Fewer NFL play­ers be­ing ar­rested

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USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Brent Schroten­boer

No other year in NFL his­tory was quite as busy for law en­force­ment as 2006. NFL play­ers were ar­rested or cited at least 71 times for var­i­ous al­leged crimes, in­clud­ing 10 in­ci­dents for the Ben­gals alone and 20 ar­rests for play­ers sus­pected of driv­ing drunk.

The prob­lem got so bad that the league was forced to crack down on it af­ter hir­ing Roger Good­ell as the NFL’s new sher­iff that Au­gust.

But it didn’t quite work. An­other surge of crim­i­nal cases dis­rupted the league in 2013 and 2014, prompt­ing it to re­vamp its strat­egy.

Now the NFL is learn­ing just how well it’s hold­ing up, based on nearly four years of data since its new poli­cies took hold in 2015. Some re­sults are strik­ing:

❚ NFL player ar­rests and crim­i­nal ci­ta­tions have dropped to about 38 a year since then, com­pared to about 57 a year in the 10 years prior, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis of the USA TO­DAY data­base of more than 900 such in­ci­dents in­volv­ing play­ers since 2000.

❚ Ar­rest rates for drunken driv­ing and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence both have fallen in step. DUI ar­rests are down to about nine a year since Jan­uary 2015, com­pared

NFL player ar­rests and crim­i­nal ci­ta­tions have dropped to about 38 a year since 2015, com­pared to about 57 a year in the 10 years prior

with 15 a year from 2005 to

2014. Do­mes­tic abuse ar­rests dipped from about seven a year from 2005 to 2014 to about five a year since 2015.

❚ And the Ben­gals have had only four known in­ci­dents since then, cool­ing their bad­boy im­age af­ter a rash of in­ci­dents in the pre­vi­ous decade.

“I think we’re a much more en­light­ened pop­u­la­tion, and that makes us stronger and bet­ter, and I think also has an im­pact on ac­tions,” said Anna Isaac­son, the NFL’s se­nior vice pres­i­dent for so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity. “I think you see the re­sults in ac­tions by in­ci­dents go­ing down.”

No­body’s cel­e­brat­ing. The league con­sid­ers one ar­rest to be too many, even if that might not be re­al­is­tic. At the same time, the data show the league ex­pe­ri­enced a wa­ter­shed year in 2014, lead­ing to changes that seem to be last­ing.

That Septem­ber was when a video went vi­ral of run­ning back Ray Rice punch­ing his then-fi­ancee in a casino el­e­va­tor. The out­rage that erupted over his le­nient two-game sus­pen­sion soon hurled the league into a pub­lic re­la­tions cri­sis, com­pelling it to crack down on player con­duct again and toughen its ap­proach to do­mes­tic abuse.

The past four years marked a trans­for­ma­tion in pun­ish­ment and pre­ven­tion for driv­ing drunk. That same Septem­ber, the league and play­ers union agreed to manda­tory two-game sus­pen­sions for first-time DUI of­fenses. Mean­while, rideshare ser­vices such as Uber and Lyft have ex­ploded in pop­u­lar­ity, mak­ing it eas­ier to get home safely af­ter par­ty­ing.

Last year, the play­ers union an­nounced a part­ner­ship with Lyft in which ac­tive play­ers would be el­i­gi­ble to re­ceive

$250 in ride cred­its. “Peo­ple want to go out; peo­ple want to have a good time,” Ea­gles re­ceiver Jor­dan Matthews said. “But I think Uber and Lyft and things like that have done a great job giv­ing peo­ple that op­por­tu­nity to not putting other peo­ple in dan­ger.”

That and other changes by the league have led to a sig­nif­i­cant re­duc­tion in such in­ci­dents, though is­sues per­sist and some teams do bet­ter than oth­ers. While the Ben­gals ap­pear bet­ter be­haved, the Pack­ers and Jets lead the league with 11 ar­rests or ci­ta­tions since

2015. The Vik­ings and Bron­cos have the most in­ci­dents since

2000 with 51 and 50, in­clud­ing three and five since 2015, ac­cord­ing to the data­base.

Drink­ing and not driv­ing

To pro­vide con­text on player con­duct is­sues that have chal­lenged the league, USA TO­DAY has tracked NFL ar­rests and crim­i­nal ci­ta­tions of ac­tive NFL play­ers since 2000. Some in­ci­dents come to light later or avoid de­tec­tion. The list of 900plus in­ci­dents are over­whelm­ingly mis­de­meanor cases, often re­sult­ing from traf­fic stops, with drunken driv­ing re­main­ing the league’s big­gest crim­i­nal prob­lem, about 25% of all NFL ar­rests.

DUI ar­rests slowed af­ter the league tough­ened its pol­icy in 2014, mov­ing from fi­nan­cial fines for first-time DUI of­fenses to two-game sus­pen­sions with­out pay. That was the year Cow­boys de­fen­sive line­man Josh Brent was con­victed of in­tox­i­ca­tion man­slaugh­ter af­ter he drove drunk and crashed in an ac­ci­dent that killed his team­mate and pas­sen­ger, Jerry Brown, in De­cem­ber 2012.

“You don’t want to be the guy that’s putting a black eye on your team,” Jets of­fen­sive tackle Kelvin Beachum said. “And I think or­ga­ni­za­tions as a whole have made a point that if you do this, you may not be the guy for us. And the leash for some peo­ple is not as long as it is for oth­ers. So it’s a give-and-take for both ends, the or­ga­ni­za­tion and the play­ers un­der­stand­ing the ram­i­fi­ca­tions and con­se­quences for some of the things that go along with DUI ar­rests and things of that na­ture.”

