DRI-271 for week of 9-21-14: The NFL and Domestic Violence: Too Much Action or Not Enough?

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

The NFL and Domestic Violence: Too Much Action or Not Enough?

Two recent highly publicized cases of domestic violence involving current National Football League players have attracted reams – nowadays, “mega-pixels” might be more apropos – of publicity. In addition to the cases themselves, controversy has swirled around the issue of action taken, or not taken, by the NFL itself in response to the incidents. What is the responsibility of the league in these cases?

As always, economics has much to offer in answer to these questions.

The Bare Facts of the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson Cases

Both of the cases involve star running backs, All-Americans in college and All-Pro caliber performers during their NFL careers.

Ray Rice was a star rusher who accumulated the second-highest total rushing yardage of any Baltimore Ravens running back during his career. On March 27, 2014, he was indicted for third-degree aggravated assault for punching his fiancée in an elevator and knocking her unconscious. His subsequent conviction and lenient sentencing on this charge actually attracted less publicity than did a videotape of the incident that showed him delivering the punch and dragging the apparently unconscious woman from the elevator. This videotape was delivered to NFL security by a law-enforcement officer and then released by the website TMZ. The resulting adverse publicity had two effects: the NFL changed its “player conduct policy” and Rice’s contract with the Ravens was terminated on September 8, 2014. Meanwhile, Rice’s fiancée had become his wife.

Since leaving college in 2007 and joining the Minnesota Vikings, Adrian Peterson has established himself as one of the NFL’s leading running backs. In 2012, he missed breaking Eric Dickerson’s all-time single-season NFL rushing record by a mere nine yards.

His personal life has been as turbulent as his professional life has been productive. His father was a convicted drug dealer. In 2013, he discovered the existence of his two-year-old son, then living with the boy’s mother and her current boyfriend – only to lose him weeks later after the boy was allegedly assaulted by the boyfriend.

On September 11, 2014, Peterson was indicted by a grand jury for allegedly beating his four-year-old son with a tree branch on May 18 of this year, injuring the boy’s legs, back, ankles, buttocks and genitals. The charge was “negligent injury to a child.” Initially, Peterson was suspended for one game by the Vikings. On September 17, 2014, Peterson was placed on the NFL Commissioner’s Exempt/Permission List, requiring him to “remain away from all team activities.” The Vikings have given indications that he does not fit into their future plans.

The Public Controversy

Some scandals explode out of nowhere like building with a gas leak. Others blow up as the predictable culmination of accumulating circumstances, like a cache of dynamite reaching the end of its lit fuse. Then there are those that accumulate like an avalanche that begins with a boulder and snowballs. The last category fits the domestic violence scenario, in which public condemnation gradually rose to a crescendo. Spokesmen and spokeswomen for various organizations opposing domestic violence serially rose to denounce the actions of Rice and demand that something be done about them and him. Print and broadcast media mouthpieces formed a chorus echoing those sentiments. Politicians put their ears to the wind and sensed a sound-bite opportunity. “If the NFL doesn’t police themselves,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) courageously declared, “we will be looking more into it.” “We,” of course, referred to the Senate, sixteen of whose members then forwarded a demand that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell establish a “zero tolerance” policy toward domestic violence.

Commissioner Goodell proved to be the lightning rod for most of the public criticism, thus reinforcing the suspicion that the doctrine of free will and individual responsibility is a dead letter in contemporary American society. The vocally indignant were apparently alluding to the NFL’s “conduct policy,” instituted on April 10, 2007. It applied to off-field behavior of players, coaches and front-office personnel but excluded illicitdrug and performance enhancement matters, which are covered by a separate policy. Between 2007 and 2011, seven players were disciplined under the policy in eight separate actions. (One player was reprimanded twice.) Five of the actions were taken in response to criminal convictions or allegations, one for general misbehavior and two for unspecified conduct. The stated purpose of the policy was to “improve the league’s image.”

