Common sense & statistics, using NFL and NBA arrest rates

In his bi-annual mailbag, ESPN’s Bill Simmons takes a sarcastic tone to the NFL, advocating that the NBA should exploit deficiencies in football through an advertising campaign. Among other things, Simmons writes:

But why stop at concussions and 18-game schedules? I’d throw in stuff like, “The NBA, Where We Don’t Replace Our Refs For 25 Percent Of The Season With Random Dudes Off The Street,” and, “The NBA, Where Our Players Don’t End Up Committing Crimes Every Other Week.”

Something smelled fishy with his last sentence.

Should the NBA really pride itself on its players committing fewer crimes than the NFL’s?

Um, no.

Among the four North American professional sports organizations, the NFL has the lowest arrest rate (2.0%). Moreover, the NBA actually has the highest (5.1%), making an NBA player more than two and a half times as likely to have been arrested as an NFL player. 

Of course, Simmons’ sentence may be technically correct – an NFL team keeps about four times as many athletes on its active roster, meaning that there are hundreds more professional football players out there who could get arrested, relative to the NBA.

But its misleading to say that the NFL has a crime problem and the NBA doesn’t.

For example, relative to the general population, NFL players commit fewer crimes (see this statistical study, or this study on Regressing). The latter post includes the following graph of arrests per 1000 individuals. On average, NFL players commit fewer crimes than the adult US male population.

What Do Arrests Data Really Say About NFL Players And Crime?

Grantland’s already made it pretty clear that its going to use statistics to tell its story, even if that flies in the face of the truth and common sense.

In this case, its easy to see where the tiger gets its stripes.




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