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Depending on which television stats you cherry pick, the National Football League is either dying or it's immortal. But there's little doubt the NFL has been locked in a public relations battle the past few years. From a wave of domestic violence and assaults, to concussion and painkiller class action lawsuits, and now the (mis)handling of player protests, the league -- regardless of burgeoning income -- has been working overtime to burnish its image.
So it's likely with open arms that the NFL welcomed a report from USA Today showing a significant decline in player arrests since 2014. So, are the numbers really that good? And, if so, why?
Personal Foul Penalties
"I think we're a much more enlightened population, and that makes us stronger and better and I think also has an impact on actions," Anna Isaacson, the NFL's senior vice president for social responsibility, told USA Today. "I think you see the results in actions by incidents going down." And judging from the raw numbers, that's true. NFL player arrests and citations spiked in 2006 at 71, compared to just 30 thus far this year. Also from the report:
Arrest rates for drunken driving and domestic violence both have fallen in step. DUI arrests are down to about nine per year since January 2015, compared to 15 per year from 2005-2014. Domestic abuse arrests dipped from about seven per year from 2005-2014 to about five per year since 2015.
But have NFL players really cleaned up their act? The first thing to say about any of the numbers is that they only indicate when players got caught, and when it comes to the 2018 numbers, the year ain't over yet. At the current pace, the league would finish with about 36 arrests or citations, around the same number for the years from 2000 to 2005, and on par with the last three years (40, 28, and 43, respectively). And the decline in domestic violence arrests and citations is only two per year. It could be that 2006, 2008, and 2014 were just upward aberrations and the NFL is simply returning to the mean when it comes to player crime.
On and Off the Field
The league, on the other hand, points to a significant crackdown in 2014 as the source of the alleged decline in off-field incidents. The NFL toughened its domestic violence policies after the Ray Rice fiasco, and increased automatic penalties for drunk driving. As noted above, player DUI arrests have fallen off since January 2015. Those numbers also track with the rise of ridesharing apps like Uber or Lyft, and a steady decline in DUI fatalities overall. In fact, overall crime rates nationwide have been steadily dropping since the early 1990s.
The NFL was quick to jump on an internal report in 2015 showing that player arrests had dropped, and they're sure to embrace these numbers as well. Whether they truly reflect a changing tide in player behavior remains to be seen.