Mr. Goodell addressed Rice’s behavior in a press conference last week. But, as Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins put it (“Way Beyond the NFL’s Competence,” WSJ, September 24, 2014), Goodell apparently “said the wrong thing, or failed to say the right thing, or said the right thing the wrong way – or something.” According to CBSSports.com: Goodell was guilty of “not nailing the moment.” The Los Angeles Times convicted the Commissioner of not “get[ting] it.” The National Organization of Women escalated the charging contest by demanding Goodell’s resignation. This must represent a new high – or low – in the evolving doctrine of corporate responsibility. The league commissioner is supposed to resign because a player’s spat with his girlfriend cum wife gets out of hand.

Commentators Weigh In

Sober voices eventually began to be heard. Joseph Epstein, arguably America’s leading essayist, rightly accused the finger-shakers and fist-pounders of “moral preening” (“Blitzing the NFL With Moral Preening,” The Wall Street Journal, September 22, 2014). “Politicians…university psychologists…media colleagues…the people [the scandal] will make feel good are those who get to pronounce upon it… expressing shock, moral outrage, dudgeon to the highest power.” It provides them “a splendid opportunity… to exhibit their own high and irreproachable virtue.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Epstein’s analysis of the problem itself exhibits the same shortcomings he displayed with his retrograde, liberal take on the violence in Ferguson, MO. “Should anyone be shocked at the irrefutable evidence of domestic violence in the NFL?” No, he concludes, because the players are “men who make their living through violence, and for whom violence well-executed has made millionaires of nearly all of them… The weekly paycheck of Adrian Peterson… is near $700,000.”

Mr. Epstein’s leftish envy of free-market outcomes was now breaking loose. He gave it free rein. “To be a star athlete in America is to grow up… with no one… ever saying no to you. Fame, money, women come rolling in for these athletes, the favorites, or so it sometimes seems, at least while they are still young, of the gods.” Now Mr. Epstein was positively green with envy. At least he was venting his spleen in the right direction – but with his gall bladder rather than his brain cells.

“When someone does say no… is it all that shocking that the athletes respond with violence? I do not say it is right… only [that] it’s not shocking. What is shocking is that there isn’t a lot more of it.” Now it’s out of his system. It’s the old liberal line – the system is the “root cause” of individual misbehavior, while the miscreants are helpless victims, acted upon rather than independent actors.

Mr. Epstein’s failure to distinguish between uncontrolled domestic violence and limited violence within acceptable and desirable constraints is simply inexcusable. It was once commonplace to equate veterans with out-of-control wackos. 1930s musicals would moan “they gave him a gun” and imply that “society” had only itself to blame for any antecedent fiasco, from bank robbery to murder. Knute Rockne’s view, that college football was invaluable competitive training for a future in a competitive society, seems a lot closer to the mark than Epstein’s nonsense.

Like Mr. Epstein’s “civil rights” analysis of the Ferguson episode and his call for a black leader to soothe the savage breasts of the unruly natives of Ferguson, his domestic-violence explanation is a throwback to the liberal pieties of the 1960s. The “root cause” thinking of that bygone era is as dead as the big-government, welfare-state approach to social policy. Not only is top-down management of human behavior demonstrably ineffective, it is also a recipe for moral nihilism. The failure of an acute social critic like Mr. Epstein measures the depth of our morass.

As is so often the case, Holman Jenkins provided a fresh breeze of thinking on the issue. “It’s been decades since police and courts gave a pass to wife-beaters. Mr. Rice was hauled before a grand jury; given the video evidence he might well have gotten the full five-year sentence…[but the state of New Jersey] seems to have seriously applied the criteria for its first timers’ leniency program, in which the victim, Mr. Rice’s now-wife [emphasis added], was allowed an important say… Obviously, an alleged refusal to face up to domestic violence is not the problem here… Domestic violence is a common form of violence for a reason: People fight with those they know. This creates dilemmas for the justice system absent when stranger assaults stranger – dilemmas even a $40 million-a-year league president might struggle to resolve to the satisfaction of any but the shallowest of media shouters.”

