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.


Thinking about defining domestic violence

A colleague from Bates College (with whom I happened to share an advisor in grad school) visited last week to give a seminar at Lafayette and we started talking about writing a paper together. Working off each of our comparative advantages, it’s going to be about domestic violence in India.

As a result, this morning I was thinking about how to code up domestic violence to put into regression analysis and how defining gender-based or domestic violence is part and parcel to the type of question you’re trying to answer.

For example, many surveys include violence by a partner, a husband, a boyfriend, a father, an in-law, and any number of other actors. My quick response to SD this morning was to divide the categories (not mutually exclusive, perhaps) like this.

1. By a romantic partner
2. By a husband (romantic partner with legal implications)
3. By a member of her husband’s family
4. By a member of her own family.
5. By anyone when it’s gender-motivated.

2 and 3 (and possibly 1 depending on societal structures) have implications for bargaining power-type questions and investments in children. 1, 4, and 5 have greater implications for society at large.


Code ’em all up, I say.

As long as we’re talking about violence against women…

It’s VAW week here, it seems. I railed about the Oscar Pistorius trial last week and how it obscures the larger pictures of violence against women in South Africa. As of last night, it seems that the House is ready to (sneakily?) pass the Senate version of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, replete with protection for LGBTQ individuals and college students, and a strengthened ability for trial courts to act within their own borders (call your congressperson). The CDC also released a special report of its violence and victimization data with a focus on gender and sexual orientation. This is huge because national level surveys often don’t provide large enough samples of LGBTQ individuals or victims of violence in general to extrapolate to national level statistics.

Last, but not least, the UNFPA released a pamphlet advertising its commitment to data-gathering on violence against women and girls and gender-based violence. In the era of big data, it’s perhaps hard to believe. But while we may be able to track all of the things you buy and the time you spend driving and how much time you spend on the internet at work instead of working, we know very little about gender-based violence all over the world. In my own field work, perhaps the biggest constraint I found is that there is not a good consensus on how to define violence. UNFPA agrees:

Why is it so hard for the humanitarian community to generate quality data and meet ethical and safety standards?
• Lack of standardization in GBV terminology, data collection tools and incident classification; also, lack of uniformity in how and what data is collected.
If I have to be a brat about it, I’d say what data are collected, but I think the spirit is right. Consensus on what is included in violence and better attention paid to the dangers and pitfall associated with measuring violence against women and girls should be a significant part of the work going forward.

CDC intimate violence report by gender and sexual orientation

For what appears to the be the first time, the CDC has released a report on intimate partner violence separated out by sexual orientation. As most national level surveys that address domestic violence include very limited samples of out LGBT populations, this is pretty huge. After a quick read, the report seems to confirm what we already knew, that lesbian and bisexual women are more likely to have been stalked and experienced rape or physical violence by an intimate partner. While 35% of heterosexual women report one or more of these, 43.8% of lesbian women and 61.1% of bisexual women report the violations. Heterosexual and bisexual women reported mostly male perpetrators (98.7% and 89.5%), while lesbian women reported mostly (67.4%) female perpetrators.

Bisexual men also reported higher levels than heterosexual men of lifetime prevalence of rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner, but gay men had the lowest rate. The numbers might surprise you. 29% of heterosexual men report such violations, while 35.0% of heterosexual women did, with the vast majority of both reporting that the offender was of the opposite sex.

It’s important to note that the takeaway message from these findings is not that men and women batter at the same rate. These statistics are well in line with survey results from national level longitudinal studies such as the National Survey on Families and Households in spirit, if not in absolute percentages (underreporting on such surveys is expected). Extensive work on surveys like this repeatedly emphasize that incidence and report of violence are not the same as power and control. While relatively similar numbers of men (~25%) and women (>30%) report light to moderate physical violence, far more women (23.6% of hetersoexual women to 29.4% of lesbian women) than men (13.9%-16.4%)report severe physical violence, including half of bisexual women.


These statistics underscore the disproportionately large role that men play in perpetrating violence, even while it obscures the larger reasons behind it. They also show those in the LGBT community are at much greater risk for violence and stalking by intimate partner, be it a man or a woman, and hopefully calls attention to the need for the House of Representatives to pass VAWA in the form passed with a strong bipartisan majority in the Senate.

What’s the matter with Kansas?, redux

I saw mutterings that a repeal of domestic violence laws might actually take place in Kansas a few weeks ago, but I had a hard time believing that it might actually come to pass. It did, and now the mainstream news is covering it. I’m not a lawyer, but I have to believe this violates equal protection clause of the Constitution. It’s unbelievable to me that anyone would use the economy to justify picking and choosing which crimes to prosecute. Beyond that, though, I’m astounded that even if you are able to justify your actions so callously–as those in charge in Topeka are doing–you cannot see that it’s incredibly short-sighted to repeal domestic violence laws. You create such perverse incentives–increase in battering, reduction in reporting, decrease in intervention by police, family members, neighbors. Haven’t we established that domestic violence is extremely costly? To individuals, to society, to workplaces, to the insurance system, to children. Endangering women and children is not the way to make a point.

How we measure violence

I’ve noticed lately that the way we talk about prevalence of gender-based violence has changed lately. While we used to talk mostly about incidence of violence, a measure riddled with problems of underreporting and non-response, more scholars, NGOs and thus media outlets are concentrating more on measures of acceptability of violence. The questions “is wife-beating ever justified?” and “when is wife-beating justified” are garnering more attention than ones that seek to pin down the number of times a wife was actually beaten. The extremely high affirmative response rate to these questions (a recent TrustLaw post cites a UN study claiming at least 25% of people think it’s justifiable for a man to beat his wife in 17 of 41 countries surveyed) reinforces the notion that we might be missing a lot with surveys that get at instance.
it of course, does nothing to mitigate problems of reporting in places where the practice is outwardly condemned. In the US, I’d imagine, the statistic isn’t very useful as you’re unlikely to find many people who would assert that domestic violence is justifiable.
Additionally, it seems that, just like with incidence reports, the answers are subject to social norms and prevailing custom. In that sense, though, the question about justifiability may more closely measure the social norms themselves than questions about incidence.