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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