Jenkins notes ironically that virtually every full-length discussion of domestic violence in the NFL “segu[es] to those problems that football faces that actually pertain to football [such as] concussion.” He might have added drug use and performance enhancement as well.

The Economics of the Domestic Violence Scandal

In 1956, Milton Friedman authored a classic article entitled “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits.” His thesis seemed to be perfectly encapsulated in the title. As usual, though, it was widely misinterpreted. The political Left accused Friedman of saying that only profit matters and all other human values are and should be irrelevant. But Friedman was arguing the economic case for specialization. Business firms exist for the specific purpose of creating goods and services. Although he did not cite it, Friedman could have referred to the previous classic 1937 article by Ronald Coase, “The Nature of the Firm.” Coase deduced that business firms spring up when something is too costly for a household to produce internally. Extending the principle, a business firm produces those things whose internal cost of production is lower than its external cost of purchase. Virtually everything listed under the heading of the “social responsibility of business” is something too costly for business to produce internally because it does not specialize in doing it. Curing the problem of domestic violence surely fits under this heading.

The frustration shown by the Left toward this laissez-faire stance implies that we are giving up on our problems. But that is far from the truth; indeed, it is the opposite of the truth. By assigning the solution of a problem to the agency best equipped to solve it, we are making the best use of the scarce resources available to solve problems – thereby maximizing problem solution. And the NFL’s domestic-violence conundrum is a case in point.

The NFL is a business. It produces a kind of entertainment product called “professional football competition.” The business form it uses is called franchising, a popular method utilized by many American icons like McDonald’s. The NFL’s franchises are called teams; these include the Baltimore Ravens and Minnesota Vikings for whom Rice and Peterson played and play, respectively.

What should the NFL – the franchisor – “do” about the “problem” of domestic violence among its players? (Or, for that matter, among its coaches or front-office personnel?) Nothing. Domestic violence is not a problem for the NFL, the franchisor. The NFL’s job is to enable its franchises to provide the best possible product to fans, who are the consumers of its product. What about the NFL’s “image?” The NFL’s image depends on how well it does its job of supporting its franchises and how good their product is. In that regard, it is just as important for the NFL to refrain from doing bad things as it is for it to do good things. The NFL should not waste its time and money trying to solve problems that it cannot solve and which are better solved by others.

But the fact that domestic violence committed by players is not a problem for the NFL does not mean that it might not be a problem for the particular team that employs the erring player. The word “might” is the operative one; it reinforces the rationale for excluding action by the league. The NFL does not, and cannot, know whether the particular episode is a problem for the team or not. That is a decision for the team to make, not the league office. The NFL does not run its franchises; it does not make the day-to-day, profit-and-loss, operational decisions for team management. Only the team is legally entitled and circumstantially qualified to make those decisions. This decision is one more operational decision for the team to make. In the case of Ray Rice, the Baltimore Ravens made it by deciding to terminate Rice’s contract.

We can easily envision a player’s union advocate representing Rice objecting to that decision in language like this: “Rice’s actions may have been unfortunate, but he faced legal sanction and paid for his crime. This has nothing to do with his ability to perform on the football field and therefore does not justify the termination of his contract.” That hypothetical case, seductive though it may seem at first hearing, is quite wrong. Ray Rice, and every other professional football player, is not merely an athletic performer. The product he produces is entertainment, and it includes more than mere athletic performance. It also includes a standard of behavior and image acceptable to the public in an athletic performer. The fact that this standard is subjective does not detract a whit from its reality.

