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.

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