Off-field arrests for violence plague pro football

Aaron Hernandez, center, in court in Fall River, Mass., on June 17, 2013. Professional football players are racking up arrests for violent crimes.

Aaron Hernandez's arrest is not a rarity in the NFL. Professional football players are racking up arrests for violent crime in numbers not matched by other sports.

Aaron Hernandez, who faces a murder charge in the death of his friend Odin Lloyd, is the latest in a string of NFL players accused of committing violent crimes.

Since the Super Bowl in February, 28 professional football players have been taken into custody, according to a database compiled by UT San Diego, on charges ranging from drug possession, to DUI,  battery and murder. The NFL is all about statistics, and some experts say these are the kinds of league numbers that cry out for further investigation.

The same day that Hernandez, a promising 23-year-old tight end, was charged with first-degree murder, fellow NFL player Ausar Walcott was arrested. Walcott, a rookie defensive end for the Cleveland Browns, allegedly punched a man outside a club on Sunday, putting him in the hospital in critical condition. Both players have since been cut by their teams.

Dr. Ed Hirt, a social psychologist at Indiana University whose research focuses on sports fandom, says the overall statistics are concerning, especially when you compare football with other professional sports. 

“In trying to compare across different sports, the fact that it seems so prevalent with NFL athletes, you’ve got to wonder why wouldn’t the same thing hold true for other sports that are similar?” he said.

How do arrests within the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League stack up?

The NBA says six of its players have been arrested since July 2012, according to The Associated Press. Major League Baseball says it's aware of three cases – two of them DUIs and one a misdemeanor drug charge, the wire service reported.

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Asked for statistics on NHL player arrests between July 2012 and today, a league spokesperson was unequivocal in an email to MSN News: "The number of NHL players arrests is ZERO," she wrote.

Dr. Steve Ungerleider, a psychologist at the University of Texas whose research on doping has been used in the Lance Armstrong case, said the literature has long pointed strongly to a disproportionate amount of violent criminal behavior in NFL athletes.

"What you see is in football players, from a young age – from high school and college – they're trained to hit hard, be aggressive and take severe damage," he said. "Not only are they bigger, stronger, faster, but they're coached to hit harder and in many cases, illegally."

In 1998, journalists Jeff Benedict and Don Yaeger compiled data showing that 109 out of a sample of 509 NFL players active in the 1996-97 season were arrested for a serious crime. That amounts to 21.4 percent of the players tracked.

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Dr. Mitch Abrams, a New Jersey-based sports psychologist who specializes in violence among athletes, said while those statistics aren’t reflective of the whole NFL player population, the public does seem to hear less about crimes committed by players in other professional leagues such as MLB, NBA and NHL.

Like football, hockey is a violent sport where concussions are common. The NHL was rocked in recent years by the suicides of Wade Belak and Rick Rypien, as well as the accidental drug overdose that killed Derek Boogaard. All three men were enforcers on the ice, paid to pick fights and take punches.

Although Ungerleider acknowledged that the glorification of violence is also pervasive in the NHL, "you just don't see the numbers" when it comes to violent felonies, he said. "Where you do see the numbers is in football."

So why do hockey and football – both high-speed, highly violent sports – split when it comes to violent felonies?

The problem could be more sociological, Abrams suggested.

"Let's keep in mind that more so in football than in baseball and hockey, you have a lot of kids coming from the inner city where there's a lot of gang involvement, where might makes right and that's the way of life," Abrams said.

But he also believes there are many compelling mitigating factors to weigh when talking about pro athletes. Among them: substance abuse, wealth, good legal representation “and a belief that you live by a different set of rules.” 

It is the slayings or attempted murders that set the NFL apart.

NFL players who committed or were accused of murder include, most famously: O.J. Simpson; Anthony Wayne Smith; Ray Lewis; Glenn Sharpe; Eric Naposki; James Tyrer, who shot his wife before turning the gun on himself, and Jovan Belcher, who shot his girlfriend nine times before killing himself.

Neurologists have suggested that traumatic brain injury has strong links to violent behavior. That prospect has heaped attention on so-called “collision sports” such as football and hockey, with scientists at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto warning that body-checking in hockey is a major factor in brain injuries and concussions.

St. Michael's neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Cusimano is leading the Canadian researchers investigating athletes and head injuries for the Traumatic Brain Injury and Violence Study. His team has been analyzing child athletes as well as NHL players.

"You do see violent activity in hockey. I don't know if anybody's been charged with murder, but hockey players and football are certainly both high-risk sports because of the brain injury," he said.

Society also tends to think of violence as "interpersonal," but the rash of suicides in the NHL should also be considered violent behavior, he said.

Cusimano said damage from concussions can affect the frontal lobe and impair the brain's executive function, which controls inhibitions and impulses.

Abrams argues that the theory of brain injury influencing violent tendencies might not hold water in the Hernandez case.

The fact Hernandez is accused of first-degree murder — a charge that alleges calculation and planning — would toss out any argument that football-related brain injury weakened his inhibitions, Abrams said.

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