O.J. Simpson immediately stopped appearing in movies when he was charged with murdering Nicole Simpson. Had he still been playing football, had he still retained his youthful athletic skill, his football career would nonetheless have reached an immediate close. People do not want to watch a murderer act in movies. In the 1940s and early 50s, a substantial minority of actors and actresses lost the ability to act in motion pictures produced by major U.S. studios, although they still could act on Broadway and abroad. Americans did not want to watch Communists act in movies.

The subjective line with respect to domestic violence is much less clear, but it obviously exists. We are willing to tolerate some measure of violence in domestic relations among athletes, but there are limits to it. Who decides what the limits are? The free market, which means the people directly affected by it. Those people are the consumers of the product athletes produce – the fans – and the producers of that product – the teams. Fans express their views at the ticket office and by direct contact with the team. The team acts in accordance with their view of short- and long-term profit, based on the reactions of fans and the athletic prowess of the player. This is the system calculated to produce the best possible football product for consumers. That will achieve the best outcome not only for the NFL but for consumers and producers as well. The rest of us have no stake in the matter.

Wait a minute – what about Mrs. Rice? She has an obvious stake. But Mrs. Rice’s interests were served by the agency best equipped to serve them – the criminal justice system. She had her day in court and even had her views prevail when Rice was given a lenient sentence. The busybodies of the media are actually arguing to overrule her and impose extra penalties on Rice over and above those dictated by law and the team. In essence, they are applying the “helpless victim” codicil of Joseph Epstein’s “root cause” hypothesis. Here, it is Mrs. Rice who is the helpless victim in need of the all-wise counsel and direction gratuitously provided by the blabbermouth class, who specialize in telling the rest of the world how to run their lives.

Is the Adrian Peterson case special because it involves a child? Well, it is certainly special in the legal sense, since the child’s presumed inability to act as his own advocate in a way analogous to that of Mrs. Rice argues for government involvement. But those special considerations don’t introduce any factors conducing to involvement by the NFL. The need for careful consideration by the team is still present, even enhanced, by the possibility of child abuse.

What about the NFL’s drug and performance-enhancement policy? Does this violate the doctrine of specialization a la Friedman and Coase? No. Here the NFL is arbitrating the issue of competitive balance between teams, an appropriate action for a franchisor. For example, franchisors such as McDonald’s routinely award franchises by providing geographic separation between franchisees to limit competition between them. They want franchisees to compete with other franchisors – Hardees, Burger King and Wendy’s – but not with each other. Similarly, the NFL does not want some teams to gain a competitive edge by employing players who use steroids or human-growth hormone while others feel compelled to respect the wishes of fans by banning use of those substances by their players. Of course, it is still up to the NFL to adopt a wise and effective policy – but the policy is not objectionable a priori.

Domestic Violence Reconsidered

The most recent entry in the domestic violence op-ed derby is revealing. In “A Better Way to Reduce Domestic Violence in the NFL,” author Richard J. Gelles estimates the statistical expectation for acts of substantive domestic violence among 2,016 males between 21 and 39 years of age – the demographic base of NFL players. Assume that 90% of these players are in relationships with women. About 4% of these relationships would produce an act of domestic violence annually. That would be about 80 cases. This would lead to about 20 arrests. But not all of these acts, or arrests, would be perpetrated by the male – maybe 10-20 would be female-caused.

This puts a different face on the current hysteria about domestic violence in the NFL, even if we include the aggravated assault accusation against Jonathan Dwyer of the Arizona Cardinals and the accusation against the Chicago Bears’ Brandon Marshall, which goes all the way back to 2006. Suddenly, we are not confronted with an epidemic demanding emergency action but an age-old problem meriting careful consideration.

Alas, Gelles – a sociologist – offers two “solutions,” neither one within shouting distance of cogency. The first, recourse to a “Case Review Committee” to arbitrate domestic disputes, is best applied by the principals with interposition by agencies like the NFL. The second is even sillier. Gelles wants “professional sports [to] apply sanctions judiciously.” We might call this the “Spike Lee” solution: “Do the right thing.” He helpfully explains that suspending Ray Rice for a third of a season “would be appropriate” without providing the general rule that makes it appropriate. This is worse than useless.

