Football Violence - Position or Disposition

September 27, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

When sports stories wind up in the headlines and network news, something’s usually very wrong. The news biz, whether print or TV, usually keeps athletes confined in the sports section.  So now we have the network anchors talking about Adrian Peterson leaving welts on the flesh of his son, age four, or showing us the video of Ray Rice coldcocking his fiancee in the elevator. Other NFL domestic violence stories, previously ignored (no superstar players, no video), are now mentioned since they fit the news theme.

These incidents all suggest that maybe football players are just violent people – men with a streak of violence in their dispositions. This personality trait that allows them to flourish on the field, but too often it gets them in trouble after they leave the stadium. 

This is the kind of psychological “kinds of people” explanation that I ask students to avoid or at least question, and to question it with data. Conveniently, we have some data. USA Today has the entire NFL rap sheet (here), and it looks like a long one – more than 700 arrests since 2000.  Nearly 100 arrests for assault, another 85 or so for domestic violence. And those are just the arrests. No doubt many battered wives or girlfriends and many bruised bodies in bars didn’t make it into these statistics. Are football players simply violent people – violent off the field as well as on?

Well, no. The largest category of arrests is drunk driving  – potentially very harmful, but not what most people would call violent.  And besides, NFL players are arrested at a lower rate than are their uncleated counterparts – men in their late twenties.*

(Click to enlarge. The graph comes from Benjamin Morris at FiveThirtyEight. )

This suggests that the violence we see in the stadiums on Sunday is situational (perhaps like the piety and moral rectitude we encounter elsewhere on Sunday).  The violence resides not in the players but in the game.  On every down, players must be willing to use violence against another person. Few off-the-field situations call for violence, so we shouldn’t be surprised that these same men have a relatively low rate of arrest (low relative to other young men).

But let's not discard the personal angle completely. If we look at arrests within the NFL, we see two things that suggest there might be something to this idea that violence, or at least a lack of restraint, might have an individual component as well.  First, although NFL arrests are lower for all crimes, they are much, much lower for non-violent offenses like theft. But for domestic violence, the rate is closer that of non-footballers.  The NFL rate for domestic violence is still substantially lower than the national average – 55 NFL arrests for every 100 among non-NFL men. But for theft, the ratio is one-tenth of that – 5.5 NFL arrests per 100 non-NFL. Also on the higher side are other offenses against a person (murder, sex offenses) and offenses that might indicate a careless attitude toward danger – DUI, guns. 


Second, some positions have a disproportionate number of offenders. The graphs below show the percent of all arrests accounted for by each position and also the percent the position represents of the total NFL roster.  For example, cornerbacks make up about 10% of all players, but they accounted for about 14% of all arrests. (The difference is not huge, but it’s something; there would be a very slight overlap in the error bars if my version of Excel made it easy to include them.)



The positions disproportionately likely to be arrested are wide receivers and defensive tackles. Those most under-represented in arrests are the offensive linemen. 

This fits with my own image of these positions. The wide-outs seem to have more than their share of free-spirits – players who care little for convention or rules. Some are just oddball amusing, like Chad Ochocinco formerly of the Bengals.** Others are trouble and get traded from team to team despite their abilities, like Terrell Owens of the 49ers, Eagles, Cowboys, Bills, and Bengals.

As for the linemen, the arrest differential down in the trenches also might be expected.  Back in the 1970s, a psychiatrist hired by the San Diego Chargers noted this difference on his first visit to the locker room. It wasn’t the players - the offensive and defensive lineman themselves looked about the same (huge, strong guys) – it was their lockers. They were a metaphor for on-the-field play.  Defensive linemen charge, push, pull, slap – whatever they can do to knock over opponents, especially the one holding the ball. Their lockers were messy, clothes and equipment thrown about carelessly. Offensive lineman, by contrast, are more restricted. Even on a run play, their movements are carefully co-ordinated, almost choreographed. Watch a slo-mo of the offensive line on a sweep, and you’ll see legs moving in chorus-line unison.  Correspondingly, their lockers were models of organization and restraint.

Maybe these same personal qualities prevail off the field as well. Those offensive lineman get arrested at a rate only half of what we would expect from their numbers in the NFL population. Arrests of defensive linemen and wide receivers are 50% more likely than their proportion on the rosters. Position can’t be the entire explanation of course. Running counter to this “kinds of people” approach are the other hard-hitting defensive players – defensive ends and linebackers. According to the principle of violent people in violent positions, they should be over-represented in arrest figures just like the defensive tackles and cornerbacks. But they are not.

