Despite the NFL's many efforts to stop it, NFL players have been arrested at least 395 times since Commissioner Roger Goodell took office.
One of the ugliest offseasons in NFL history is finally over.
Since the Super Bowl on Feb. 3, NFL players have been arrested or charged with crimes at least 37 times, including 10 players accused of driving drunk and a murder indictment for ex-New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez.
The list gets uglier if the second half of last season is included – three more car crashes and three more people dead in crimes allegedly committed by NFL players. On Dec. 1, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher fatally shot himself in the head after getting drunk and killing his girlfriend. A week later, Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Josh Brent allegedly drove drunk and flipped his car, killing teammate Jerry Brown in the passenger seat.
ARREST DATABASE: Sortable from 2004 to present
Thursday's NFL opener between the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos launches Roger Goodell's eighth season as commissioner — a period marked by almost $10 billion in annual revenues and television ratings that dominate American sports. It also features an arrest rate of more than one per week — an average that hasn't changed much from the days of Goodell's predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, according to data compiled by USA TODAY Sports. In Goodell's seven years on the job, NFL players have been arrested or charged with crimes at least 395 times, including 107 drunken-driving arrests, 43 domestic-abuse cases, 34 cases involving guns and 84 cases involving fighting or disorderly conduct, usually at bars or nightclubs late at night.
"I don't think anything has changed (with players)," said Quentin Jammer, a 12-year veteran cornerback for the Denver Broncos. "I guess guys are going to do what they're going to do regardless. "
The NFL, however, believes its efforts are working, with one big exception — drunken driving.
"The current level of deterrence associated with a DUI is insufficient," NFL senior vice president Adolpho Birch told USA TODAY Sports. Instead of fines for first-time drunken drivers, Birch said the league wants mandatory suspensions under the league's substance-abuse policy.
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Goodell first cracked down on players in April 2007, seeking to reverse an alarming spike in player arrests. The move, seven months into his job, gave the commissioner broad authority to issue longer suspensions and larger fines and even punish repeat offenders who hadn't yet received due process in courts. By increasing the risk for teams that take on misbehaving players, Goodell hoped to tilt the scale toward clean characters. Teams would have to decide whether a player's talent is worth the trouble, not to mention missed games.
Goodell's toughened player-conduct policy was a reaction to 79 arrests in the 12 months since April 2006. Arrests have declined since 2007 — from a high of 66 in 2008 to a low of 47 in 2012. But another surge may be underway with 43 arrests so far this year.
To assess the impact of Goodell's crackdown, USA TODAY Sports compiled data on every arrest and criminal citation it could locate from news media reports and public records since January 2000. It included only active NFL players who belonged to team rosters at the time of arrest, except for rare cases.
USA TODAY Sports found:
-- Under Goodell, drunken driving has accounted for about 27% of arrests, despite a concerted effort by the league, teams and players union to combat the problem with education and phone numbers for players to call for free rides. USA TODAY Sports found 27 DUI arrests in 2004 and 2005 combined, in the same range as the 29 combined in 2012 and 2013.
-- Teams still take chances. The league has emphasized character issues, but troubled players continue to get signed to rosters. Many get drafted in lower rounds or sign with teams as undrafted free agents. That way, if they get in trouble — and the best predictor of who will run afoul of the law is who has done so in the past — teams have little financial investment and can cut their losses.
-- More arrests per year under Goodell — an average of 56 since he took over in September 2006 — than under Tagliabue — an average of 42 per year from 2000-06. Some qualifiers apply: Older arrests were harder to find and fewer court records from the Tagliabue era are accessible online from an era when media scrutiny was less intense. The number of annual arrests has been fairly consistent under both commissioners.
-- How the arrest rate for players stacks up depends on how it is measured. Compared with the general population, NFL players have a lower arrest rate. But some experts argue it's high when compared with people in the same income bracket as a player in the NFL, where the rookie minimum salary is $405,000.
"I think (the NFL rate) is high," said Earl Smith, a sociology professor at Wake Forest University. "Executives on Wall Street, they do other kinds of things. But for the money these players make, when you place them in the category of well-off Americans, they behave poorly."
The league often notes that its arrest rate, at 2%-3% of the player population per year, is lower than the 4% that FBI statistics show for the general population, and even higher for adult males. Likewise, the league's DUI arrest rate is close to 1% of the player population, still lower than the 1.6% arrest rate for males in the general population ages 20-24, according to FBI statistics for 2011.
The league also notes that arrested does not mean guilty. Of the criminal cases in which dispositions could be determined since 2000, USA TODAY Sports found that about one-third ended up in acquittals or dismissed cases without penalty to the player. The rest — about 67% — resulted in a conviction, plea deal or diversion program in which the player must pay a price for the alleged crime.
Goodell acknowledged that the league's efforts to educate and prevent problems, while substantial, offer no guarantees.
"You're still dealing with young men, individuals who are bound to make mistakes," Goodell said last month during the Hall of Fame weekend. "We all do in life. What they have to realize and what we try to teach them is that your mistakes are going to be magnified. And they can be life-changing. And they have to understand the risks out there. A high-profile athlete is at greater risk. You have more money. You're going to attract certain things. So we try to get them to understand that, too."
