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Pass Interference! Also, You’re Under Arrest

NFL players who get penalized the most on the field are also more likely to have a rap sheet.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Do your favorite players in the National Football League draw a lot of penalties over the course of a season? Do you enjoy their aggressive, rule-breaking attitude on the field?

Well, be careful who you are rooting for.

A first-of-its-kind study reports players who get penalized frequently during games are more likely to have an arrest record.

“It doesn’t mean that one causes the other,” said co-author Alex Piquero, a criminologist at the University of Texas–Dallas. “But it shows that problem behavior in one sphere is not limited to that sphere.”

Two years ago, a research team including Piquero and two Florida State University scholars, Wanda Leal and Marc Gertz, reported the arrest rate for NFL players is not significantly higher than that of the general population. They then decided to analyze the available data more closely to see if there was a connection between problematic on-field and off-field behavior.

Their arrest information came from two online sources, one complied by USA Today and another by the San Diego Union-Tribune. They contain information on all arrests of active players from 2000 to 2014, but do not include altercations with the law before they were signed to the league, or after their retirement.

“Problem behavior in one sphere is not limited to that sphere.”

From, the researchers noted each player’s number of penalties, penalty yards, and number of games played during that same 15-year period. A total of 524 players were studied.

“We found that the number of penalties, as well as a higher number of penalty yards, was positively and significantly related to (a player’s) total number of criminal arrests,” the researchers report. This dynamic was only found for non-violent crimes, “likely due to the rarity of violent arrests in our NFL database.”

Players who were arrested once over this period averaged 11 penalties and 95 penalty yards. Those with two or more arrests averaged 16 penalties and 133 penalty yards.

The researchers suggest at least two possible reasons why the same players who break rules on the field are more likely to do so in real life. They note that “persons with lower self-control are at risk for both offending and analogous behaviors — and on-the-field infractions could be construed as a type of analogous behavior.”

Another possibility is that “certain players self-select into positions that heighten their risk of infractions — some of which may involve serious physical contact,” they add. Off the field, those players may also place themselves in dicey situations that heighten their likelihood of arrest.

This effect was confined to the regular season. The researchers suspect that is “due to the high stakes of a win-or-go-home playoff game, where a costly penalty could turn the tide.”

The results suggest that teams who are hoping to preserve a positive image may want to think twice before signing a player with a history of repeated penalties.

It also suggests that if your teenage linebacker is constantly being penalized, you might want to get him some counseling. Those yellow flags may be a sign of bigger trouble ahead.