If this were a real article, a journal article, this final paragraph would be where the author calls for more data. But the trend in NFL arrests has been downward, and if fewer arrests means less data but also less domestic violence, that’s fine with me.


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* Some critics have questioned this comparison since it does not take income into account. Of course, arrest is a fairly rare event, and it would be kind of hard to find a large enough sample to allow for estimates among men 25-29 with incomes over $500,000.  

** Changing his name to match his uniform number is one example. For another, once during an official video review of his catch of a pass to determine if he was in bounds, Ochocinco borrowed a dollar bill from an assistant on the sideline, went up to one of the refs on the field, and offered the dollar as a “bribe” to rule in his favor.  Everyone who saw the gag found it funny – everyone except the NFL brass, who fined him $20,000.

That Isn’t Funny

September 24, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Most of the time, when people talk about humor – TV  sitcoms, movie romcoms, comedians, jokes, etc. – they’ll say things like, “That show is so funny,” or conversely, “That show is definitely not funny.” 

They assume that the funniness resides completely in the joke or show or comedian and that they themselves are objective observers.  But as any comedian knows, the funniness depends on the interaction between the joke and the audience. If everyone in the room is laughing, it doesn’t make much sense for you to say that the joke wasn’t funny. 

The funniness depends not just on the joke but on the ideas, assumptions, values, and knowledge that we bring to it. Some of that background knowledge is knowledge of other jokes.  Here’s a cartoon from the current New Yorker.


It stands on its own, I guess, but it’s funnier if you know the joke it’s referring to, which goes something like this.*

A grandmother (she doesn’t have to be Jewish, but she probably is, and she certainly was in the version that I first heard, and besides, it’s Rosh Hashanah, so we’ll say she is). A Jewish grandmother is standing at the edge of the ocean pointing out at the crashing waves and screaming for help. “My grandson, my grandson.” A lifeguard hears her, runs into the surf, swims out through the rough water, dives under, comes up with the boy, carries him back to shore, performs every kind of artificial respiration until finally the kid coughs and sputters and comes back to consciousness. The lifeguard, exhausted looks up at the grandmother. She looks down at him and says accusingly, “He had a hat.”

    OK, maybe it’s not so funny on the page. If you heard me tell it in person . . . or maybe not even then.  Some guys know how to tell ’em (and that’s a punch line to another joke).  Anyway, the New Yorker cartoon is a meta-joke, a joke about a joke. But the other cartoons too, I realized as I paged through the magazine, require background knowledge. If someone from a distant culture, or a member of our own society who has not acquired that cultural knowledge (i.e., a child), looked at any of those cartoons, we would have to fill in that missing background. Without it, the joke would not be funny.  Of course, then we’d be explaining the joke, and it wouldn’t be funny anyway. You can’t win.

But the larger point is that despite our sense that the funniness is in the joke or that the “wonderfulnesss” of a poem** lies completely within the joke or poem, we would be more accurate if we said, “That joke is not funny to me and to people like me.”


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* Like many other teachers, I’m often disappointed and frustrated by students’ lack of cultural and historical knowledge. On the other hand, when I say, “It’s like the old joke . . .” I realize that most of them don’t know that joke. And if I tell it right, I get a laugh.

** Andrew Gelman and his commenters had a discussion about this recently (his blog post is here).

Bloggiversary (Now We Are Eight)

September 20, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

This blog began in September 2006, eight years and 1341 posts ago. As I’ve said before, around this season I hear the CarGuys-like voice in my head saying, “Well, you’ve wasted another perfectly good year blogging.”

Anyway, here are a few from the past year that I’ve sort of liked.

1.    Separate Ways  Sociology falls out of love with Malcolm Gladwell.

2.     It’s Not About Obamacare and the companion piece Fearing Democracy    Anti-Obamacare as symbolic politics, again.

3.    The Revenge Fantasy - “Django Unchained” and “12 Years a Slave”  This one got noticed at other places, including a website for screenwriters.

4.    The Wars on Christmas  A Dec. 25 post. “Happy Holidays” goes back farther than I (or Bill O’Reilly) thought.

5.    Losing Their Religion - And So . . .?  Brad Wilcox says that the decline in religion the cause of less civic engagement. Some data suggests otherwise.

6.    Game. Set, Match.com  Louis CK and assortative mating. The embedded video clip is from the “Louie” episode that won an Emmy.

