The Facts and Fictions Surrounding a Culture of Violence in the NFL

Ryan Riddle@@Ryan_RiddleCorrespondent IJune 28, 2013

Jun 26, 2013; North Attleborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots former tight end Aaron Hernandez (left) stands with his attorney Michael Fee as he is arraigned in Attleboro District Court. Hernandez is charged with first degree murder in the death of Odin Lloyd. Mandatory Credit: The Sun Chronicle/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports
Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

In the wake of the tragic events centering on a star NFL player being charged for murder, we are forced to ask ourselves just what this says about the game we all love.

Frequent media coverage of NFL players in legal trouble has created an unjustified stigma for the league and its players. Based on firsthand experience and hardcore data, I’ll provide some much-needed clarity on key questions surrounding the violent nature of the NFL.

Is the culture inside an NFL locker room more prone to violence than your average workplace?

Most employees would define violence in their workplace in a drastically different way than would an NFL player who just finished running full speed into a 300-pound man from 50 yards out.

In a cubicle-filled office littered with people dressed in suits and ties, a physical altercation between coworkers would be the talk of the company for years, whereas scenes of this nature are considered minor events by NFL standards.

Violence is typically a removed element from modern society and has continued to diminish over the years.

With that in mind, there’s little doubt that football is an extremely violent activity by modern-day standards. But such violence contains itself between the lines of a football field for the most part. 

When it comes to interactions within the locker room, violent behavior doesn’t appear to be the norm. If anything, there’s at times an undertone of physical intimidation, which could just be a natural byproduct of the sheer mass of these men. To be clear, the fear of “actual” violence is rarely an issue. Humor, teasing and a lighthearted immaturity comprise most interactions amongst comrades.

Does the violence of NFL culture predispose the league to a higher rate of criminal activity compared to normal society?

If our gauge is predicated upon media perception alone, we’d then be inclined to perpetuate the stereotype that claims those who play a violent sport at the most competitive level are also far more likely than the average citizen to find themselves in legal trouble. But reality seems to point toward this being a fictitious perception.

To put Ian Kenyon’s tweet into context, these figures are based on a demographic looking at males between the ages of 22 and 34.

Another interesting bit of data emerged in an article written by Jason DeRusha of CBS Minnesota back in 2011:

Since 2000, the San Diego Union Tribune has found 573 NFL players arrested for things bigger than speeding. That’s an arrest rate of 1 in every 45 players. …

According to the FBI, the national arrest rate in 2009, for all arrests, is 1 in 23.

Despite the recent events surrounding Aaron Hernandez, It seems rather difficult to conclude that NFL players are more likely to get into trouble compared to typical societal standards. However, if we were to get more specific by narrowing the demographic to males with incomes in excess of $100,000, it would be reasonable to speculate the arrest rate would be higher in the NFL.

How common is it for NFL players to associate with gang members?

Many of today's NFL players have origins in urban life, where gang activities are commonplace.

When you grow up in a poor, dangerous neighborhood, raised in poverty and surrounded by crime, the people you’re familiar with is a direct product of who you’re surrounded by. Naturally, it can be hard for guys to distance themselves from friends who they may have known their entire life. Guys understand the general advice is to eliminate all people in your life who are a negative influence, yet this process is considerably easier said than done.

Being raised in an environment with little respect for authority and laws can have profoundly negative effect on people’s social expectations; that status quo can be a difficult perception to separate from.

One of the major challenges of anyone raised in a poor environment is learning how to reprogram your entire understanding of who is most beneficial to your circumstances and who isn't.

When a guy makes it to the NFL, it’s common for the people in his past to expect him to “keep it real” with constant reminders of who his “real friends” are. Any indication that the guy is attempting to separate from this will naturally be perceived as arrogance. Guys in the locker room have a name for this; it's called “big-timing” someone.

This is naturally a label anyone would try to avoid, yet doing so while cutting ties with old friends is definitely a tricky balance. The most common thing to do for most guys caught in such a dilemma is to satisfy their perceived obligation towards loyalty, but in doing so they lay the foundations for potential trouble.

In the case of Aaron Hernandez, his long-rumored gang affiliation, as noted by Mike Dyce of Fansided, is much deeper than just association. He appears to be an active participant in the lifestyle.

His situation is a unique one.

Possessing the character to allegedly take another man's life in cold blood is definitely not a product of the NFL or its violent nature—this is an animal unto itself. Thus, drawing conclusions about the NFL or its players based on the deeply disturbing allegations looming over Hernandez is a great disservice to so many incredible NFL players who have been positive role models throughout their community.

All in all, most NFL guys are simply family men trying to provide for their own. They rarely even have time to spend with family. This leaves them with little interest in getting mixed up with risky or illegal activity off the field—despite what the media would have us believe.

Some of the nicest people I've ever had the pleasure of getting to know happened to be in an NFL locker room.

The NFL is not a sanctuary for society’s unsavory wild bunch, nor is it an entity which incubates malicious ideas. It promotes healthy competition and teaches responsibility to generations of young adults.

We mustn’t perceive the acts of so few as the defining characteristic of a large population. Our fascination with tragic events can no longer shape our perceptions of reality while we drown out the kindhearted and well-deserving heroes of the National Football League.

Ryan Riddle is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Before B/R, Ryan played defensive end at the University of California, where he still holds the single-season sack record. Afterwards, he was drafted by the Oakland Raiders and spent time with the New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens.


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