It was a startling two days for the image-conscious NFL.
On Wednesday last week, in Massachusetts, tight end Aaron Hernandez of the Patriots was arrested on suspicion of first-degree murder. A day earlier, in New Jersey, rookie linebacker Ausar Walcott of the Cleveland Browns was charged with attempted murder.
Both players were immediately released by their teams, but under the national media spotlight, the NFL was painted as a lawless organization.
There have been 38 arrests of NFL players this year, ranging from disorderly conduct and DUI to domestic violence and assault, according to a database kept by the San Diego Union-Tribune. But having two players arrested on murder charges in two days raised the issue of violent behavior in the NFL to a new level.
“There does appear to be a growing culture of violence and guns in and around the NFL,” said former NFL quarterback Don McPherson, a college football commentator for SNY and a social activist who often speaks to college athletes. “I say ‘appears’ because there is more to it.”
McPherson points out that the very same culture of violence and guns that touches the NFL is prevalent throughout society. In fact, the data maintained by the Union-Tribune show the NFL’s rate of arrests is lower than that of the general population.
The FBI estimated the arrest rate for 2011 at just under 4 percent – four people for every 100 were arrested that year. For the same calendar year, 48 of about 1,700 players on NFL active rosters were arrested for a rate of 2.8 percent.
“Generally, the egregious behavior of pro athletes is not much different than men across the landscape,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern University’s Sport in Society program. “We’re sort of talking about an American culture that’s rife with men behaving badly.This is a social construct problem.”
Of course, a straight comparison between NFL players and the general population is not exactly clean. NFL players have a strong support system in place from the league and teams, they have counselors at their disposal and the league offers rookie transition programs that educate players on the perils ahead of them. That system is not in place for just any young male in society.
“The NFL gets them when they’re 22 years old,” McPherson said. “A weekend seminar like the rookie transition program or three mandatory 90-minute sessions a year is not going to change 23 years of socialized behavior. They’re very immature men who, by the time they were classified as potential stars, have been really taken care of.”
On the other hand, the perception of an out-of-control band of NFL players might be overblown because every brush with the law – from speeding tickets to serious charges – is reported by the media. The high-profile incidents cloud the fact that the vast majority of NFL players are not getting arrested.
“I think at some point you can say it’s unfair,” McPherson said. “But I talk to student-athletes all the time and I say, yeah, (the attention) is unfair, but keep in mind we don’t build stadiums around the chemistry lab, right? So you have to take the good with the bad.”
There has been a steady decline in arrests over the past seven years in the NFL. In 2006, 68 NFL players were arrested. The number was at 40 last year, although that data didn’t include the murder-suicide by Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher, who killed his girlfriend before taking his own life and therefore avoided an arrest.
Halfway through this year, the 37 arrests in the NFL go against recent trends of a decline, but soon players will be in NFL camps, so the season will start, and their lives will be much more structured. Titus Young, a free agent receiver, was arrested three times (burglary, resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer) in the span of a week in May.
Georgetown (Ky.) College sociology professor Eric M. Carter spent 10 years tracking 104 NFL players for his 2009 book “Boys Gone Wild: Fame, Fortune, And Deviance Among Professional Football Players.” He found a population of athletes ill-prepared for the shift in lifestyle as they transition from unpaid college players to employees – sometimes highly-paid employees – in the NFL.
“Some of the guys got in trouble because they simply haven’t been able to handle that life shift that happens when they leave college and enter the NFL,” Carter said. “There’s this immediate star power that, in many ways, equals these unintended consequences.You go from a non-working college player – even though you have status and you have the fame and all of that, but you don’t have the $40 million contract. And what that sudden wealth and notoriety does, all of a sudden it isolates these guys from the traditional social norms that kind of govern most folks.”
Hernandez signed a seven-year, $40 million deal with the Patriots last summer; he had been paid about $10.5 million of that so far between his 2012 salary and signing bonus, according to the Boston Globe.
The NFL has focused on assisting players with the transition into the league. The NFL’s Rookie Symposium took place last week in Ohio just as the Hernandez story was unfolding. The symposium is designed to prepare incoming players for the league and offer tools for navigating life away from the game, from managing finances to managing a circle of friends.
At this year’s symposium, former NFL defensive lineman Tank Johnson – who was arrested multiple times for firearms offenses – addressed the rookies, warning that “while you’re playing in the NFL, you do not need a firearm for any reason.”
Whether the message from Johnson or others is absorbed is unclear, though. A lot has happened before the players reach the NFL. Some enter the league with a history of abhorrent behavior, from arrests to failed drug tests in college. Teams will gamble on talented players such as Hernandez, who slipped to the fourth round of the 2010 draft because many teams were concerned that he reportedly tested positive for marijuana while playing for Florida.
Of the 104 players Carter monitored over 10 years, about one-third were arrested.
“But most of the players admitted to engaging in stuff that, if they were caught, would be considered criminal,” Carter said. “That behavior didn’t necessarily start in the NFL.”
McPherson said all professional sports leagues have become more progressive in dealing with social issues, but somehow a faction of players continues to lag behind.
“The NFL as a league and the sports industry has really evolved and matured and become very sophisticated, very fan-friendly, but the players don’t seem to be enjoying that same maturity and sophistication,” McPherson said. “You see bankruptcy rates (among players) as they are and you see players ill-prepared to handle this industry. … John Wooden famously said that sports doesn’t build character, it reveals it. Well, the NFL is revealing the lack of preparation of these young men who live a life of such notoriety and wealth.”
McPherson said much of the deviant behavior of professional athletes is really a symptom of a larger social problem – the preferential treatment elite athletes receive throughout life. Those with a strong family structure will survive, but many athletes don’t have that base.
Add the culture of violence and guns into the mix, and the results can be tragic.
“The NFL doesn’t have a gun problem. Society has a gun problem,” McPherson said. “But when you start to look at where the culpability lands it’s the culture, it’s family. There’s only so much the NFL can do. There are a lot of reasons why this stuff happens.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell instituted the Personal Conduct Policy in 2007 and hasn’t been shy about disciplining players for off-the-field conduct. Adam “Pacman” Jones, who spoke at the rookie symposium last week, was suspended for one year because if his involvement in a Las Vegas shooting.
It’s not clear, though, that the suspension has changed Jones’ behavior. He was arrested for allegedly striking a woman at a Cincinnati bar just last month.
Why do athletes at the height of their profession make such poor choices?
“The really striking finding that I had from my research was that about 50 percent of the players I followed self-reported that they were unhappy people, that they were quite miserable with their lives,” Carter said. “That kind of goes against the kind of dominant, mainstream assumption that wealth brings happiness, that status and fame brings all the things that human beings want. That was the thing that really hit me, that these guys have everything that most of us want and they’re miserable people. It’s like they’re on that treadmill.They’re searching and searching.”
Lebowitz, who grew up in the Hartford, Conn., area, said the Hernandez case is indicative of a larger societal problem that is far bigger than the NFL.
“What it’s really about is the way that we acculturate boys in our world,” Lebowitz said. “The way we acculturate boys is with a very limited definition of what manhood is. That manhood definition really boils down to, ‘Can I beat you up? Can I take you down?’ The definition really doesn’t allow itself to include compassion or kindness. It’s really about individualismand hyper-masculinity and dominance and power. Given that construct of manhood, this type of outgrowth shouldn’t come as a surprise.”