This year, three National Football League players -- Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, and Greg Hardy -- have either admitted to or been convicted of domestic violence. Their stories coalesced into a storm this past week with the release of a damning new video of Ray Rice punching his wife (then fiancée) and the indictment of Adrian Peterson, debatably the NFL's best running back, for child abuse.
The media onslaught of updates, analysis, and opinion on what has been called the National Football League's "worst week ever" leaves a distinct impression: the NFL is a league stocked full of criminals.
Evidence, however, doesn't bear that out.
Back in 1999, leading criminologist Alfred Blumstein teamed up with author Jeff Benedict, who has written five books focused on crime and athletics, to compare rates of criminal violence among NFL players to that of the general population. Controlling for age, they found that the annual rate of assault and domestic violence among NFL players was less than half that of the general population.
But Blumstein and Benedict's analysis is fifteen years dated. Perhaps things have changed in that time?
It doesn't appear they have. Back in July, FiveThirtyEight's Benjamin Morris tallied up the incidents in USA Today's NFL Arrests Database to discern crime rates among NFL players. He then compared those numbers to the national averages among 25-29 year olds, and found the rate of domestic violence in the NFL to be 55.4% that of the general population. And the overall crime rate was a mere 13% of the national average.
So why then do 69% of Americans believe that the NFL suffers a "widespread epidemic of domestic violence problems"? The answer is rooted in how we think. Humans are prone to rely on examples and experiences that can be easily recalled. The idea is that if we can remember it, it must be important. This mental shortcut is termed the availability heuristic. A key drawback of the heuristic is that it leads us to overestimate the prevalence of memorable events. Here, you can legitimately blame popular media. Because plane crashes are widely covered, many erroneously view flying as more dangerous than driving. Thanks to Shark Week, people are wearier of sharks than deer. Because 91% of people have seen, read, or heard something about Ray Rice's domestic violence, they overestimate the problem of domestic violence in the NFL.
That's not to say that domestic violence isn't a problem in the NFL. By type of crime, domestic violence is the closest the NFL comes to the national average. Moreover, Morris noted that NFL players do seem to commit acts of domestic violence at a higher rate than individuals with a similar socioeconomic status, though a direct comparison wasn't available.
As public figures, football players must hold themselves to higher standards, and be punished appropriately when they fail to meet them. But more quintessentially, as human beings, they need to recognize that unprovoked violence against others, particularly those not able to defend themselves, is utterly reprehensible.