL players arrested per year has fallen by about 40%.


All players are not equally likely to be arrested.  A simple analysis of the arrest data establish a clear difference in arrests by position:

  • Wide Receivers accounted for more than 1 out of 6 arrests
  • Cornerbacks accounted for about 1 out of 7 arrests
  • Linebackers accounted for 1 out of 8 arrests
  • Punters and Kickers accounted for 1 out of 82 arrests
  • Offensive Guards accounted for only 1 out of 98 arrests

There are also clear differences in arrest rates by team.  Four teams had substantially more arrests than the NFL average of about 15 arrests every 10 years.  Over the past decade 36 Minnesota Vikings, 29 Tennessee Titans and 28 Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos have been arrested.  The Arizona Cardinals, New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers had less than half as many arrests as the typical NFL team since 2003.

It should  be emphasized that for NFL players (and all persons arrested), an arrest is only an arrest and does not mean that the player was guilty of the crime for which he had been arrested. 

The serious and tragic crimes committed by NFL players in the past 10 days are shocking and disturbing to sports fans.  However, a closer look at arrests of NFL players shows that they have a much lower arrest rate than men of a similar age in the general population.  Moreover, the arrests of NFL players have fallen by 40% in the past six years as Roger Goodell has made it a priority to reduce bad behavior off the field.  NFL players should not all be judged based on the serious crimes committed by two players.

Note: In 2009 the FBI reported 2.88 million arrests of men age 22 to 34 for offenses more serious than speeding and traffic violations (but including drunk-driving).  the Census Bureau reports that the civilian population of men age 22 to 34 was about 26.6 million in 2010.


  1. You write, “All NFL players should not be painted with a broad brush, despite the inexcusable actions of Belcher and Brown.” You mean “Belcher and Brent,” right?

  2. I counted 44 for 2012 in the database even with none coming after the 12/9 date for this blog post.

    Meanwhile, shouldn’t we be looking at this against the rest of the sports leagues? When discussing the crime problem in the NFL, that is often the background against which I’ve heard it set up and that unquestionably is still at play.

    According to the data here –

    The NFL is positively lapping the field at a 3/1 rate when comparing NFL against the other three of the “big four” COMBINED. Yes, NBA, MLB, and NHL tally just 15 arrests in that data compared to 48 for the NFL (even if we use the 44 I counted in the Tribune database, it’s still 3/1).

    Is the league improving? Sure, since the 2006 high point, they are improving. Do they still have a problem when it comes to professional athletes getting arrested? Unquestionably, and it’s a huge problem.

  3. Police arrest your everyday normal young man all the time, a lot of times with very little provocation. The same is not true for NFL players.

    So forget about arrest rates. Tell me about conviction rates….


  1. […] problem, though tangible information would seem to rebut that. The detain rate for NFL players has averaged about 2.9 percent over a final decade, roughly a fourth a 10.8 percent detain rate for males between a ages of 22 and […]

  2. […] lives of men we pay to treat their crania as projectiles. Of course, NFL players are arrested at a much lower rate than men of the same demographic in the general public, but this hysteria isn’t so much about […]

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  4. […] perhaps the defining statistic of the entire column, Zirin said, “In a study last December by  Stephen Bronars, ‘NFL players are arrested about one-fourth as often as men age 22 to 34 in the general […]

  5. […] constitute around 1% of all players vying for NFL roster spots. Also, in a study last December by Stephen Bronars, “NFL players are arrested about one-fourth as often as men age 22 to 34 in the general […]

  6. […] According to Bronars, the national average of arrest for men that are between the ages of 22-34 is 10.8 percent. […]

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