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.

* 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.”

* 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,  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.

*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