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Evaluating The NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy

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The NFL is on a record pace for arrests this year, so just how effective has the Personal Conduct Policy been?
The NFL is on a record pace for arrests this year, so just how effective has the Personal Conduct Policy been?

In light of Aaron Hernandez’s first-degree murder charge and the string of offseason arrests that have plagued the league this year, it’s time we take a look back and evaluate the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell took the reins from Paul Tagliabue in 2006, and he instituted his infamous Personal Conduct Policy that regulates NFL players both on and off the field the following year. However, even in the face of harsher penalties, the arrest rate for NFL players has gone up since its implementation.

Brent Schrotenboer and Merrie Monteagudo of U-T San Diego started compiling a database that chronicles every NFL player arrest since 2000; these arrests and citations are “more serious than speeding tickets.” Also, keep in mind that the database should not be considered completely comprehensive because not all incidents were reported and some public records were difficult to obtain. Even so, it gives a pretty clear picture of how many crimes have been committed by NFL players since the turn of the century.

Year

‘00

‘01

‘02

‘03

‘04

‘05

‘06

‘07

‘08

‘09

‘10

‘11

‘12

‘13

Arrests

 36

 42

 37

 37

 36

 47

 68

 62

 65

 48

 54

 48

 45

 39

Prior to Goodell taking the job, the NFL averaged 39 arrests per year dating back to the database’s inception. Then, in 2006, when Goodell took office in September, the NFL saw a huge spike that bucked that trend to a record-setting 68 arrests — Goodell can thank Adam “Pacman” Jones and Chris Henry for their combined seven arrests helping to significantly inflate the total that year. The rash of arrests that hit the NFL in his first season led to Goodell initiating sweeping changes to personal conduct that essentially gave him unprecedented authority as judge, jury and executioner. There are no guidelines that govern Goodell’s punishments, and he essentially takes everything on a case-by-case basis, dishing out justice as he sees fit.

Goodell immediately sent a message to the league when he suspended Jones for a full year and Henry for eight games, making it clear that he was not going to tolerate serious infractions or multiple run-ins with the law. However, even after Goodell instituted the Personal Conduct Policy, 41 NFL players still managed to find themselves on the wrong side of the law that year. And the year after that, there were even more arrests with 65 recorded.

While that three-year span from 2006-08 was abnormally high, it certainly didn’t bode well for the NFL. In the years following that dark criminal era, the NFL has averaged nearly 47 arrests per year. The league has seen 39 arrests in 2013 alone, and we just reached the halfway point of the year.

There are a number of factors that could have had an impact on these increased numbers: broader media coverage, the prevalence of social media and heavier public scrutiny. And, in reality, there are way too many variables at play to definitively make a case one way or the other. Whatever the reasons, with even minor incidents being magnified by the media and public these days, the league certainly can’t be too happy about it.

Regardless, these incidents highlight an alarming trend in the NFL. While it’s impossible to determine if the arrest numbers would’ve gone up or down in the absence of Goodell’s Personal Conduct Policy, doing something brash like abolishing the system altogether is probably not the answer. Whether they decide to impose harsher penalties or add new statutes for violating the Personal Conduct Policy, it’s clear that some sort of change is needed.

Of course, not all crimes are created equal, and the same goes for players. Some situations fall so far out of the rule book that there’s really nothing that can be done by the NFL to prevent it. It’s clear that some players, no matter the consequences, will be true to themselves and cross the line with little regard. Even Goodell’s ominous iron fist is helpless in curbing their actions — Jones and Henry proved that when they found themselves behind bars again even after lengthy suspensions from the NFL. And, if he’s guilty, Hernandez couldn’t have been thinking about what Goodell would do when he allegedly committed those horrid acts of violence. There’s really no sort of punishment that Goodell could’ve threatened Hernandez with that would’ve stopped him from his purported actions, as the potential consequences handed down by the courts would far outweigh anything Goodell could ever imagine doing.

Putting aside the outliers and more extreme offenders, there are some measures that can be taken by the league to cut down on the arrests being made. The NFL needs to further strengthen its Rookie Symposium and continue to educate young players on the pitfalls of being a professional athlete, while expanding and highlighting services offered by the league — such as the NFL Safe Rides program — that help deter easy-to-avoid infractions such as DUIs. But the biggest potential deterrent circles right back to the Commissioner himself. Goodell needs to hit the players even harder where it hurts the most: their wallets. While players are already losing out on game checks during a suspension, tacking even harsher financial penalties on top of that may further incentivize players to think twice before they act.

The current collective bargaining agreement doesn’t expire until after the 2021 NFL Draft, so impactful changes like giving teams more power in disciplining players are a long way off. But until that time comes, the league should focus on education while Goodell continues to do what he does best.