The NFL's logo is a shield. That's fitting, because no other brand in the world is as fiercely protected.
The NFL is on the cutting edge of everything in sports: TV presentation, stadium experience, league competitiveness, online presence and fan engagement. The owners want that shield to be a promise of premium, professional entertainment.
When its players can't stay out of the headlines, that's bad for the brand, bad for revenues and bad for the game.
That's why commissioner Roger Goodell strengthened the NFL's Personal Conduct Policy during his first offseason in office; arrests and off-field problems were turning the most revered American sport into a laughingstock.
With former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez's murder charge the crest of a midsummer NFL crime wave, the question has to be asked again: What can the NFL do to keep its players in the headlines for the right reasons?
To solve a problem, we have to define it.
As Sports Illustrated's Peter King estimated, the arrest rate of NFL players in the past year has been about 1.9 percent, compared to the rest of America's rate of about 4.9 percent. As King wrote, that still isn't a fair comparison.
NFL players are men, nearly all aged 21-35. According to the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, 67 percent of NFL players are African-American, compared to 12.4 percent of the U.S. population (per 2009 U.S. Community Survey data).
To compare NFL players to average Americans, we'd need to break that arrest data down by age, sex and race. The best demographic arrest data I could find was the FBI's 2002 UCR arrest report.
Using the "Crime Index" offenses—basically, the kinds of arrests that make news—men aged 25-29 are arrested 4.6 times as often as women of the same age, and minorities are arrested 2.5 times more frequently than caucasians.
There are a lot of socioeconomic factors at work here. There's the effect of poverty on crime, the legal system's prejudice against ethnic minorities (that's just one example, from the Washington Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs) and America's world-leading incarceration rates:
NFL players aren't more prone to illegal behavior than the rest of us. In fact, given that the NFL's talent pool is comprised of the highest-risk demographic sets, pros get arrested far less often than Joes.
That's not enough to protect the NFL brand, though.
The NFL Personal Conduct Policy states "the standard of conduct for persons employed in the NFL is considerably higher" than just not getting arrested. NFL employees must avoid doing anything that "undermines or puts at risk the integrity and reputation of the NFL." That policy is backed up with severe fines and penalties that Goodell can levy almost at will.
As much as Goodell would love to take credit for those low arrest rates, though, it's not his doing. If jail time isn't stopping NFL players from committing serious crimes, the Personal Conduct Policy isn't a deterrent, either.
So why are NFL players disproportionately good at staying on the right side of the law? Can the NFL cut down even further on these headline- (and headache-) generating cases?
Just as in every other walk of life, personal success correlates closely with personal support and resources. While most NFL players aren't millionaires, even the no-hopers at the bottom of a 90-man camp roster are getting free room, board and $850 per week.
That kind of money won't hire a dream team of lawyers, but it will pay rent, child support, a speeding ticket or the NFLPA's Safe Ride program—which makes NFL players more able to avoid common legal issues than most Americans.
To teach players about the dangers to which new pros fall prey, the league puts on an annual Rookie Symposium, seminars covering life on and off the field. If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, a weekend of seminars can save incalculable costs in fines, suspensions and PR nightmares.
Then there's NFL Security, a department of the league that—like an offensive line—is doing its job best when you never hear about it.
NFL Security is involved in shadier stuff, too. In 2008, the New York Police Department and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg complained NFL Security staff were hindering, rather than helping, the criminal investigation against then-New York Giant Plaxico Burress.
According to that New York Times article, NFL Security had 13 staff members at the time and "security representatives" hired in each NFL city, plus Hawaii, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. NFL Security is involved in everything from working with local police to telling players which bars to avoid.
Do they actively work to cover up player crimes?
Some conspiracy theorists, like Brian Tuohy of TheFixisIn, think so. Former NFL VP of Security Milt Ahlerich denied covering up the Burress case or any other. “The idea of covering up and minimizing is a fool’s errand,” Ahlerich told the New York Times.
That said, King criticized the Patriots organization for acquiring risky players and not doing enough to make sure they keep their noses clean. "if Belichick is going to continue to draft from college football's All-Risk Team," King wrote, "he'd better improve the quality of private eyes he employs."
Exactly how far can teams go, though? King says NFL teams "can't tail 53 guys," and there are a lot of college kids who have drugs, alcohol or bad friends in their lives. Can teams really play Big Brother to every player on their roster with character concerns 24 hours, seven days a week?
Given all the teams and the NFL are already doing to prevent and avoid legal issues, and how successful the measures are, what more could they possibly do?
How can they stop the summertime crime waves and fix the public perception that the NFL is full of dangerous criminals?
If the problem is that the NFL's talent pool is the same as America's highest-risk demographics, and the NFL's carrot-and-stick approach to player conduct is working, then the NFL needs to get involved earlier in the players' lives.
Everywhere else in the world, talented young sports stars are scouted and signed by pro teams while they're still in grade school. Rather than the hodgepodge of prep sports, AAU teams, summer seven-on-seven camps and big-time college football, pro teams school and train young players at team facilities.
The Hernandez case has brought a lot of indirect heat on Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, whose tenure at the University of Florida produced a lot of talented athletes with notable off-field issues. Meyer eventually released a terse statement, reported by the Associated Press via ESPN, defending his track record there and refusing to accept blame for Hernandez's issues.
The growing, twisted relationships between agents, for-profit teen sports organizations and big-time colleges has gotten a lot of attention lately—and rightly so.
From the never-proven allegations that Cam Newton's college commitment was secured for a six-figure price to former USC basketball coach Tim Floyd giving recruit O.J. Mayo's handlers cash, big-time college sports programs seem to be caving to the pressure to pay "amateur student-athletes" the professional money they arguably deserve in return for billions in TV revenue.
Even if NCAA coaches aren't dispensing cash, the Ohio State scandal that paved the way for Meyer's hiring proved many college athletes expect to—and do—lead a mock-professional lifestyle of "impermissible benefits" and minimal classwork.
If college coaches can land a talented player and keep him on the field for three years, that's all they need to do. They have no incentive to fix their problems for life or give them the tools they need to be successful in the NFL.
As long as dozens of big-time coaches like Meyer are being paid millions to achieve the best possible results with the best available talent—regardless of college aptitude or eligibility—kids will continue to be sheltered on campuses and kept on the field all costs, and the Bill Belichicks of the world will have to guess which of them will be able to handle money and freedom.
If NFL players are going to be held to "a higher standard," the NFL has to radically change the way it acquires and grooms talent. Drafting players in their early 20s who already have agents, cars, endorsement deals, fancy suits and entourages and expecting every one to be a humble ambassador of the shield is, to quote Ahlerich, "a fool's errand."
There are a lot of people and organizations that have a huge amount of money tied up in the current system, but the NCAA's exploitation of disadvantaged kids for our entertainment and their profit is far more shameful than a handful of player arrests every summer.
Until the NFL can keep these kids out of trouble before they make the wrong friends and get bad habits, they'll continue to suffer PR hits every time a player's idle hands get cuffed.