Do pro athletes break the law more than average citizens?



While it’s easy to talk about athletes as risk-addicted jocks — see commenter Schloss1 here—at the professional level, the data just don’t support that stereotype.

You can point out, for instance, that for all their widely and frequently reported shenanigans, NFL players aren’t really more crime-prone than the general public:

According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, since 2000 an average of one in 45 NFL players a year gets arrested. Comparatively speaking, that number is one in 23 nonfootball-playing citizens, according to the FBI. Approximately one third of those NFL arrests stem from some form of drunken driving. The drunken-driving arrest rate of NFL players is one in 144, compared to a national rate of one in 135. Just because these guys make headlines when they screw up doesn’t mean that they’re considerably more dangerous than the people living on your street.

Other than the Union-Tribune numbers, data on pro athletes and risky behavior is hard to come by. “A big study on athletes and crime is—well, it’s a study that hasn’t been done, because it’s really hard to study professional athletes in an objective way,” says Robert Dimeff, a former team doctor for the Cleveland Browns who also worked at the Cleveland Clinic (he’s now at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center). “It’s hard to get controls. And lot of times people won’t volunteer. Their livelihood is at stake, and if information comes out from a study, it may affect their ability to get a contract.”

But Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, does have data on two types of crimes—domestic violence and drug use—and it seems to back up the Union-Tribune‘s findings. There are somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 pro athletes in the country. About 100 of them are arrested each year for domestic incidents, Lapchick says. That’s a rate of about .007 arrests per athlete versus a rate of about .03 incidents for the general male population, given that 4.5 million women are battered each year. Even if you assume the athletes don’t get arrested as often because cops go easy on them, Lapchick says, they don’t make up “a disproportionate number.” The percentages are similarly small with drug offenses.

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