The arrest of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez on first-degree murder and weapons charges has ignited the conversation about personal conduct in the NFL. There is no consensus on the severity of the NFL’s problem, but nearly everyone can agree one exists.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell proposed his solution to the problem in 2007, about six months after taking the job. Goodell’s solution was to strengthen the personal conduct policy and to give himself nearly unlimited power to fine and suspend players for their off-the-field conduct. There are other solutions, but none are as broad and enforceable as Goodell’s.
Over six years have passed since the personal conduct policy was announced, but not a lot has changed. Players are still drinking and driving, assaulting people and—in some cases—something more serious. It’s worth wondering if the omnipotent Goodell’s policy is even working.
If arrests aren’t down after six years, it would be reasonable to conclude that the conduct policy has been ineffective and should be junked. It’s also worth considering if the policy is good, but the enforcement (or enforcer) is the real problem or if there are more proactive solutions that should be considered.
The Personal Misconduct Policy
U-T San Diego has compiled an NFL arrest database that goes back to 2000. Although imperfect, it’s the most comprehensive look at NFL arrest data available and the data doesn’t reflect positively on Goodell and his personal conduct policy.
Put simply, arrests are up. From January 1, 2000 until Goodell announced the personal conduct policy on April 10, 2007 (2,656 days), 324 players were arrested. From the April 10, 2007 to today (2,274 days), 340 players were arrested. That’s 16 more arrests in 382 fewer days.
The NFL is averaging over one arrest per week since the personal conduct policy was announced, up from one every eight days before the policy or about 10 more arrests more per year. Even accounting for arrests that went unreported, it’s clear that the NFL’s conduct policy isn’t helping the issue.
However, the league could look at the same data and claim that arrests are down on a year-to-year basis since 2008 and that it may have taken a year for players to adjust. With 39 arrests already this year, the NFL likely won't be able to claim that much longer.
The alarming number of arrests over the first six months of 2013 is already more arrests than four of the seven full years prior to the new personal conduct policy and will probably surpass six of the seven by the end of the year unless arrest rates significantly drop.
The league office should be concerned because the conduct policy doesn’t appear to be doing what it was designed to do. If Goodell is seriously concerned about the issue, now is probably the time to admit his strategy isn’t working and bring the NFLPA to the table to discuss solutions.
Tom Coughlin, the long-time head coach of the New York Giants and an NFL coaching veteran, has coached his fair share of athletes and described today’s athletes as more “individualistic” and that “some feel they are above the law” in an interview with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News.
Players come from various different backgrounds and some may find it difficult dealing with family and friends. Some players have also been coddled and put on a pedestal for years because they are a meal ticket for their family and their football coaches.
It’s probably a bad idea to give a young man millions of dollars regardless of their background, but it’s an even worse idea when you consider the type of people that lurk around some players hoping to get a slice of their fortunes. Many players are broke just a few years after being out of the league and the NFL Players Association is now holding performance-based pay in escrow for two years to protect the players from themselves, according to Mike Freeman of CBSSports.com.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, arrests and the NFL salary cap actually rose at similar rates from 2000-2006. The more money the players earned, the more problems they seemed to have off the field. Six years of data suggests this is more than an aberration.
Although hardly significant, that trend hasn’t continued. This could be evidence the personal conduct policy has at least prevented a more serious problem, but doesn’t change the fact that the rate of arrests has been higher since the policy was enacted than before it.
You would think that the additional monetary resources would enable players to more easily get away from troubled pasts, but maybe the reverse is true. The more these players make, the more sinister the people around them become.
It would appear that getting away from their past is the key. According to the arrest data, NFL players are also much more likely to get arrested from February to July (the offseason) than August to January (the season) and there have been a league-low 36 arrests in August—when teams have training camp—since the start of 2000.
It's common knowledge that Goodell isn’t trusted by players because of his autocratic approach to player conduct. Goodell even delegates player safety issues, which may define his legacy, but has so far refused to relinquish the power over player conduct.
"It's a dictatorship," said Atlanta wide receiver Roddy White on ESPN Radio in 2011. "Just talk to the players a little bit more, and I think people can see eye to eye with him. But he doesn't do that. He doesn't interact with us, so we kinda stay as far away from him as possible."
In the criminal justice system, we more-or-less know the consequences and there is a process in place that allows the accused to get a fair trial and fair punishment. Goodell can slap a player on the wrist or end their career and there is very little a player can do about it even if the decision is unfair.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for six games by Goodell (reduced to four) for being accused of sexual assault, but plenty of other people have escaped Goodell's wrath in cases with a lot more evidence.
Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Adam Jones should be on this third strike (or more) after getting arrested for assault of a bar patron in June, but Goodell has remained silent. Jones even spoke as planned of the NFL's rookie symposium, which creates the perception that Jones may be getting treated differently because he's become the poster boy of the success for the conduct policy.
If players respect the conduct policy and the man enforcing it, there should be fewer arrests because the NFL’s conduct policy clearly states:
It is not enough simply to avoid being found guilty of a crime. Instead, as an employee of the NFL or a member club, you are held to a higher standard and expected to conduct yourself in a way that is responsible, promotes the values upon which the League is based, and is lawful.
However, the commissioner has also given first-time offenders one free pass unless “the available facts” indicate egregious circumstances, significant bodily harm or risk to others or substantial risk to the integrity and reputation of the NFL.
If players know the first one is for free and the punishment is varied, the consequences may not come into their decision-making process. Knowing the punishment is going to make some players think twice about their actions. It should also be much easier to process that information in the heat of the moment than Goodell's ambiguous enforcement.
Discipline also isn’t always a great deterrent for bad behavior. Many of these players are dealing with issues that predate and transcend their current situation and rookie programs alone aren't enough preparation for the challenges they will face.
Approximately 98 percent of players don't get arrested and the vast majority of them also don't even put themselves in bad situations, but trying to prevent the remaining two percent from violating the personal conduct policy is still a significant challenge.
Perhaps using the players that do things the right way as mentors could help to some degree, because the actions of just a few players reflect poorly on all of them. It's an idea worth exploring, but the NFL still has to determine how to get players to participate.
Incentives for good behavior could also help, but the application of any such a program could be difficult. An incentive program may just be too logistically unfeasible to be effective because of the funds that would be needed and would likely have to be combined with other strategies.
A tougher, more transparent process for player conduct issues, along with additional resources to help players make good life choices, would serve the NFL better than the current system. The NFL offers several programs through the NFL Player Engagement initiatives that have great potential, but too few players take advantage of the resources.
Not many people have it all figured out in their early 20s, so making certain programs mandatory until players become vested veterans could make sense. According the NFL Player Engagement website, rookies are required to participate in the NFL's Rookie Success Program, but that’s clearly not enough.
Players that don’t take the programs seriously should be subjected to harsh punishments, which is more proactive than punishments for running afoul of the law. In many cases, NFL players also escape conviction and league punishment, but still pay the price in civil court.
The long-term benefit of such programs would be much easier to measure. More players should transition to successful careers after their playing career is done, fewer players should go broke and there should be fewer arrests of active players.
The NFLPA would likely agree to such mandatory programs if it means Goodell removes himself as judge, jury and executioner of the personal conduct policy. A more transparent process for player conduct issues with clear and consistent punishments would benefit both sides.
The NFL has a problem, but it also has an opportunity to help players overcome tough situations and make better choices if they are willing to acknowledge that the current system is not going to cut it. Goodell and the NFLPA need to get together and talk about solutions before it's too late.
All arrest data via U-T San Diego's arrest database unless otherwise noted.