The NFL's true impact on crime

May, 24, 2011
5/24/11
3:30
PM ET
Thanks to Matt of Boulder for providing an NFC North angle to the utterly self-absorbed comments that Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis recently made to ESPN's Sal Paolantonio. In case you missed it, Lewis predicted that U.S. crime will rise this autumn if the NFL season is canceled because of a lockout.
Lewis: "Do this research if we don't have a season -- watch how much evil, which we call crime, watch how much crime picks up, if you take away our game ... There's too many people that live through us, people live through us. Yeah, walk in the streets, the way I walk the streets, and I'm not talking about the people you see all the time."

It's true. Crime rates across the country typically decrease in September, which coincides with the start of the NFL season. But according to the FBI, the trend is related to the end of summer weather and school vacations.

[+] EnlargeRay Lewis
Frank Victores/US PresswireRavens linebacker Ray Lewis says crime rates will rise nationally if labor issues cause NFL games to be canceled next season.
Sorry, Ray. There is no doubt the NFL casts a wide net, no matter how you walk the streets, but we're going to need some actual evidence to suggest its absence would unleash evil across the land. Otherwise, you're sadly exaggerating the social importance of the game.

As Matt reminded me, one of the few statistical connections researchers have made between the NFL and crime is that domestic violence rates increase on some NFL Sundays. Specifically, they have been found to spike in the home state of teams that lose either in an upset or in an exceptionally emotional game. As long as we're talking crime, Ray, should we wonder if those incidents would diminish or be eradicated altogether if the NFL season were canceled.

Ray Fisman of Slate.com summarized the findings of a National Bureau of Economic Research study on fan behavior after football games. Between 1995-2006, losses by favored teams on NFL Sundays led to an 8 percent increase in reported incidents of domestic violence. According to the study, the rate is nearly twice as high after games between rivals, and it specifically mentioned annual games between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers.

A 2010 case got a little more attention than it probably deserved, but I think most of us remember it: A Wisconsin man arrested for domestic abuse in January 2010 said he was "ornery" as a result of the Packers' 51-45 playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

I don't want this to turn into a "[Insert team name here]'s fans are thugs" discussion. The study took a cross-section of the entire league. As I've noted on some other issues that have cropped up this offseason, it just bugs me when sports celebrities capitalize on their status to promulgate ideas and assertions for which they have no facts to support. Relevant crime data relating to the NFL indicates that, if anything, one particular form of crime rises in connection to games.

I realize it's impossible to have measured the social impact of a lost NFL season. We have no way of knowing how many crimes don't get committed because people were occupied with a full Sunday slate of games. But Lewis' explanation for why crime would increase was, uh, incomplete. "There's nothing else to do," he told Paolantonio. Really? The default weekend activity of unoccupied football fans is to commit crimes?

I was happy to see, in a very unscientific Twitter poll, that few of you bought Lewis' theory. Yes, @VikingsFanPage wrote that "idle hands are the devils workshop" and @seth_stauber joked: "I stole a pack of gum due to the lack of OTAs, he could be on to something."

But @visch12 noted that "we find stuff to do without NFL for 7 months of the season, crime is not one of them," and most of you were aligned with @tgeorge78, who wrote: "I respect him but he's way off. Missing games won't cause people to commit crime, maybe cause them to dislike the NFL." @custymcnoob theorized that "less booze consumed & less gambling = less crime."

Some suggested that, if anything, the players themselves will find their way onto the police blotter with higher frequency. Wrote @DanaLitman: "You thought the players got in trouble with only 1 day off? Wait & see what happens when [they're] not working at all!"

Your two cents? Can't wait to read it.

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