NFL players pay a small price when accused of violence against women
By Jenny Vrentas
How the NFL responds to accusations of violence against women has been discussed anecdotally for years, usually focusing on the short-term punishment individual athletes did or did not receive from their teams or the league. But a recent study examined this issue more comprehensively, asking: Do arrests for accusations of violence against women hurt NFL players’ careers?
The answer, according to the peer-reviewed study published in May in the academic journal Violence Against Women, is: not really.
Such arrests have “negligible” consequences for players as a group, the study found, based on a statistical analysis of career outcomes. While the effect of arrests grew increasingly negative over the course of the 19-year period analyzed, that effect disappeared with even average or slightly below-average on-field performance levels.
“I was kind of expecting that the best players, or even just high-performing players, would be exempt from some of these consequences of an allegation,” said Daniel Sailofsky, author of the study and a criminology lecturer at Middlesex University London. “But all it took was being not that below average. The top 75% of players didn’t really see, on average, of course, an impact from their accusation.”
Consequences for players are in the news again as the NFL nears a decision on the discipline Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson will face as a result of more than two dozen claims of sexual misconduct against him.
Watson never faced criminal charges in connection with the accusations of assault or harassment during massage appointments, which he has denied. While the study is based only on NFL players who were charged with crimes such as domestic violence and sexual assault, its findings reflect overall attitudes toward violence against women by the league and its member teams, which decide whether to punish players after serious accusations.
Sailofsky examined the post-arrest careers of 117 NFL players who were arrested from 2000 to 2019 for an act of violence against women, based on the USA Today player arrests database, which he corroborated with news reports. The model didn’t consider whether the players were convicted, only if they were arrested and charged.
Using what’s known as a matched-pairs analysis, Sailofsky compared their trajectories with those of players at the same position who were as similar as possible in the key traits of age, race, draft status and performance level, but who had not been arrested. (A handful of players were excluded from the analysis because they were arrested before their NFL careers had meaningfully begun or they had unique circumstances that could not be adequately paired with a control player.)
The study found that a player’s worth on the field — which was captured by the percentage of games they started and using the approximate value metric created by Pro Football Reference — more strongly predicts how long his career will be than whether he is accused of violence against women. “Even when the changing impact of an arrest over time is considered, an arrested starter in 2019 is expected to play more seasons than either an arrested or non-arrested backup in any year,” Sailofsky wrote.
According to the study, the findings suggest teams may be more inclined to cut ties with or make an example out of a lower-performing player, whose dismissal is more likely anyway and comes at less cost to the team, than a star or even a middle-of-the-roster player.
Alex Piquero, a criminologist at the University of Miami who has studied crime in the NFL, said the results of the study reflect that violence against women is not taken seriously enough in society overall or in the NFL, which has a far-reaching platform.
“Having worked with domestic violence survivors, a lot of times their voices aren’t heard and they don’t feel like they’re treated seriously by anybody, much less the system,” Piquero said. “A player’s contribution shouldn’t matter more than the victim’s life and well-being.”
The time period analyzed by Sailofsky included the 2014 domestic violence case involving running back Ray Rice. The league’s mishandling of the case prompted the NFL to rewrite its personal conduct policy, increasing the baseline suspension for certain violations and making clear that a player can be disciplined even if the alleged conduct does not result in a criminal conviction. The league also created its own investigations arm and introduced mandatory preventive education leaguewide. Rice never played again after video of him striking his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer, in an elevator was made public.
The study shows that the effect of arrests on players’ careers grew worse over time, but only for lower-performing players, and there was no observable change in severity after the Rice incident that was different from any other year-over-year change. “The impact of arrests on career outcomes was not clearly affected by whether the arrest occurred after the Ray Rice incident,” Sailofsky wrote.
The findings suggest that the Rice incident may not have been “as much of a landmark moment as some people say it is,” Sailofsky said. The model he used for his study was designed to account for the other factors that affect an athlete’s career outcome, which for Rice included diminished performance at a position losing value in today’s NFL.
Sailofsky completed the research as part of his dissertation for his doctorate in sociology at McGill University in Montreal. He conducted a similar study on NBA players. Those results also showed that if a player was performing at even an adequate level, an arrest did not seem to negatively affect him, although Sailofsky said that the smaller roster size in the NBA afforded him a smaller data set, and thus did not allow for as sophisticated a statistical analysis as with NFL players.
“I want to simplify the discourse from one that sees the NFL as this kind of arbiter of morality into one that demonstrates that this is a dollars and cents decision for teams,” Sailofsky said. “Do teams take into account the fact that a player has been arrested? Yeah, I think they do. But it can very easily be overridden by other factors that are more important to winning and to profit.”