In April of 2007, Roger Goodell announced the implementation of his Personal Conduct Policy, suspending Pac-Man Jones for a full season and Chris Henry for eight games. That policy extended beyond requiring a criminal conviction, where any event that embarrassed or affected the league’s reputation could be punished, even if the player was ultimately not punished by the law. In announcing it, Goodell laid out his thoughts:
"“Illegal or irresponsible conduct does more than simply tarnish the offender. It puts innocent people at risk, sullies the reputation of others involved in the game, and undermines public respect and support for the NFL."
"“While criminal activity is clearly outside the scope of permissible conduct, and persons who engage in criminal activity will be subject to discipline, the standard of conduct for persons employed in the NFL is considerably higher. It is not enough simply to avoid being found guilty of a crime. Instead, as an employee of the NFL or a member club, you are held to a higher standard and expected to conduct yourself in a way that is responsible, promotes the values upon which the league is based, and is lawful."
"“Persons who fail to live up to this standard of conduct are guilty of conduct detrimental and subject to discipline, even where the conduct itself does not result in conviction of a crime.”"
That announcement came after a dramatic spike in arrests and public incidents involving NFL players. How bad was it? According to the San Diego Union-Tribune database of NFL arrests, there were 68 arrests in 2006, the majority of which came after July 1st of that year (Goodell took over as commissioner just prior to the start of the 2006 season). That was a massive spike over previous years, and led to a public outcry that, by and large, supported Goodell’s tough talk.
We are now more than six years post-Goodell’s Conduct Policy, so how successful has it really been? This is all coming to the forefront again this offseason as the number of arrests have moved past 30 since the Super Bowl. The supporters of the policy would claim that NFL arrests are down since Goodell instituted the policy–and they would be right if we just looked at the specific short stretch that led to his initial actions.
What we don’t know, though, is what would have happened had the Policy not been put in place. Maybe we would be living in a law-less NFL world where hundreds of players would now be getting arrested if Goodell did not begin lengthy suspensions. More likely, in my opinion, those arrest numbers would have regressed anyway, we just don’t know how much.
What we can do is take a broader view, and using the arrests database, go back to 2000. We can also break it down by “offseason” arrests (Feb. 1st to June 30th, so that we match the end of this year) and the rest of the year, when players are mostly in camp or in season.
Here, for example, is the average number of arrests for each season, for months that would be part of the season (July – January):
2000 to 2006 (pre-Goodell and during the first bad arrest year that prompted Goodell): 25.6 arrests per year
2007 to 2012 (post-Personal Conduct Policy): 25.2 arrests per year
If you exclude the 2006 outlier, when 47 arrests occurred during those months, prompting Goodell to act (no other year has had more than 31 during those months), then that first number drops to 22.0. Still, pretty similar arrest numbers.
Not so, though, when we look at the offseason. If we exclude the 2007 offseason, when there were 32 more arrests (since Goodell instituted the policy mid-way through it), we get the following arrests on average:
2000 to 2006: 17.7
2008 to 2013: 28.5
That’s a 61% increase of pre-Goodell to post-Goodell arrests in the NFL offseason months of February to June. The case that Goodell’s Personal Conduct Policy is having a deterrent impact on player behavior is pretty weak. Why might that number be so much higher post-Goodell?
Stephanie Stradley wrote about it shortly after the policy was announced, wondering if it had the unintended consequence of giving increased attention to player misbehavior. We have seen a rise in websites and online attention to player arrests in the NFL, to the point where players who would otherwise not be notable except listed on the end of a transaction report, and who most fans probably do not even recognize, are stories. Hey, we do it here, and that cat is probably not going back in the bag. The demand is high for this information, in part because people are interested in news of celebrity arrests, and in part because it’s a story when it could affect the NFL team. Goodell has suspended quite a few players, but the amount of stories speculating on who he could suspend, because there is no established due process or consistent understanding, is 100 times that amount.
According to Brent Schrotenboer (now with USA Today), who originally created the San Diego Union Tribune database that is cited frequently, he researched and created it for this story that ran on April 22, 2007, published almost two weeks after Goodell announced his policy. That database is now updated regularly with each new arrest. That is one concrete example of the increased scrutiny, because now we can look back and compare arrests–something that was unavailable before he came to office. Now, players that were not even on teams (Chad Johnson and Titus Young, for example) are commonly credited against the NFL, even when they are no longer player in the league.
That database has the following intro:
"These are arrests and citations involving NFL players since 2000 that were more serious than speeding tickets. U-T San Diego reviewed hundreds of news reports and public records in compiling it. The list cannot be considered comprehensive in part because some incidents may not have been reported and some public records proved to be elusive. Increased media coverage of incidents also probably accounts for more incidents listed in recent years."
I have no doubt that the last statement is true. We just saw today a report that Ryan Mathews was arrested, which was then refuted, as he was involved in an incident but he was not the one arrested. We have seen similar reports regarding Maurice Jones-Drew. Would you have seen those a decade ago, when there were no charges brought, and the player was not even arrested?
The increased scrutiny also leads to more reports, so that while that original database was exhaustively researched, there were likely actual arrests that slipped through and were never actually reported publicly, particularly in small towns in the offseason.
I doubt the actual arrests have increased that much, but the additional scrutiny sure makes it seem like the NFL players are more out of control than a decade ago, when in fact the arrests are going to ebb and flow from year to year, often randomly. There will always be a very small, isolated number of criminals engaged in organized activity. We have seen that with some serious drug charges, with Michael Vick’s conviction related to dog fighting, and potentially with Aaron Hernandez. If one is inclined to engage in such behavior, it is doubtful that the threat of a suspension is going to alter behavior (when the punishment for being caught is so much more severe).
Meanwhile, most of the arrests (several of which are never prosecuted) involve impulsive acts and not pre-meditated behavior. Many of those are related to alcohol, from bar fights to drunk driving. Maybe players have had visions of Roger Goodell in their head when they were about to throw a punch, and refrained. I doubt it, though, as reason isn’t always present when young men and alcohol is involved in the spur of the moment.
I fully expect some sort of tough action from Goodell after the high profile nature of this offseason for the NFL. If the NFL is inclined to take any action, though, I think that they need to re-evaluate whether the current stance is working after six years. While the best solution would be to somehow go back to a situation where the league did not increase scrutiny on itself, that has passed. High profile legal incidents and bad behavior will occur occasionally and randomly; it is the arrests like a backup safety having a handgun under a seat that have added to the perception. Would you have known a decade ago about a backup safety getting arrested in a different town than where he played?
There is no going back, so I think the NFL should consider whether positive reinforcement will have more impact than the attempts at deterrence. Goodell has shined a light and intensified the scrutiny and it is not going away. The truth is most of the players are good citizens who contribute to the community, and the next best alternative is to reward and shine a light on positive behavior. The league could look at team level rewards such as cap space or consider the equivalent of compensatory picks for good offseason behavior of an organization’s players, so that there is internal peer pressure to be a good citizen. Who understands the compensatory structure involved with player movement and free agency perfectly? I doubt awarding picks based on good citizenship and lack of arrests for organizations would be any more convoluted. If it is such a stain on the “shield” and arrests damage the value, the league could institute a bonus pool, and like those signs at work sites that tell us how many days the site has been accident-free, the players could get recognized for being drama free. Payouts to veterans could increase over time–a good citizen bonus–for years of service without incident. These are all fanciful, and perhaps extreme. I would argue that the current format isn’t working anyway and has been counterproductive.
There is intense interest in arrests now, but perhaps the league should incentivize good behavior by rewarding it with something tangible that causes fans to focus on that instead.