The Real "Thug League"

Shaun RouserContributor ISeptember 7, 2009

IONE, CA - AUGUST 28:  An inmate at the Mule Creek State Prison exercises through pull-ups in an outside yard August 28, 2007 in Ione, California. A panel of three federal judges is looking to put a cap on the California State Prison population after class action lawsuits were filed on behalf of inmates who complained of being forced to live in classrooms, gymnasiums and other non-traditional prison housing. California prisons house nearly 173,000 inmates with over 17,000 of them in non-traditional housing. The Mule Creek State Prison has had to modify several facilities to make room for an increasing number of inmates. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Here's a thought experiment: Which professional sports league has the highest percentage of thugs—believe they're above the law, if not for their status as professional athletes, they would be social pariahs or in prison—thugs?

Now, which professional sports league has had nearly 500 of its employees arrested or cited by the police since the year 2000, according to NFL arrests since 2000">The San Diego Union Tribune?

The answer to the latter question is the National Football League (NFL). Now, that doesn't mean that there's necessarily a higher percentage of "bad boys" in the NFL. The point, however, is that your answer to both questions was, in all probability, not America's neo-past-time, the NFL.

A summer during which Donte Stallworth killed a man while drunk driving (for which he served about a month in prison), Michael Vick reemerged from a two-year, prison-striped hiatus, and Super Bowl hero Plaxico Burress discovered that he would be spending roughly the next two years of his life in prison was culminated by accusations that pass rushing phenom Shawne Merriman choked his girlfriend or lady friend, Internet "star" and reality show floozy Tila Tequila.

Just Perfect.

And don't mistake that for a comprehensive list of this year's criminal behavior by pro football players. It's only those I could recall from memory, which means it doesn't include any NFL also-rans.

So, how is it that the National Basketball Association (NBA) is the league that's supposedly littered with miscreants and ne'er-do-wells?

Well, firstly, the NBA may actually be littered with miscreants and ne'er-do-wells. That argument may have some merit and it's one that should probably be given some public airing.

The question, however, is why is it that "The Shield" receives little public opprobrium, aside from some tisk-tisking of "bad apples" and plaudits for Pope Roger I's efforts in handling the problem, for the criminal and/or stupid element within its ranks?

Is LeBron James' smiling pitchman visage any less white bread than Peyton Manning's?

Sure, one could argue, "did you forget about Kobe Bryant and Colorado?"

No. And I also haven't forgotten about Ray Lewis and what didn't happen at a Super Bowl party.

On its face, the only difference between the NBA's two biggest stars—Kobe and LeBron—and the NFL's biggest stars—Manning and Tom Brady—is the tattoos. If Brady or Manning have any tattoos (which is in doubt), Brady would probably have something lame like a shamrock or his irredeemably bad logo on one of his shoulder blades.

So, what accounts for the difference in public perception?

Race, maybe?

I know what you're probably thinking: Black guy wants to make every discussion about race.

No. Hear me out.

The difference in perceptions is mostly cultural, which is in some part racial (not racist).

About 77 percent of pro basketball players are African-American. Though, the NFL isn't half-stepping on this issue because about 66 percent of its players are African-American.

But basketball is, by and large, the game that dominates America's inner cities, which brings along with it perceptions, prejudices, and realities about those inner cities, high crime for example. (By "prejudice" I simply mean the propensity for us to make decisions based on our experiences and knowledge of history without having to stop to navel gaze, not that people are necessarily bigoted.)

Whereas, if there is any stereotype about football, it's that its regional base is Southern, which brings with it a whole other set of perceptions, prejudices and realities, though none of them are particularly racial (or racist).

Therefore, even though most football players are black, the NFL gets a pass. It also doesn't hurt that they wear helmets, that part of their presumably tattooed arms are covered, and the NFL, unlike the NBA, does a fantastic job of selling the teams and not the players.

So, can the NBA do anything about this?

Probably. The league has a better image today than it did five or six years ago in part because of people like LeBron, though I can't prove this observation.

And can the NFL do anything to tarnish its image if a summer like the summer of 2009 hasn't already?

I'd like to argue self-assuredly that change is the only constant and that the NFL could blow it and start to turn Americans off like the NBA once did.

I would also like to argue that there's a realistic possibility that Giselle would leave the aforementioned Tom Brady to be with me in Memphis.

But I'm not a lawyer.