Photographer: Elizabeth Lippman/Bloomberg
Photographer: Elizabeth Lippman/Bloomberg

Even if you’re not a football fan, you’re probably aware of the sudden image problem confronting the most popular sport in the U.S. Arrests of National Football League players are up a startling 75 percent this off-season. Most notably, Aaron Hernandez of the New England Patriots faces charges of murder, while Ausar Walcott of the Cleveland Browns faces charges of attempted murder.

Meanwhile, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M University’s star quarterback known as “Johnny Football,” has been spotted carousing in establishments he’s too young to enter, tweeting about his partying, and -- just recently -- missing a scheduled session with aspiring young athletes because he “overslept.”

Manziel has been fighting off criticism ever since. Some writers, presumably in jest, have even linked his situation with Hernandez's, saying Manziel is "on a slippery slope." But one needn't draw analogies between the cases to understand why this is a moment for aspiring professional footballers to be on their very best behavior.

What’s striking is how many fans want to pretend that there might not be a bomb under the bed after all. Dip into the Twitter feed or comment thread of any sports website, and you’ll find a legion of Manziel supporters insisting that what the talented young man does on his own time is nobody’s business.

As to the NFL’s crime wave, sportswriters have rushed to defend the league, saying that the rate of arrest of professional football players is well below the rate for the public at large. But the arguments, in both cases, are unconvincing. The problem professional football faces is real.

Examining Data

Let’s start with the arrests. Consider the defense presented by Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, the nation’s preeminent football journalist. King offers the following calculation: The number of arrests of NFL players in the past year (55) divided by the number of players under contract (2,880) yields an arrest rate of 1.9 percent -- well below the 4.9 percent of all American adults arrested in 2010, the last year the Federal Bureau of Investigation has such data.

King is quick to admit that the control group should be smaller. He suggests comparing player arrests with “males aged 21 to 35 in the larger society.” Good idea. Economist Stephen Bronars has done exactly that and concludes: “The annualized arrest rate for NFL players (during the offseason) has averaged about 3.5% since 2003 compared to 9.9% for all men age 22 to 34 (based on FBI crime data).”

Sounds good, right? The trouble is, young males don’t constitute the right control group, either. In 2011, the median NFL player salary was $770,000. No study that I have found of arrest rate by income controls very finely at the top end, for the simple reason that criminality by the well-compensated is extraordinarily rare. (That’s why rich criminals make the news.) Compared with other high earners, then, it’s likely that the NFL’s arrest rate is sky-high.

If you have doubts, perform a simple thought experiment. The median NFL player salary is well above the median earnings of traders and investment bankers in New York. That’s an interesting control group. Imagine a financial institution with 2,880 bankers and traders (the denominator in King’s equation): If the bank had suffered 55 arrests in the past year, I suspect we’d have heard about it.

In any reasonable comparison, then, the NFL is doing badly. Very badly. Now, I’m a big football fan, and I’m not about to place the blame on “football culture” or some sort of systematic laxity on the part of the league. There are lots of plausible explanations for the higher-than-expected arrest rates, from the relative immaturity of coddled athletes to the disadvantaged backgrounds from which so many emerge. But the problem, whatever the cause, isn’t a media creation. It’s very real, and the league has to figure out how to cope.

Assessing Character

To restore its image, the NFL must ensure that the interests of the teams and the interests of the league are aligned. Thus, the teams must be persuaded to invest more resources in evaluating the character of their potential hires. A lot of ideas are floating around, such as fining teams heavily when players are arrested for serious offenses, or even taking away draft picks. All deserve thoughtful discussion. Certainly, it is not enough merely to announce, as the league recently did, that even one “negative incident” is too many. The NFL’s image as the most successful sports league in the U.S. has been hard-won. But reputational capital can decline, too, and with it the bottom line.

All of which brings us back to Johnny Football. Denizens of the Twittersphere may consider Manziel’s antics nobody’s business but his own. NFL teams lack that luxury. The league already has well-documented difficulties with judging talent, a problem that often leads to overpaying top draft choices. Like other employers, NFL teams try to make predictions, based on far too little information, about how potential employees are likely to perform. Increasingly, reputational risk must be a part of that calculation.

If the NFL begins to punish teams whose player-arrest levels are too high, the teams in turn will take fewer chances on players whose character places them at risk. Even if all that happens is that the bad boys are chosen later in the draft, it will send a message. In a sport where the median length of a professional career is three and a half years, a player whose character causes him to drop from the first round of the draft into the second or third -- or seventh -- could be costing himself millions of dollars in expected earnings. Sooner or later, that sort of penalty will get the message across.

(Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama” and the novel “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.”)

To contact the writer of this article: Stephen L. Carter at stephen.carter@yale.edu or @StepCarter on Twitter.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net.