The league had at least 35 com­bined DUI ar­rests in 2012 and 2013, com­pared to about 20 over the last two years, part of a cul­ture change that em­pha­sizes both pre­ven­tion and in­creased ac­count­abil­ity.

Take the case of Jameis Win­ston. Early one morn­ing in 2016, the Tampa Bay quar­ter­back got into the front seat of a ride with Uber. Though he might have pre­vented a DUI ar­rest by not get­ting be­hind the wheel, the fe­male driver ac­cused him of grab­bing her crotch in the car while wait­ing in line at a drive-thru restau­rant in Ari­zona.

Win­ston wasn’t ar­rested or charged. But the NFL in­ves­ti­gated and con­cluded Win­ston had touched the driver in an in­ap­pro­pri­ate and sex­ual man­ner with­out her con­sent, a form of sex­ual as­sault, which is an­other big em­pha­sis now in the league’s an­nual so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram for play­ers and staff.

The NFL then pun­ished Win­ston with a three-game sus­pen­sion that ended last month. He apol­o­gized to the driver and said, “I have elim­i­nated al­co­hol from my life.”

Isaac­son said the beefed-up ed­u­ca­tional pro­grams are de­signed to help play­ers and staff gain broader un­der­stand­ing of sex­ual as­sault and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence be­yond just “how to stay out of trou­ble.”

“The pur­pose is (play­ers and staff ) need to un­der­stand these is­sues and know how they can af­fect your com­mu­nity, when you need to speak up if you see some­thing, how you can help peo­ple who may be ef­fected, and what ac­tions you can take as an ev­ery­day cit­i­zen,” she said. “That’s a dif­fer­ent mind­set than we were in in 2014.”

This has helped the league also make progress with do­mes­tic abuse, part of which might be mea­sured by the dip in ar­rests for such cases since 2015. Tougher pun­ish­ment plays a role, too. Be­fore the Rice video aired, the NFL had been his­tor­i­cally le­nient on do­mes­tic vi­o­lence cases, usu­ally never pun­ish­ing a player with more than a one- or two-game ban.

The NFL since in­creased the dis­ci­pline for first-time of­fenses to six-game sus­pen­sions, even if the player hadn’t been ar­rested, sub­ject to var­i­ous cir­cum­stances. Last year, the league handed down a sixgame ban for Cow­boys run­ning back Ezekiel El­liott, who hadn’t been ar­rested but still was pun­ished by the league based on do­mes­tic abuse ev­i­dence it found to be cred­i­ble.

It was an­other ex­am­ple of the NFL hold­ing play­ers to an el­e­vated stan­dard, often with push back from play­ers and their union.

Pro­tect­ing the shield

The league often has pointed out its player ar­rest rate his­tor­i­cally has been lower than that of the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion, even dur­ing its worst years for ar­rests, a claim that is sup­ported by a 2015 study con­ducted by the Uni­ver­sity of Texas Dal­las in­volv­ing males ages 20-39.

USA TO­DAY also found that roughly one-third of NFL ar­rest cases lead to ac­quit­tal or charges be­ing dropped with­out pun­ish­ment. The re­main­ing two-thirds end up with some type of le­gal pun­ish­ment af­ter plea deals, con­vic­tions or di­ver­sion pro­grams. Be­yond that, thou­sands of play­ers par­tic­i­pate in the league each year with­out in­ci­dent.

But the crises of four to five years ago de­manded more from the league. Big crim­i­nal cases es­pe­cially can dom­i­nate the pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion about the league, as they did with the Rice video or when tight end Aaron Her­nan­dez was charged with mur­der in 2013, less than a year af­ter he signed a five-year deal worth up to $40 mil­lion.

“It was crit­i­cal that the NFL re­sponded to the high-pro­file, high-vis­i­bil­ity cases in the man­ner they did,” said Alex Pi­quero, a crim­i­nol­o­gist at UT Dal­las who has con­ducted re­search on NFL player ar­rests, in­clud­ing this year on how crime in col­lege pre­dicts vi­o­lent crime in the NFL.

Pro­tect­ing the NFL shield, its im­age and brand, is why it mat­ters to Good­ell and team own­ers. Their play­ers are highly paid pub­lic fig­ures who at­tract me­dia at­ten­tion with any in­ci­dent in­volv­ing po­lice. Spon­sors and con­sumers are pay­ing at­ten­tion, even if it al­ways will be a work in progress with new young men com­ing into the league each year, usu­ally around age 21.

“Just like any or­ga­ni­za­tion, the NFL would prob­a­bly pre­fer that their play­ers are not ar­rested at all,” Pi­quero said in an email. “How­ever … I also do not think it is very re­al­is­tic. Ev­i­dence from gen­eral pop­u­la­tion stud­ies in crim­i­nol­ogy show roughly a third will have some type of crim­i­nal jus­tice con­tact, usu­ally ar­rest, by their mid20s. Although I am not sure I would view such an ar­rest per­cent­age as nec­es­sar­ily suc­cess­ful, I would ar­gue these es­ti­mates pro­vide a type of base­line of what we may ex­pect.”

Con­tin­ued progress is a more re­al­is­tic goal.

“We feel it’s trend­ing in the right di­rec­tion,” Isaac­son said.

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