This year has seen some disturbing arrests of NFL players. Third degree criminal sexual conduct. Driving under the influence. Assault. Disorderly conduct. Battery.
Some ugly stuff. One general manager believed the number of arrests this year was among the worst he's seen in some time. There were others in the NFL who voiced the same opinion to me.
The problem is those sentiments aren't accurate. NFL players, for the most part, are getting arrested less.
The trend of – mostly-- declining arrest numbers for NFL players starts in 2006 when there were 79 player arrests. The narrative then was that players were running amok and needed to be harnessed. Some of that narrative was hysteria (and other factors) but it was there.
Then, prior to the 2007 season, Commissioner Roger Goodell implemented a stricter conduct policy that included more stern punishments. In May of that year, Goodell suspended Pacman Jones for the entire season and Chris Henry eight games for repeat violations of the conduct policy. Those suspensions are considered a significant moment in league history because they were, in many ways, the start of Goodell coming down harder on players than previous commissioners.
In a letter to Jones and Henry at the time, Goodell wrote: “Your conduct has brought embarrassment and ridicule upon yourself, your club, and the NFL, and has damaged the reputation of players throughout the league. You have put in jeopardy an otherwise promising NFL career, and have risked both your own safety and the safety of others through your off-field actions. In each of these respects, you have engaged in conduct detrimental to the NFL and failed to live up to the standards expected of NFL players. Taken as a whole, this conduct warrants significant sanction.”
Goodell has since used a firm hand and has been accused by players of being a dictator. Even the effectiveness of the tougher policies has been questioned.
But when looking at the arrest numbers there's a definite trend downward (with the exception of one year) for arrests. It's not a huge arc downward, but a steady one, and seems to prove Goodell's actions might be working. The San Diego Union-Tribune keeps a database of every NFL criminal act since 2000. It's not a perfect list but it is the most comprehensive one available to the public.
The database gives one set of numbers and the NFL says it has different ones. But both are approximately the same (the NFL's arrest numbers are actually slightly higher than the database's). The NFL says there were 79 arrests in 2006, 73 in 2007, 72 in 2008, 62 in 2009, 64 in 2010 (26 for driving under the influence/driving while intoxicated) and 62 last year (12 for DWI/DUI).
Arrests are down about 22 percent since 2006. Again, the stricter policies began at the beginning of the 2007 season.
So far this year, since January, there have been approximately 16 arrests.
It's very possible there could be a spree of criminal activity that could blow the whole thing up, but five months into the year, it's quite possible we may have yet another year of a (mostly) continuing trend of reduced arrests.
Again, this isn't exact. It's possible the arrest numbers were heading downward anyway. But that doesn't seem to be the case. Arrests in the early 2000s were generally in the 40s per year range then spiked dramatically and stayed spiked until they started to fall beginning in 2006 or so.
There are other possibilities for the dropping numbers. Union representatives for years have stressed the importance of staying out of trouble. The long running rookie symposium, which focuses on making smart decisions, has likely helped. Also, players might just be getting it.
But overall it seems hard to argue that, like Goodell or hate him, Goodell's harsher punishments have been a huge key in why arrests seem to be falling. The fear factor is keeping players in line perhaps more than ever before.