Going into the Super Bowl, everyone knows about the legal issues Ben Roethlisberger has faced in recent years. But one sociologist has found that behavior that breaks the law is not unknown to NFL players. One website suggests that sociologist Eric Carter found “nearly 35% of all players in the league have been arrested.” Elsewhere, Carter goes into more detail about why so many NFL players are arrested at some point and how religion could help players deal with anomie:
Eric has conducted over 100 interviews with NFL players, some who have led happy and well-adjusted lives but also with many who have not. We talk about the typical pressures that a professional player faces, coming into sudden fame and fortune. Prof. Carter brings the research ideas of Emile Durkheim, particulary “social anomie,” to bear on what a number of these athletes face when moving into the professional ranks. The sudden change in lifestyle combined with intense pressures to perform often leave many of them unhappy, confused and susceptible to all sorts of deviant behavior (some of which makes the news). We talk then about the role of religion in helping players cope with these changes. Our discussion looks at what factors might help players make adjustments to their new environments, including: a religious upbringing; the support networks they have access to at college; and religious role models in the locker room.
More details about Carter’s study of NFL players can be found here. Although this is a small sample of 104 players (there are at least 1440 players in the NFL each year – 45 players on 32 rosters), Carter found that 33 of the players had been arrested (31.7%). And Carter wrote a book, Boys Gone Wild, based on his study.
What is interesting about this is that the NFL seems to avoid scrutiny in the public eye about this. Whereas baseball stars are vilified for cheating, NFL players are regularly arrested (if this arrest rate holds true across the NFL – and even if it was really 10-20% lower, it still is a decent number) and the popularity of the NFL has continued to grow. Even with players like Roethlisberger or Rae Carruth or Michael Vick or Ray Lewis or Donte Stallworth or Marvin Harrison getting into trouble, this sort of news gets overwhelmed by the behemoth that is NFL entertainment.
In a more recent interview, Carter talks about how the NFL is able to keep this information out of the public eye:
“We see a lot of what goes on, because of the media,” Carter said. “But I was amazed at how much goes on that isn’t picked up — how powerful the NFL is in combating some of the potential bad media. I couldn’t believe how many guys contemplated suicide or attempted it, or were that unhappy with their lives that they engaged in these self-destructive behaviors.”
Carter found that 32 percent of the players he interviewed had been arrested after they entered the league — and others said they often evaded arrest by dispensing autographs to star-struck police officers — and nearly half described themselves as unhappy people.
“Fifty percent? That’s a big number,” he said, especially when you consider that these are young men who make on average more than $1 million a year to play football, and many of them much more than that.
“It just goes against our contemporary American conceptions of what happiness is. They have it all. They have the wealth, the fame, the power, the status — all of those things that many people equate with a happy life.”
Perhaps the NFL is able to bury these stories or minimize them. Or perhaps the American public doesn’t want to face this kind of information or thinks the athletes are compensated enough and can deal with the problems on their own.