Late December, as NFL players took three lives within a week, two in a murder-suicide and one in a drunken-driving accident, statisticians offered assurances that these violent incidents constituted aberrations for the league. Crimes by NFL players had dropped almost 35 percent since 2006, the year before commissioner Roger Goodell instituted a strict personal-conduct policy.
But as the Patriots' Aaron Hernandez pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder charges on Wednesday, just a day after the arrest of Browns rookie Ausar Walcott on attempted murder charges, news reports cited a database that clocked 30 busts of NFL players since the Super Bowl. The number sounds ominous, mostly because it's mentioned alongside a murder allegation. Other context adds more heft, suggesting that reports of Constable Goodell's victory have been quite premature.
The total number of arrests last year was 45, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune database begun in 2000. The total for this year, less than six months in, has already hit 36. In the ostensibly benchmark 2006, the number was 68, less than double the current amount and devoid of any homicide counts.
The database includes a warning that the stats may be swayed by higher-profile reporting of NFL arrests. It does not mention that last year's total of 45 omits the most salient offenses -- Jovan Belcher's murder of his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, and then suicide in front of the Chiefs' headquarters. He avoided arrest by shooting himself in the head, which meant that his acts of violence didn't rate mention on the same list as Rolando McClain's use of an illegal windshield tint.
Likewise, the 2006 list includes two arrests for Chris Henry, one of Goodell's first guinea pigs in his grand suspension plan, but not a word appears amid the 2009 data about the day he jumped into the bed of his fiancee's pickup truck, furiously banging on the window and threatening to jump, then tumbled out to end his life at age 26 .
Whatever the numbers say, we know that standard practices have changed to meet the PR need for clarity and simplicity. Not too long ago, the NFL clung to a quaint notion of due process, which spared it from tough decisions.
Back in 1999, after the pregnant wife of a Colts cornerback named Steve Muhammad (who later was known as Mustafah Muhammad) died of internal injuries, the public learned that police had arrested her husband 10 days earlier on charges of domestic battery. A coroner ultimately ruled that a minor car accident caused the death of Nicole Muhammad and her unborn child, and it took a court almost a year to hear the battery case and convict the player. All along, the Colts stood by their man, insisting that they hadn't and wouldn't punish him, despite a police report that described Nicole's 6-year-old son smacking a yellow wiffle bat against his stepfather's legs to stop him from hurting his mother.
When asked about the incident, a young Peyton Manning relied on the script of the era: "The most important thing we feel right now is for he and his kids to deal with this terrible tragedy and that his wife is in a better place now. As far as the other things, we support Steve in whatever happens."
That last part would read differently today. Manning would be reprogrammed by now.
Reporters calls to NFL headquarters, with questions about possible discipline for Muhammad, would no longer be met with appalled rebukes of "innocent until proven guilty."
In 2013, neither Hernandez nor Walcott remain employed until proven guilty. They were cut upon arrest, in a sizeable shift from 13 years ago, when a Georgia district attorney charged Ray Lewis with first-degree murder and locked him up without bail. The Ravens didn't touch their roster. Also, in 1999, when Rae Carruth was charged with conspiring to murder his pregnant girlfriend, the Panthers put him on paid leave. Only when she died and Carruth ran from authorities did the team cut him.
When Lewis ultimately pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, the league imposed a $250,000 fine, but levied no suspension. Seven years later, Adam "Pacman'' Jones would lose a season's playing time even though his multiple arrests had yet to yield a single conviction.
The commissioner has empowered himself to find a player guilty of simply putting himself in the wrong situation, which could mean anything from going to a club of ill repute to carrying a firearm to choosing unwisely in online dating. If Lewis had answered to Goodell's brand of justice back in 2000, would he still have become a player who avoided legal trouble from then on? For Jones, the discipline did not permanently break patterns. He served another suspension in 2008 and was charged last month with striking a woman in yet another nightclub incident.
Goodell's grand experiment has no legitimate control group. One estimate last year showed that U.S. men between the ages of 22 and 34 had an arrest rate of 10.8 percent compared to 2.9 percent among NFL players. But the two populations have very little in common.
How many other young American males average $2.4 million in annual salary or appear on TV regularly? Do they have to attend a life-skills symposium at the start of their careers and hear constant reminders that they can call for a safe ride anytime they want if they have been drinking?
The average guy also does not face forced retirement before 40, see ambulances lurking on the edge of his workplace, sense the threat of orthopedic surgery forever hovering, take painkillers as a matter of course and routinely endure blows to the head that carry haunting promises of premature dementia.
Even the ostensibly humane perks of playing in the NFL come with a huge side dish of condescension. The life-skills lessons tend to emphasize the potential dangers of longtime friends outside the industry, people with their hands out and their jealousy on high alert. The Hernandez story line says he stuck with the wrong crowd. In this worn plot, our ostensible pillar of manhood somehow always allows himself to be led astray by lesser beings.
The player is never, ever the bad influence. Nor is he encouraged to be strong enough to guide old friends to a better way. The NFL prefers to preach distance, so its shield does not have to function as a big tent.
All things considered, the law-abiding super majority of NFL players may represent a small miracle. But Goodell can't lay claim to that. At the moment, the constable can only look at 2013 as a rebuilding year.