N.F.L. Players Pay a Small Price When Accused of Violence Against Women

How the N.F.L. 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 N.F.L. 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 impact 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, the 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 percent 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 N.F.L. 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 N.F.L. 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, who decide whether to punish players after serious accusations.

Sailofsky examined the post-arrest careers of 117 N.F.L. 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 N.F.L. 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 both 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 N.F.L., said the results of the study reflect that violence against women is not taken seriously enough in society overall or in the N.F.L., 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 N.F.L. 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 fiancée Janay Palmer in an elevator was made public.

The study shows that the impact 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 N.F.L.

Sailofsky completed this research as part of his dissertation for his Ph.D. in sociology at McGill University in Montreal. He conducted a similar study on N.B.A. players. Those results also showed that if a player was performing at even an adequate level, an arrest did not seem to negatively impact him, though Sailofsky said that the smaller roster size in the N.B.A. afforded him a smaller data set, and thus did not allow for as sophisticated a statistical analysis as with N.F.L. players.

Sports leagues have long wrestled with how to respond to accusations of violence against women. Juan Carlos Areán, a program director for the nonprofit organization Futures Without Violence, describes sports as a “guiding force of society,” with the ability to influence cultural norms and a responsibility to model behaviors. At the same time, he said, there’s not a simple, one-size-fits-all answer to what the career consequences should be for a player accused of violence against women.

“Let’s say that the N.F.L. decided anyone who gets convicted of domestic violence is terminated forever,” Areán said. “That could disincentivize survivors to come forward and have an effect that I don’t think we want. So we need to find a balance, which is not so easy, of consequences that are significant enough for people to want to change if they have offended, or not offend if they haven’t done it, but not so much that nobody will call the police anymore.”

Sailofsky used the paradigm of post-arrest career length in part to assess the common claim that an accusation of an act of violence against women is enough to derail a player’s career, even if there is no conviction, an argument that the study concludes is “misplaced” when it comes to most players. The study also examined the subset of arrested players who were found guilty — 21 of the 117 arrested — and found that the offenses did not have a statistically significant negative impact on guilty or convicted players’ careers, though Sailofsky noted that this finding is limited by the relatively small sample size.

“I want to simplify the discourse from one that sees the N.F.L. 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.”

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