Peruse the headlines and the conclusion is inescapable: the National Football League is populated by overpaid thugs who carry the sport’s on-field violence into their private lives – and, once their careers are over, are likely to end up with brain damage and dementia.
Not a pretty picture, and one seemingly confirmed by the current controversy over Ray Rice, until this week a star running back for the League’s 2013 champions, the Baltimore Ravens. Rice was dropped by his team and banned indefinitely by the NFL after a video emerged of the player knocking down – and apparently out – his fiancée Janay in a lift in Atlantic City earlier this year, then dragging out her inert body.
The courts had effectively let Rice off, assured that it was the result of a row for which both parties bore a responsibility. Shortly afterwards the couple were married, and that seemed to be that. The video, however, blew this cosy scenario out of the water.
National outrage erupted. The Rice case seemed to typify NFL criminality – an already rich dossier featuring sensational cases including those of Plaxico Burress, who when at the New York Giants accidentally shot himself with a handgun in a Manhattan nightclub, or Aaron Hernandez of the New England Patriots, in prison without bail after being accused of three murders. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, no less than 36 NFL players have been arrested or cited for criminal offences so far this year alone.
Video: Baltimore Ravens on Ray Rice
But the picture is not quite what it seems. No one can deny that NFL is violent and dangerous. With annual revenues approaching $10bn, it also vies with the Premier League as the richest sports league on the planet. Rice had been on a five-year, $40m contract with the Ravens (roughly £95,000 a week in Premier League parlance) before he was cut from the team.
Certainly too, the NFL has an image problem, which the Rice affair has only accentuated. All too often the league tries to sweep trouble under the rug, culminating in the pre-season press conference in which Rice’s wife actually apologised for her behaviour. Not surprisingly there are calls for the head of the NFL’s all-powerful commissioner Roger Goodell, who initially punished Rice with a derisory two-game suspension. How, it is asked, could he have been unaware of the video, available to the police, and which eventually popped up on the celebrity gossip website TMZ?
The inconvenient fact, however, is that NFL players are less criminally inclined than the average population. The league is two-thirds black, and the players’ average age is about 26 – and no one, thanks to the enduring racial bias of the US criminal justice system, is more likely to be arrested than young black men.
It is astonishing but true that, according to a 2000 study, at any given moment here almost one in three black males between 20 and 29 is under “criminal supervision” – ie in jail, awaiting trial, or on probation or parole. Set against that, the 36 brushes with the law this year among the 1,700 players at the 32 NFL teams are in no way exceptional.
Alas, NFL players are famous, their misdemeanours and crimes are automatically front-page news. The more sobering facts listed above tend to be overlooked in a country with the highest incarceration rate on earth, and besotted with what Americans call football.Reuse content