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Research Examines Character Concerns Versus Performance In The NFL


The National Football League has been in the news a lot for the wrong reasons. The league has been hammered recently by concerns about character. Players' personal lives have come into sharp focus following charges of domestic violence and child abuse. Football teams sometimes let talented players go because of character concerns and pressure from fans who see star players as role models for young people. Today, NPR's Shankar Vedantam is here with us to examine some new research that looks at the character and performance of players and potential incentives for the league to take action. Shankar, welcome as always.


GREENE: So what is this research showing us?

VEDANTAM: Well, the research tries to quantify the effect of character in two different domains, David - on player selection and the effect that it has on player performance. So many teams are reluctant to take players that have had run-ins with the law - criminal charges filed against them. And these athletes tend to drop in the draft rankings. An economist at Hamilton College, Stephen Wu and his colleague Kendall Weir - they looked at 1,273 players selected in the NFL draft between 2005 and 2009. And they find that athletes who've had criminal charges filed against them or trouble with their own teams - these players are affected in the draft. But the economists find something very interesting when it comes to the performance of these athletes on the field. Here's Wu.


STEPHEN WU: Those that had a run-in with the law or had an arrest or a charge - they actually tended to outperform the expectation of where they were drafted. Whereas those who had a history of some other type of team suspension, a clash with a coach or a clash with a teammate - those players tend to underperform where they were drafted in the draft.

GREENE: OK, Shankar, a few things to go through here - players who get into some kind of trouble - I mean, they go lower in the draft.

VEDANTAM: That's right.

GREENE: But if we're talking about criminal charges - anything from, you know, being charged with pot possession to domestic violence - those players actually in general play better in the NFL than teams expected?

VEDANTAM: That's right. So when we think about problems that involve the police, these players are penalized in the draft. But when you look at their actual performance on the field, they outperform their draft status. Now, performance obviously is only one dimension of what teams are looking for. They're also catering to the concerns of fans and the public, David. But if you look only in terms of performance, you would have to say teams are leaving talent on the table when they take issues such as domestic violence into consideration. Again, looking only at performance, teams might not be taking lesser concerns as seriously as they should. A college player who's suspended because of fighting with other players or a run-in with the coach - those players are apparently not penalized heavily enough in the draft.

GREENE: This is not something NFL fans probably want to hear - that teams actually if they're looking at players they actually might want to draft who have been charged with crimes, sometimes very serious, they should say yeah, but this player might do much better than we expect. It's worth bringing him onto our team.

VEDANTAM: You know, David, what it says is that teams have a dilemma. When they take a character issues into consideration, especially run-ins with the law - criminal problems, they might be penalizing themselves in terms of performance. On the other hand, if they ignore character concerns and just pick players for their performance, this might affect the reputation of football as a whole. So Stephen Wu says that it's only the NFL - the league as a whole - that can make sure that what's in the best interest of individual teams is also in the best interest of the league as a whole. So if the NFL starts to crack down on a character concerns, as they have started to do this year, teams that take problem players will now be taking a risk because these players might not be allowed to play at all. Here's Wu again.


WU: If moving forward, we see that the NFL is stricter with players who have had some character concerns, then maybe some of that tension is relieved a little bit because having high standards for character may be also something that will affect the likelihood that somebody's even able to be on the field.

GREENE: He's basically suggesting that the league could take away the competitive advantage of having a player who has been charged with something but performs well in the field by giving teams certainty that these players are going to be just suspended - not allowed to play in the NFL. And so teams would not have the incentive to bring them in.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. It's about collective actions and collective standards. So the league cares about the reputation of football. If individual teams try to set those standards, they might be penalizing themselves by losing out on performance. But if everyone has the same rules, no team can get an unfair advantage by taking these problem players. And basically when the reputation of the whole league rises, all teams benefit.

GREENE: Shankar, thanks as always.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, David.

GREENE: That's Shankar Vedantam, who regularly joins us to talk about social science research. And you can follow him on Twitter at @hiddenbrain. You can also follow this program at @nprgreene and @morningedition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.