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Some teams still take more chances than others, even under the raised risk of losing troubled players to suspensions and fines for teams with more than one suspended player. Under Goodell since 2006, the average number of arrests or citations per team is 12. Denver leads the league with 25, followed by Tampa Bay with 22. Overall, since January 2000, Cincinnati and Minnesota topped the league with 40 arrests each out of 674 arrests and citations.
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John Elway, Denver's executive vice president of football operations, said his team's arrest rate is disappointing. Of the Broncos' total, eight arrests occurred since Elway and head coach John Fox took over in January 2011.
"It's not what (team owner) Pat Bowlen is about, or the things that he wants," Elway told USA TODAY Sports. "But we're going to have guys, unfortunately, that get in trouble at times, and our job is to try to prevent that. We can't prevent it all, and we don't condone it. It's something that we're not about, and we're going to continue to work at (it)."
Not surprisingly, high-arrest teams have histories of taking high-risk players. Among Tampa Bay's 22 arrests under Goodell, three players combined for five: cornerback Aqib Talib (twice), cornerback Eric Wright (twice) and tight end Jerramy Stevens. All had prior behavior issues dating to college and are no longer with the team.
Denver drafted wide receiver Brandon Marshall in 2006 despite his run-ins with the law in college. He went on to be arrested four times for various offenses with Denver from 2007-09 before being traded.
By contrast, Arizona was found with only four arrests or citations under Goodell.
"Talent is No. 1 (in evaluating new players), but there's no question character has played a larger role," said Jerrold Colton, an agent for several NFL players. "It used to be that only certain teams put a heavy weight on that. Now you see with most teams, it affects whether a player gets drafted at all and certainly the round they go in."
Hernandez, the former Patriots tight end, is a prime example. Considered a first-round talent out of Florida, he instead was drafted in the fourth round in 2010 after being involved in a bar fight and marijuana use. He performed well enough on and off the field to earn a $40 million contract extension in 2012. But now he sits in jail on charges of murdering his friend in June. After cutting him from the team, the Patriots still stand to take a big salary-cap hit because of him anyway.
In another case, Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict once was considered a potentially elite talent. But he had a bad reputation, fueled by a rash of personal fouls in games and an altercation with a teammate. He went undrafted last year, leading the Bengals to sign him as a free agent for a $1,000 signing bonus and league minimum salary of $390,000. He had a strong rookie season and has not been arrested.
In a league where a player or two can change a game, the sliding scale of talent vs. trouble still prevails in deciding whether to remove a problem player from the roster.
A telling example came in March 2008, when two Pittsburgh Steelers players were arrested on a similar charge. Unheralded receiver Cedrick Wilson and star linebacker James Harrison both were accused of hitting women in domestic disputes. Both men were required by law to attend anger counseling.
Harrison, the star, stayed on the team and went on to be named to four Pro Bowls before signing this year with the Bengals. Wilson, a marginal NFL player, was cut within hours of his arrest in 2008 and never played in the league again.
Similarly, teams have cut dozens of second-tier players within days of their arrests under Goodell, including rookie safety John Boyett who was released Tuesday, a day after being arrested on public intoxication charges.
But Marshall, the talented receiver now with the Chicago Bears, remains a prized commodity. So does cornerback Adam Jones, who has had eight arrests or citations since 2005 for various charges including marijuana possession and disorderly conduct. He agreed to a new contract with the Bengals in March, just a few months before he was arrested again because of an alleged assault near a bar. Goodell had suspended him for the 2007 season after multiple arrests when he played for the Tennessee Titans.
The league tracks arrests internally, and its count skews slightly higher than USA TODAY Sports' data, in part because the NFL includes players who were on expanded rosters in the offseason but who might not have been on the team roster at the time of arrest. Some arrests also may have eluded media attention.
Birch said the league doesn't focus on the year-by-year numbers because they "don't really tell the story."
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Besides an added emphasis on character in player evaluations, Birch said the league has improved resources for players (education and treatment programs), seeking to lower the arrest rate by preventing future arrests. The league also says the message trickles down to colleges, where players have been reminded that misbehavior can decrease their draft stock and cost them millions of dollars.
"We are in a situation where we must manage, effectively and judiciously, firmly but fairly, that which we have absolutely no hope of completely eliminating," said Harry Edwards, a sociologist who has served as a consultant to the San Francisco 49ers.
While the league's goal is zero arrests, it also realizes that's not realistic in a population of more around 2,500 young men, many of whom like to party, drive fancy cars and settle disputes the same way they do on the field – with physical force.
"You cannot make that zero, but we also do not accept anything less than zero," said Birch, who oversees the league's labor policy and government affairs.
Simply eliminating drunken driving would substantially lower the league's arrest rate, a responsibility Washington Redskins receiver Santana Moss puts on players finally getting the message.
"The fault lies in not having that person (as designated driver) or not thinking it out enough," Moss said. "When you see guys consistently get into situations, then that's somebody ignorant enough not to know better."
Contributing: Lindsay Jones in Denver, Jarrett Bell in Ashburn, Va.
Follow Brent Schrotenboer on Twitter @Schrotenboer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org