7.    LOL  The many meanings of laughter. Includes a clip of Terry Gross and her apologetic laugh.

8.    How to Misread a Graph (It’s Not Easy, but The Heritage Foundation Finds a Way)    The title is neither succinct nor elegant, but it conveys the idea.

Corporations and Friends

September 17, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Corporations are people, my friend.”

If Mitt Romney winds up in the quotations books and URLs, this will be his contribution.

I’m not sure what Romney meant – probably that corporations were staffed by people, and perhaps that they were owned by people. It’s possible that he was referring to Supreme Court decisions that gave corporations some of the same rights as people. 

Whatever he meant, the statement still rings false because a corporation is so obviously not an individual person. Corporations have no social or emotional attachments to others. As economist Greg Mankiw explained recently (here), their primary responsibility, maybe their only responsibility, is to make as much money as they can. If Burger King can avoid paying US taxes by claiming that it’s a Canadian company, it’s just doing what it’s supposed to be doing. As that socialist rag Fortune put it, “The possibility exists that the company will be able to reassign the fees from its U.S. franchises to Canada and pay no U.S. tax on this income. Other taxpayers here in the U.S. will have to shoulder the burden and make up this shortfall in tax revenue.”

Corporations do not have a responsibility to society or country, and they certainly don’t have a responsibility to any person. My friend.

Still, corporations pretend otherwise and try to create the Romneyesque fiction that they are indeed people, people with feelings, people who are our friend.. Last week, several corporate PR offices Tweeted messages about 9/11.

(Click to enlarge)
I would guess that most people accepted these as sincere.* But not everybody. People in the PR and branding biz saw this patriotic tweetery for what it was – marketing.  At AdWeek, the AdFreak page interviewed Sean Bonner.

AdFreak: What makes these tweets feel so icky?
Sean Bonner: It's simple. Brands are not people. Brands do not have emotions or memories or condolences or heartbreak. People have those things, and when a brand tries to jump into that conversation, it's marketing.

Unfortunately, some corporations blow their patriotic cover and make the marketing aspect blatant. Intimacy Box, a company that sells lingerie, sent forth this tweet.


As comedian Robert Klein said decades ago about Presidents Day, “I’m sure that the father of our country would be pleased to know that he’s being honored with a mattress sale.”

These corporate tweets, whether they have discount coupons or pictures of flags, have the same underlying message: we want you to feel good about us so that you will buy more of our products. Dunkin’ Donuts, Beretta, and the rest leave the “buy more” message unsaid. After all, they are trying to convey the Romney idea that they are people. Only Intimacy Box makes it explicit, and that company was soon shamed into apologizing for its honesty.

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*The irony of the Beretta tweet – the company is part of an industry whose product each year kills ten times as many Americans as died on 9/11 – was probably lost on Beretta’s Twitter followers.

HT: Dan Hirschman

When Thiago Met Daleyza

September 16, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Fashions in names are like fashions in clothes in at least one respect – they change more quickly for females than for males. When it comes to naming a boy, the same old styles will do, and very few seem out of date. But with girls, it’s easy to think of names like Ethel, Edna, Shirley, Doris – popular at one time, but today, nobody’s would give that name to their daughter.  But William, Richard, and Robert stick around generation after generation . . . at least until now.

That gender difference seems to be changing.  Even as recently as 1980, six of the top 10 boys names had been in the top 10 a decade earlier. For girls, only four remained in that group.


This was in the reign of Jennifer and Michael. Michael had been in #1 or #2 from 1954 through 2008. The Jennifer era was shorter, not 55 years but 15 – from 1970 through 1984. 

That was then. In the most recent decade, the turnover in the Top 10 has been more rapid for boys than for girls.  Six girls names but only four boys names stayed on that list through the decade.


The old reliable boys names – William, John, Robert, James – are being replaced by more faddish entries.  Jacob and Joshua may have hung around near the top for 20 or 30 years, but James and Robert stayed for 60 years or more.  My guess is that in ten years or less, newcomers like Jayden, Mason, Noah, and Liam will no longer be in the top 10, nor will the fading old-timers like Michael and Daniel, though their drop in popularity will not be as precipitous. Generally, the faster they rise, the faster they fall.

Among the less common names, volatility is much greater. The biggest  leaps upward in rank occur far down on the list.  Here are the biggest movers in 2013.


