Ask an NFL fan which was the bigger news on Wednesday: that Aaron Hernandez was arraigned on charges of first-degree murder or that the New England Patriots cut him.
I'm not trying to be glib; that's a serious question. The NFL, despite a litany of arrests and growing off-field issues from its players every year, continues to trend upward when it comes to its growth and popularity in this country.
And despite being sued by a number of its own players for unsafe regulations that have ruined—or, as research is suggesting, in some extreme cases ended—former players' lives, the NFL continues to grow with every turn.
It's long been my contention that an NFL player could sustain a hit that would kill him right on the field, and fans—horrified as they may be in the moment—would still come back to watch. The NFL would still roll along, getting bigger and bigger.
There is no scandal the NFL can't handle.
The question of whether the NFL is scandal-proof arose after the news of Hernandez's arrest came down, with one of the bright young stars of the league's signature franchise being led out of his home in handcuffs.
How can the Patriots survive this? How can the league survive this?
Note the language wasn't "can they" but "how can they." There is no doubt the team and league will survive this situation—it's just a matter of how.
Frankly, that question seems simple to answer: Cut ties and move on.
The Patriots cut Hernandez and will find a way to win without him. That's how Bob Kraft, Bill Belichick and New England will survive this situation. By the time training camp begins, the Hernandez news will be little more than a preseason footnote, eventually overshadowed Rob Gronkowski's injury situation or Jake Ballard's ability to return to form.
There were nearly as many tweets about Tim Tebow moving to tight end on Wednesday as there were updates on Hernandez in court.
That's how the NFL survives too. The same way it always does. By reminding people that no player is bigger than the game—and that everyone is replaceable.
Repeating the past
The NFL has not only survived murder in the past—it's thrived. In the decade and a half since Rae Carruth was convicted of conspiring to murder the mother of his then-unborn child, the league has grown by leaps and bounds. Carruth was a first-round draft pick in 1997, but he is merely a footnote in the league's history, brought up whenever situations like the one Hernandez finds himself in come up.
In 2000, Ray Lewis was embroiled in scandal after agreeing to a plea deal with authorities surrounding the murder of two men in Atlanta. Lewis was named Super Bowl MVP the following year. A few years later, he provided an out-of-court settlement to the families of the victims.
Lewis never spent a day in jail, and with the crimes coming before current commissioner Roger Goodell's tenure, he never spent a game suspended either.
More than a decade after that, before his Baltimore Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII in his final game, Lewis told Shannon Sharpe of CBS that "God doesn't make mistakes" with regard to the men who were murdered.
The Super Bowl, with Lewis the central focus of much of the coverage, was one of the highest-rated games in league history.
Throughout his career, the Ravens great became something of an agent of reclamation for fans who loved him—preaching about how God changed his life to those who cared to listen—and an easy target for wisecracks on Twitter for those who didn't.
Through it all, the NFL survived and thrived. (And yes, that is cherry-picking history. There are many more scandals we could name that the league has survived.)
The games must go on
Jovan Belcher murdered Kasandra Perkins, the mother of his child, on December 1, 2012, before driving to the Kansas City Chiefs facility and ending his own life.
There was shock and dismay around the league, but the games went on.
The Chiefs beat the Carolina Panthers the next day, in Kansas City, and the victory became part of the Belcher narrative. The opening paragraph of the story on NFL.com about the game reads, "Against the backdrop of an unthinkable tragedy, the Kansas City Chiefs gave themselves a reason to be proud Sunday—and perhaps the impetus to let the healing begin."
The day before a game, an active player murdered a woman and killed himself, and it became part of the NFL narrative for his team's victory.
Bob Costas, during the NFL on NBC telecast, went on a calculated rant about gun control that week, making national headlines with his comments during a game between the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles.
The game, by the way, was the second-highest rated show on television that week, losing only to the overrun of CBS's NFL coverage that spilled into prime time. In the wake of an NFL-related murder-suicide, the only thing that could beat football on TV was more football.
