DV is (in all likelihood) not lower among NFL players

This past week, Benjamin Morris of Vox published an article claiming to show that NFL players are not nearly as violent to their significant others one might think given the rash of disheartening news lately. Using crime data, he attempts to show how arrest rates for domestic violence among NFL players are lower than his comparison group.

Morris takes arrest records from the NFL and compares them to arrest records for 24-29 year old men. This is the first problem with his analysis. He finds that the average age of an NFL player is 27-29, and so claims the relevant comparison group is 24-29 year old men, but it’s not. The average age of an NFL player may be 27-29, but there is a much wider distribution of ages among NFL players than 24-29. Severe physical domestic violence, like many types of crime, is highest among young men and drops off in older age groups. This is a well-documented phenomenon for violent crime, though I’d argue less well understood regarding domestic violence. So while there may not be many 38-year olds in the NFL, comparing them to 24-29-year olds is inherently a problem and biases him away from finding similar rates to the national average.

So why not take just the abuse by 24-29 year olds in the NFL? That likely would lead to some sample size issues, but perhaps it would be better? Not really. Even if we accept his comparison group on the basis of age, it has other issues.

That NFL players are public figures and wealthy makes them less likely to be arrested for (at least) three reasons. One is that the incentives are aligned such that victims will be less likely to call the police.* The potential for significant media attention on your private life is a huge deterrent for victims who are often hiding the abuse from even family and friends. Secondly, also regarding the incentives of the victim, the financial losses from an NFL player being suspended or expelled are huge, both in absolute terms and relative to career earnings. If you miss two games of a 40-game career, that’s significant. A financially dependent significant other also suffers if that happens, one, financially, but also in the case that the abuser elevates the abuse as a punishment for help-seeking.** Third, I’d guess that a lot of police officers are football fans and police officers in many places have discretion in whether to arrest someone. Some don’t, obviously, there are mandatory arrest laws in many places, though variably enforced, which we can talk about those some other time, but in all likelihood, some discretion. But barring any good evidence, I’d venture to guess that for a given 911 domestic violence call, your average 24-29 year old is more likely to be arrested than your average NFL player. And for your given domestic violence incident, significant others of NFL players are less likely to call 911 than your average victim. Again, biases the arrest rate of NFL players downward and away from the national average.

So maybe your comparison group should be other wealthy, public figures. Income and prestige clearly play a role here that is being ignored when you compare arrest rates in the general population to a small, elite group of athletes. Compare them to basketball players or baseball players or best yet, compare them to football players who got cut. Free research idea: check the rosters of NFL players who were cut and see how often they get arrested for domestic violence. That would probably give a better picture of what the arrest rate would look like for NFL players in the absence of the prestige and income issues. But again, you can’t really compare the groups because the income/fame issues are salient.

There’s certainly a possibility that rates of DV are actually lower, even controlling for all of these issues. I won’t deny that it’s possible that NFL players are less likely to be abusers than other young men. They are public figures, and so one might think they pay a greater cost from behaving badly, that social strictures might govern their behavior. But history tells us otherwise: Recall Ben Roethlisberger’s return to football, others speculating that Ray Rice might return as well, media outlets checking to “see how Ray was doing” after Roger Goodell imposed a suspension from the league, the legions of female (!!) fans decked out in Ray Rice gear at the next Ravens game, etc. Social costs don’t look very high to me, and up to now, when the NFL is revising its policy on DV, financial costs have been limited as well.

They also might be different somehow from other young men. Perhaps the dedication and determination needed to succeed in the NFL makes you somehow less violent. It’s one explanation for Morris’ data conclusions, though one that doesn’t hold a lot of water in my view. They could also be different in ways that make them more violent; it’s not really clear.

In any case, lower arrest rates don’t mean lower prevalence rates. Wrong comparison group, wrong metric, wrong conclusions.

And finally, reading an article about crime and domestic violence by a man who spends time in the article admitting to knowing nothing about crime statistics is just absurd. You’re a journalist. It’s your job to ask someone who does know. There are any number of experts and papers that could have helped you to do a better job, even with the bad data. You would totally fail my econometrics class.

Some extra notes:

* Victims are well aware of the possible consequences of calling the police. While some incidents are public and police involvement is unavoidable, most incidents happen in relative privacy and a victim decides whether to involve the police. Reporting rates for domestic violence are astoundingly low and many victims don’t want to involve the police. In cases where they do want to involve the police, many hope that they’ll just help him to cool off a bit; they don’t actually want action taken against him.