The small numbers make for greater volatility.  With only two hundred Thiagos born in 2012, an additional hundred in 2013 made for a jump in rank of 374 places.  It’s also worth noting that several of the names on the list are inspired by figures in the media – Thiago and Forrest (mixed martial arts), Daleyza (reality TV), Jayceon (music), and probably others I’m too lazy to look up.  Usually, fashions in names spread via influence within the population. The rise in popularity starts gradually.  Parents-to-be get wind of a cool name by hearing what parents around them have chosen. The next year still more parents see kids with that name, and the trend grows.  By contrast, the influence of distant figures in the media is more sudden.  A graph of changes in popularity – steep or gradual – can give you a good idea as to whether the influence is coming from outside or from within the population, even if you’ve never heard of “Larrymania.” (See this post  from two years ago, inspired by Gabriel Rossman’s writings about how songs become hits.)

If fashions in boys names are changing almost as rapidly as changes in girls names, what are we to make of this convergence?  We’re moving away from those once durable names – the Roberts and the Williams – and we’re putting more value on less frequent and more nearly unique names. Philip Cohen (here) speculates that the trend towards more individual baby names reflects a change in how we think about children.  In contrast to 19th-century assumptions about children, we now see each child as a unique individual, important to us for her or his special personality.  The child’s place in the family is all about interpersonal relations rather than economic contributions. In Viviana Zelizer’s famous phrase about this change (roughly in the period from the 1870s to the 1930s), the child has become “economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”

Gender differences might be following a similar pattern, with more attention paid to the emotions and social life of boys, their unique personalities, rather than simply their economic abilities and prospects.  We see a movie like “Boyhood,” nod our heads appreciatively, and say, “Yes, that is what boyhood is all about.” It’s hard if not impossible to imagine a similar story told in 1850 and based on 1850s ideas and assumptions about boys. It would be similarly difficult for Americans of 1850 to understand Linklater’s film (which if you haven't seen, you should).

A century ago, a good father could be emotionally distant so long as he was a reliable breadwinner.   Now, we  expect dads to take part in the emotional life of the family, once pretty much a female preserve.  Maybe the trend in boys names is a further sign of the gradual erosion of old and rigid distinctions between boys and girls, men and women. If so, I wonder if the people who most object to Jayden and Landon and Grayson* and to the greater variety and variability of boys names are also those who insist most strongly on maintaining those traditional gender-role boundaries.

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* Boys names ending in “n” have had an impressive rise in popularity. The final “n” now dwarfs names ending in the other 25 letters. For graphs, see this 2009 post.

Religious Knowledge, Religious Feeling

September 10, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Robin Hanson has a “it isn’t about” list (here). It begins
  • Food isn’t about Nutrition
  • Clothes aren’t about Comfort
Also on the list is
  • Church isn’t about God
Maybe church isn’t about religious ideas either.

I was reminded of this recently when I followed a link to a Pew quiz on religious knowledge (here). It’s a lite version of the 32-item quiz Pew used with a national sample in 2010.  One of the findings from that survey (the full report is here) was that people who went to church regularly and who said that religion was important in their lives didn’t do much better on the quiz than did those who had a weak attachment to church and religion.



The strongly committed averaged 17 correct answers out of the 32 questions; the uncommitted, 16.  This same pattern was repeated in the more recent 15-question quiz.



The committed may derive many things from their church attendance and faith, but knowledge of religion isn’t one of them.  To be fair, the quiz covers many religions, and people do know more about their own religion than they do about others.  “What was Joseph Smith’s religion?” Only about half the population gets that one right, but 93% of the Mormons nailed it. Mormons also knew more about the Ten Commandments. Catholics did better than others on the transubstantiation question.  But when it came to knowing who inspired the Protestant Reformation, Protestants got outscored by Jews and atheists.

Overall, onbelievers, Jews, and Mormons did much better than did Protestants and Catholics.


One reason for their higher scores might be education – college graduates outscore high school or less by nearly 8 points out of 32.


It may be that nonbelievers, Jews, and Mormons are more likely to have finished college. Unfortunately, the Pew report does not give data that controls for education.

But another reason that these groups scored higher may be their position as religious minorities. Jews and Mormons have to explain to the flock how their ideas are different from those of the majority. Atheists and agnostics too, in their questioning and even rejecting,  have probably devoted more thought to religion, or more accurately, religions. On the questions about Shiva and Nirvana, they leave even the Jews and Mormons far behind.

For Protestants and Catholics, by contrast, learning detailed information about their religion is not as crucial. Just as White people in the US rarely ask what it means to be White, Christians need not worry about their differences from the mainstream. They are the mainstream.*  So going to church or praying can be much more about feelings – solidarity, transcendence, peace, etc.  That variety of religious experience need not include learning the history or even the tenets of the religion itself. As Durkheim said, the central element in religion is ritual – especially the feelings a ritual generates in the group. Knowing the actual beliefs might be a nice addition, but it’s not crucial.