The beginning of wisdom on this issue was broached by Jenkins when he observed that “people fight with those they know.” Consider an example that provides a reasonable parallel to the NFL case.

In the late 1920s and 1930s, contract bridge was a craze in the United States. As inconceivable as it might seem today, bridge was front-page news. The great popularizer of bridge, Ely Culbertson, organized a challenge team match with his principal competitor for public favor, Sidney Lenz. For days, the running tally of the 1931-32 Culbertson-Lenz match was reported in the press, on radio and on neon billboards in Times Square. Over the years, bridge retained its popularity as the nation’s favorite card game, surpassing poker. Culbertson’s successor, Charles Goren, appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in the 1950s.

Throughout this reign of popularity, there was a link between bridge and domestic discord between husbands and wives. This was popularly recognized and wryly treated by humorists and the movies. This good-natured acceptance flew in the face of occasional violent outbursts such as the famous Bennett case in Kansas City, MO, in 1929. Mrs. Bennett was so outraged and frustrated by her husband’s incapable display as her bridge partner that his culminating depredation, failure to land a four-spade contract at their regular bridge game, drove her ballistic – she pulled a pistol and shot him through the door of the bathroom to which he had frantically retreated. It is not clear to what extent Ely Culbertson’s straight-faced analysis of Mr. Bennett’s mistakes as a declarer caused the jury to acquit Mrs. Bennett. This seems to be the precursor of our modern tendency to balance distaste at domestic violence with a demand for competitive excellence.

Women bridge players have vastly outnumbered men. Yet only one husband and wife partnership has represented a country in the Bermuda Bowl, the international world team championship that has been played since 1950. (They were not notably successful.) Traditionally and notoriously, husbands and wives have found it very difficult to sustain a long-running successful partnership in top-level competitive bridge. Carrying the principle that familiarity breeds contempt even further, long-running partnerships in general are historically rare in bridge, despite the demonstrated competitive advantage accruing to established partnerships over short-duration combinations.

In the bridge world, a few experts have legendary reputations for their gentlemanly demeanor and politeness to opponents. (The opposite is more nearly the rule in top-level bridge.) Yet these players have usually found it difficult or impossible to play harmoniously with their wives. One of these world-famous gentlemen was the perpetrator of an explosion at the bridge table in which he astonished hundreds of onlookers by yelling at his wife: “And to think that this woman is the mother of my children!” Their successful and long-running partnerships have been with men. Even these are hard to sustain. Again, it needs to be stressed that this is the rule rather than the exception over some 90 years of stressful high-level competition involving many thousands of competitors around the world.

What are we to make of this?

Holman Jenkins referred pejoratively to a past practice that he called “[giving] a pass to wife beaters.” This might more precisely be called erring on the side of legal inaction when the assault involves married couples. In the old days, there was implicit recognition that the intimate familiarity between married couples created an inherent potential for frustration, discord and violence that, as again noted by Jenkins, simply did not exist between strangers. That does not mean that those were the good old days, because today we wince at casual references to wife beating that crop up in old movies, books and plays. Still, today’s pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction that husbands and wives are legally treated as exact equivalents to strangers. Mrs. Rice’s decision to marry her husband after he knocked her cold and her plea in his behalf in court illustrates the absurdity of this state of affairs.

The “Solution” to Domestic Violence

Some problems are inherent in the human condition. Domestic violence is one of them. There is no “solution” to it. Its mitigation is not a top-down process administered by bureaucratic organizations like the NFL or through compulsory arbitration by the National Labor Relations Board. What little help can be provided by third parties must be offered on a voluntary basis by the private sector. The people best equipped to solve the problem must be in charge. That means the principals – the husband and wife.

The NFL should stay out of it.