** Many victims are financially dependent on their abusers and calling the police might mean they are unable to provide for themselves or their children for a short time (if he’s held in jail for the day, perhaps) or a longer time (if he is incarcerated or she decides to leave). Abusers physically and emotionally control victims through any number of channels: physical violence, instilling fear if they do certain things, controlling income, preventing them from working, and more. One victim’s story I clearly remember was that how in order to go shopping, she would have to go to the store and write down the prices of everything she wanted to buy; she would have to return home where her husband would tally the prices, calculate sales tax, and give her exactly that much money for her to go back to the store and make her purchases. Her husband would check the receipts when she came home to make sure she didn’t keep any money for herself. I’ve talked to women who spent years collecting pennies from the couch and stole dimes out of their husbands’ pockets to collect enough money to leave. These examples may seem extreme, but they’re not all that uncommon. Financial dependence is a real barrier to women leaving violent relationships and calling the police.

You can imagine how this compounds when short-lived high incomes are involved. If your partner is in the NFL and your calling the cops means he misses two games of a 70-game career, that’s a lot of money, both in absolute terms and relative to his expected lifetime earnings. So, if you take away the abuser’s income, you also take away the victim’s livelihood, which means victims might be less likely to call the police when the financial stakes are higher. While the censure coming from players and the media of domestic abusers in the NFL is laudable, I worry that a new policy, one in which players receive 6-game or even longer suspensions, may actually reduce reporting for this group.

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Women’s security and work in India

Pretty much all I think about these days is women’s labor force participation, primarily in India. One of the big things on my mind is how increased reports of sexual assault, rape, and other crimes against women, particularly on public transportation, affect labor market entry and exit, hours worked etc. I’m clearly not the only one thinking about this as the Indian government has released a budget detailing pretty significant investment in women’s safety and to address crime.

From an article on the new budget:

“Women’s safety is a concern shared by all the honourable members of this House. We need to test out different approaches that can be validated and scaled up quickly,” he said.

The government plans to spend $9 million on a pilot scheme to improve women’s safety on public transport, and an additional $28 million in large cities.

“Crisis Management Centres” will also be set up in all government and private hospitals in the capital, to provide support to victims of crimes such as rape and domestic violence.

The number of crimes against women in India reported to the police such as rape, dowry deaths, abduction and molestation increased by 26.7 percent in 2013 from a year earlier, rising to 309,546 from 244,270, the National Crime Records Bureau says.

One of the primary questions is whether these increases in rape, dowry death , abduction and molestation are a result of some changes in female autonomy, or labor force participation, or something else that could lead to backlash, or whether it’s just an increase in reporting due to reduced stigma associated with reporting. It could also be something else all together, of course, but at least someone’s paying attention.

CCTs and Crime

The connection between poverty and crime is both well-established and notoriously difficult to distentangle. We know that high-crime areas are likely to be poorer than low-crime areas, and yet we don’t usually profess that crime causes poverty, although a certain blogger/writer team of economist and journalist is quick to remind you that crime doesn’t pay. We might expect poverty to cause crime for a number of reasons–idleness leads to thrill-seeking, social norms make stealing appear common or acceptable, families may not be able to feed their families without stealing–but separating one effect from the other is incredibly difficult.

In a careful and very well executed new paper by three economists at the PUC-Rio, crime is in fact lowered in the face of conditional cash transfers, or a directed attempt to put more money in the hands of low-income families while simultaneously requiring their kids to go school/not work during school hours. The authors exploit the expansion of the program–to pay benefits to families with older children–to causally identify the effect of additional income on crime.

The authors find that expanding the Bolsa Familia program to include 16- and 17-year olds did have a dramatic, causal effect on crime rates.

My primary question on the paper has to do with the expansion. Because the program had already been in place for some time, many families lost some income when their children turned 16 and thus were no longer eligible for benefits. Many of these same families would regain benefits with the expansion. So, did crime increase as these children aged out? Surely there’s some variation in average age and distribution of children in the program by school, so we should be able to at least speculate on whether there is something about turning 16 and 17 that makes one particularly prone to criminal behavior, or whether leaving the program leads to more behavior. Perhaps we can’t identify it the same way causally, but it’s an important dimension, I think.

The second problem I have is stylistic: a clear link to a number in a table with words such as “the program expansion lead to an average X% decrease in crime” would have helped make reading easier.

h/t: @franciscome

Cited: Laura Chioda, João MP de Mello and Rodrigo R. Soares. “Conditional Cash Transfer Programs: Bolsa Família and Crime in Urban Brazil.” PUC Working Paper No. 559.