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* These same majority-minority differences apply in politics as well. A lifetime Democrat or Republican can get by on general principles without having to worry about the details of policies or candidates’ positions. Socialists and Tea Partistas are more likely to devote more time and thought to those issues.

Reality Football

September 5, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Over at Scatterplot , Jeremy Freese posts this excerpt from Season of Saturdays, by Michael Weinreb, a sports writer.

Maybe you don’t understand at all: Maybe you attended a liberal arts college in New England, or maybe you grew up in a city where the athletes were professionals (New York, say, or Boston, or Chicago, or London). . . . Maybe the thought of a university’s morale being tied to its football team strikes you as a fundamental failing of American society. Maybe you hear stories about corrupt recruiting and grade-fixing, and maybe you cannot understand how a sport with a long history of exploitation and brutality and scandal can still be considered a vital (and often defining) aspect of student life. Maybe you see it as a potentially crippling frivolity, or as a populist indulgence, and maybe the threat of football encroaching on the nation’s educational system makes you wonder how someone could possibly write an entire book extolling its cultural virtues.

And the thing is, I would like to tell you that you’re wrong, but I also know that you’re not entirely wrong.


Jeremy, a long-time Big Ten fan (Iowa and now Northwestern), admits to his own increasing ambivalence about the game.  Me, I’m more like those “maybe” people Weinreb imagines. In the town where I grew up, many adults felt towards the high school football team the way college team fans feel about their team. They went to all the games (sometimes even the away games), they knew the team’s history and would compare individual players to those of five or ten or more years earlier. And this wasn’t Odessa, TX.; it was a white collar, WASP suburb of Pittsburgh. I wondered what was wrong with these grown men. Many of them didn’t even have kids in the school.  The phrase “get a life” hadn’t been invented yet, but if it had, that’s what I would have said.

I had the same feeling some years later when I went to a Princeton game – the alums in their tweed sport coats and striped ties shouting “Go Tiger” while we – grad students and young faculty – regarded the whole scene with stoned irony.

Over the years, I grew less critical about the fans, mostly because of sociology, which taught me to look at institutions, not just individuals. Some of the men in my town really liked school football. Others (my father, for example) liked to play bridge. So what? But those accusations of brutality, exploitation, and corruption that Weinreb mentions – those are more than just “not entirely wrong.” They are accurate and important.  But the fault lies with institutions like the NCAA, not with the fans and athletes.

Hackers and Voyeurs

September 3, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Two brief thoughts on the theft and distribution of Jennifer Lawrence’s private photos.

1.  The “Don’t take nude selfies” response is both self-evident and stupid. As Lena Dunham said, it’s the equivalent of reacting to rape by saying, “She was wearing a short skirt.”*  You expect this blame-the-woman reaction from nonentity Facebookers and Tweeters. But Nick Bilton is a New York Times columnist whose Twitter has 231,000 followers.



Bilton later claimed that his tweet was “meant as a larger point about state of the Web and insecurity,” and maybe it was. Still, I wonder: if someone had hacked Bilton’s bank and brokerage information – account numbers and passwords – and looted his savings, would his response be, “1. Don’t use online financials. 2. Don’t use online financials . . . ”?

2.  Why is seeing a nude picture of Jennifer Lawrence such a big deal? Not because of the inherent eroticism in a picture of an attractive nude female. Those are so commmonplace that it’s hard to avoid them.  What makes it special is that it’s a celebrity and that she did not want the pictures seen. That’s true of most paparazzi shots that fill the celeb mags even when the celebrities are going about their daily life fully clothed.

The voyeurism driving the JLaw pictures is similar though more explicit about its sexual interest.  More important, woven in with that sexual interest is a nasty form of power – the power to violate.  The hacker/voyeur is successful only if his act is a violation of the woman’s privacy.  Is the picture badly lit and out of focus? No matter. What’s important is that he is seeing something she did not want him to see.  Better if the victim is a celebrity, but a neighbor or ordinary woman in the street will do, so long as she is someone who we can assume does not want her naked body on display. 

In her short-skirt comment, Lena Dunham did not use the word rape, but the parallel is obvious.

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* The LA Times responded to Dunham’s remark in an offensive and belittling way with the headline, “Jennifer Lawrence’s nude photos have FBI, Lena Dunham on the case.”