The offseason is a time of relaxation for NFL players. A time spent away from the field and with family and friends. Unfortunately, this is also a time where players seem to get into more trouble with the law. The arrests of notable players such as Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriot charged with murder, have sparked a flurry of reports regarding a “problem” in the NFL.
Since the 2012-2013 regular season ended on Dec. 29, there have been a total of 47 arrests of players, compared with nine arrests during the regular season (between Sept. 5 and Dec. 29). Since NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell instituted the new NFL personal conduct policy in April 2007, there have been a total of 378 arrests, and 303 of those have occurred during the offseason, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune’s NFL arrests database and ArrestNation.com. Offseason arrests have increased 61 percent since Goodell’s new conduct policy began.
“It’s an issue for the NFL,” says Jeff Benedict, author of Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL. “But the fact is, at some point, there’s a limit on what you can expect the league or individual teams to do to monitor and control what [adults do] in their free time.”
So, what exactly is being done to change this trend?
During the regular season, players have incredibly structured schedules that include weightlifting, reviewing game film and practicing plays, not to mention 60-minute games every weekend for at least 17 weeks. But once the offseason hits around January or February (depending on whether a team makes the playoffs), teams and the NFL monitor their players less, says Fox Sports analyst and former Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick.
“Anytime you have more structure in your life, things tend to be more ordered, less issues would pop up,” he says. “And then once the season’s over, [players] kind of scatter to the four winds and are kind of left to their own devices.”
Helping Players Now
The NFL and its teams have several programs available for players year-round as part of the league’s player engagement offices. Different programs educate players on how to stay out of the trouble and help them with family issues or financial decision-making. Players are required to attend symposiums through their rookie offseasons, but the programs are available for players even after they retire.
“You would be hard-pressed to find another industry that is as responsible, has spent as much time and resources in trying to ensure its workforce, basically what we’re talking about, is as responsible as possible.” Billick says of the NFL. “The league spends an incredible amount of time.”
“Our sole purpose is the off-the-field aspect of these players and their family,” says Troy Vincent, the NFL’s senior vice president of player engagement.
Vincent, a 15-year NFL veteran, says he and his staff work to educate and help players, even the ones that get in trouble off the field during the offseason.
“Once the offseason comes around, we want them thinking about what this life will be like after your playing experience is over,” he says.
Zachary Minor’s ZINC Life Skills Workshop is just one tool the NFL uses to help players. Minor holds seminars and even has a group act out different situations to teach players how to be responsible when those situations arise. ZINC has worked with the NFL since 1996 in a variety of ways, and Minor says players’ responses to his seminars are positive.
“They often enjoy the opportunity to get it out and talk about the issues,” Minor says. “It helps them look at how they can develop a strategy themselves. I tell them, ‘This is game film for life. Let’s study it. And then let’s look at how to make this better.’ “
Mike Tannenbaum, a former general manager of the New York Jets, says players interact with the team’s player development office almost year-round. Each team has a player development office, which helps players get internships, take classes, and start charitable events and camps — all geared toward keeping players occupied during the offseason.
The programs are there, but do players take advantage?
“The league could double, could quadruple” the time, energy and money it spends, coach Billick says, “and players are still going to find a way to get into trouble.”
The Problem Itself
Does the NFL really have a crime problem? Looking at the statistics without any context, 47 arrests in an eight-month period is a little disheartening. But looking at the bigger picture, the “problem” might be overblown, says Tulane University sports law professor Gabriel Feldman.
“I think what we clearly have, at a minimum, is a perception of a problem for the NFL,” says Feldman, who served as an on-air legal analyst for NFL Network during the 2011 NFL lockout. “But it may not be that there is an actual problem here.”
Last week, Peter King of SI.com compared the number of NFL player arrests with FBI crime data for the overall population. His data found that the percentage of players arrested in the NFL last year was 1.9 percent, compared with the 4.9 percent of American adults arrested in 2010. Feldman contends that football’s popularity creates the perception that the problem is worse than the numbers suggest. The real problem is with people overall, not just with athletes, he says.
“Guys are going to make mistakes. People are going to get arrested,” sports author Jeff Benedict says. “That happens in every sector of the workforce. But I think the numbers in the NFL are high — higher than they should be — and could be reduced if there were even tougher sanctions for players who got in trouble.”
While the NFL’s personal conduct policy does outline the consequences of certain actions, Feldman and Billick offer two simple ways to deter off-the-field trouble.
If a problem truly does exist, Feldman suggests possibly punishing the teams more. “For example, if a player commits a violent crime off the field and a team is docked a draft pick the following year,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s a fair solution, but that’s a change that could lead to some changes of how teams and general managers and players act.”
But Billick offers a much harsher penalty. “You want to eliminate some of this activity? It’s real simple. Make it zero tolerance,” he says. “If you make it zero tolerance, it’ll end. Players will stop.”
The NFL already has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to gambling, so Billick thinks the league has a perfect template. But analysts say that these players are grown adults and should bear the responsibilities of their actions.
“If we can find out a way to eliminate violent crime among people,” Feldman says, “then we can figure out a way to eliminate violent crimes among NFL players.”