Sure, there was discussion about whether the Chiefs should have played their game that week, out of respect for Perkins and her family and given how the murder-suicide may have shaken the focus of members of the Chiefs team. (Personally, I felt at the time the game should have been played.)
There was never a thought that we would stop watching. And there is no chance, given the latest scandal with Hernandez, that anything will lead us to stop watching.
The NFL's crime culture
There have been 30 arrests in the NFL since the Super Bowl, and more than 35 since the turn of 2013, many of which include charges related to violent crimes or gun possession.
Studies have shown that NFL players have a tendency to get into more trouble in the offseason, so it's hard to take the 36 arrests in six months and simply double the number to estimate how many arrests will happen in 2013. The 36 arrests do not necessarily project an upward trend for this year.
According to a study by U-T San Diego, there were 45 NFL arrests in 2011, many of which were misdemeanors or situations for which charges were eventually dropped. In 2011, there were 48 arrests with a similar degree of severity. A large bulk of those arrests seem to come in the offseason, particularly in the summer, with nearly double digits coming each July.
This summer may just be getting started for the NFL's public relations damage-control squads.
With those numbers, there is a prevailing perception that the league has developed a gun culture, with many players owning licensed or unlicensed firearms. The number of arrests over the last few years has led some to conclude that the NFL has developed a crime culture as well, leading Goodell to unilaterally punish and suspend players who tarnish the league's multibillion-dollar brand.
The perception may not necessarily be fair, however, despite the headline-grabbing nature of some of the NFL's recent crimes.
(Note: The same day Hernandez was arrested on charges of first-degree murder, Cleveland Browns rookie Ausar Walcott was arrested in New Jersey on charges of attempted murder after he punched a man in the head outside a night club. Both players were released by their respective teams.)
According to a database set up by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there were 12,408,899 arrests in this country in 2011, more than half a million of which were for violent crimes. According to the United States Census information, there are roughly 235 million Americans over the age of 18, which means that if every person arrested was just hauled in just once, it would equate to five percent of the population being arrested in a year.
More likely, the percentage of Americans arrested is much lower, given the propensity for recidivism. If, for example, every person on the list accounted for three arrests, the rate of arrested adults in this country would be somewhere around two percent.
The number of arrests in the NFL is roughly two percent of the league's population.
If multiple-crime offenders are taken into account—wide receiver Titus Young was arrested three times in the same week in May—that number drops as well, meaning that the number of NFL players arrested in a given year is likely lower than the general population in America.
Of course, that doesn't mean the perception of a crime culture isn't a problem for the NFL, despite Goodell's penchant of suspending players who aren't even convicted of a crime.
The fans don't care
Arrest after arrest, year after year, the ratings continue to rise.
Going off the numbers, more and more people become interested in the NFL every season, which has clearly become the most popular professional league in the history of American sports.
At this point, nothing can take the NFL down—not even its own players.
Even a work stoppage between the league and its players didn't take the NFL down. The lockout two years ago threatened to take away part of the season, and there was a veritable party in the streets of every major city when the self-inflicted NFL crisis was averted.
Being scandal-proof does not mean the NFL is immune to scandals—it just means they are able to withstand them.
With how popular the NFL has become, anything can turn into a story and any story can become a scandal. This is a league where a player filmed a Super Bowl commercial with his mother before he was drafted and the rumors of its content became a nationwide discussion.
This is a league where a player in a contract dispute doing sit-ups in his driveway was once national news and where an old, broken-down quarterback throwing passes to high school kids in Mississippi can lead to dozens of reporters camping out on his lawn.
Yet with those relatively harmless social distractions comes the reality that, in extreme cases, lives can change, and careers can end. Hell, lives can end. Those are the types of distractions that can lead to an organization's downfall and a league's unraveling.
But not the NFL. Pardon the expression, but the NFL seems beyond scandal-proof. The NFL seems bulletproof.
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