In 1998, Jeff Benedict and a one-time colleague of mine in Dallas, Don Yaeger, bound a bundle of numbers in a sheath of words and sold it to a publishing house.
The bookbinder titled it “Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL.”
If the book didn’t create the image that professional football players are more likely to rape and pillage than the rest of society, it certainly confirmed a widespread public belief.
There was only one problem with the book: all the numbers weren’t quite true.
As Westfield State University criminal justice professor Christopher Kudlac noted in his 2010 study “Fair or Foul: Sports and Criminal Behavior in the United States,” when Benedict did a subsequent study with Carnegie Mellon criminologist Alfred Blumstein comparing the criminal violence of NFL players with the general population, he discovered that, in fact, NFL players have a lower rate of violence than the general population.
But in the maelstrom the media unleashed upon the NFL and its players in the wake of a hotel security camera video that caught Baltimore star running back Ray Rice last February rendering his then fiancée Janay Rice unconscious with a single punch to her head, the reporting has renewed that old canard about football players — and without context.
The new polling service Vox Populi reported Saturday that it found a majority of Americans believe the NFL has a widespread epidemic of domestic violence problems, including 70 percent of people who identified themselves as NFL fans and 73 percent who are women.
A college classmate and friend of mine, USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan, commented during a PBS NewsHour segment we shared that the NFL was “full of Ray Rices.”
There is only one problem with these perceptions: still, the numbers don’t bear them out.
Indeed, at the end of July, a week after the NFL initially suspended Rice for the first two games of the 2014 season for slugging the woman who married him nonetheless, a researcher for Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight website wrote a piece on the violent criminality of NFL players that echoed that of Benedict and Yaeger 16 years ago.
But there was one caveat: Benjamin Morris’s statistical analysis was rife with the refrain of a qualifier. It read, one way or another, “…NFL players have much lower arrest rates than average.”
The good news about the FiveThirtyEight story is that it was tempered with that caution. The bad news about the kind of attention most of the media has been apoplectic about concerning Rice – and two other players arrested (one of whom also has been convicted) for domestic violence since Rice’s arrest in February – is that it has been without context. As a result, we in the media – the sports media in particular – have perpetuated a stereotype that football players are more prone towards violent expressions of misogyny than the rest of us. Given that two-thirds of NFL players are, like Rice, black, the reporting also plays down to the narrative of the black athlete as villain.
What is particularly pernicious, however, about much of our reporting and opining about the implications of the Rice case is that the laser focus on the NFL and its players does a disservice to what is a broad campaign to stamp out domestic violence.
“Domestic violence doesn’t know any income level or any particular profession,” Laurie MacDonald, president and CEO of the Center for Victims in Pittsburgh, pointed out last Friday on an edition of NPR’s On Point Radio; I was a guest as well.
“I’ve seen heart surgeons, I’ve seen unemployed mill workers, all sorts of people commit violent acts against women,” she said.
“The Rice family…unfortunately became the family that shined the light on domestic violence in this country, which needed to be done, and I think in many cases, the system fails. The NFL does not have a prosecutorial arm.”
MacDonald pointed to a recent announcement from a bipartisan group of 16 female senators arguing that the NFL shouldn’t allow abusers of women to have a second chance at playing football as evidence of how reporting on Rice has led efforts against domestic violence astray.
“The female senators came out and said, ‘We want a zero tolerance policy; the NFL should have a zero tolerance policy,’” MacDonald said. “Well, you know, I think it’s more important to find out why people batter.”
But we have a collective appetite to find someone to blame and suffer our retribution and he has become NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and some of his league’s players.
We never reacted with so much condemnation of corporate America after RadiumOne CEO Gurbaksh Chalal was fired earlier this year after being charged and convicted of hitting his girlfriend 117 times in an attack also captured on video. We were never so exercised over our legislative bodies after the estranged wife of Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., gained a temporary protective injunction against Grayson after she accused him of pushing her against a door during a confrontation at their home, causing her to fall and be injured.
The truth is that whatever domestic violence problem the NFL has is more reflective of society than it is anomalous. Due to much of our reporting, however, that fact has been lost on much of the public.