Chris Henry: Are Athletes Likely to Die Violently?

Two things are likely to happen at your next holiday party: someone's going to bring up Tiger Woods (because that story still won’t go away) and someone's going to bring up Cincinnati Bengal Chris Henry, who died Thursday after tumbling out of his fiancée's pickup truck. Where Tiger's story is tragicomic, Henry's is simply tragic: Tiger lost millions in endorsement deals; Henry lost his life. But that won't keep people from drawing parallels between the two and, ultimately, someone may say they're both symptoms of the same ill in professional sports: the players think they can get away with things lesser mortals wouldn't dare try.

It's here that you can either go on autopilot and have the same snippy conversation people have had about pro athletes since ancient Rome (Galen, A.D. 180: "They are so deficient in reasoning powers that they do not even know if they have a brain"), or you can say something more interesting. While it's easy to talk about athletes as risk-addicted jocks — see commenter Schloss1 here—at the professional level, the data just don't support that stereotype.

You can point out, for instance, that for all their widely and frequently reported shenanigans, NFL players aren't really more crime-prone than the general public:

Other than the Union-Tribune numbers, data on pro athletes and risky behavior is hard to come by. "A big study on athletes and crime is—well, it's a study that hasn't been done, because it's really hard to study professional athletes in an objective way," says Robert Dimeff, a former team doctor for the Cleveland Browns who also worked at the Cleveland Clinic (he's now at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center). "It's hard to get controls. And lot of times people won't volunteer. Their livelihood is at stake, and if information comes out from a study, it may affect their ability to get a contract."

But Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, does have data on two types of crimes—domestic violence and drug use—and it seems to back up the Union-Tribune's findings. There are somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 pro athletes in the country. About 100 of them are arrested each year for domestic incidents, Lapchick says. That's a rate of about .007 arrests per athlete versus a rate of about .03 incidents for the general male population, given that 4.5 million women are battered each year. Even if you assume the athletes don't get arrested as often because cops go easy on them, Lapchick says, they don't make up "a disproportionate number." The percentages are similarly small with drug offenses.

Why does the stereotype of the foolishly risk-taking pro athlete persist? Partly because athletes' fame sells the story in a way that the news of the foolishly risk-taking average guy doesn't. "Twice a week we read about an athlete getting arrested," says Lapchick. "But we're not reading about everybody else."

That isn't to say that pro athletes aren't adrenaline junkies to some degree. "You don't play certain sports unless you have a high tolerance for risk, and football is one of those sports," says prominent (and now retired) sports sociologist Jay Coakley. "Almost by definition, you get people who are risk takers, especially with their bodies." On the field, of course, that translates to the awesome, bone-crunching play that fans expect.

Off the field, though, it doesn't necessarily translate into awful, head-slapping stupidity. Yes, says Dimeff, the former Browns doctor, athletes are "used to having intense stimulation during the season, so off the field, they need something to excite them." But that phenomenon isn't unique to athletes; just think of the stereotype of the coke-addled Wall Street trader. And yes, some athletes do spend the off-season "driving their cars 120 miles an hour and skydiving and doing all this crazy stuff that is written in their contracts that they shouldn't do," Dimeff says. "But most of the players do follow their contracts. They're wise enough to do that."

How to explain the players who do go off the rails? The same way we explain that kind of behavior in everyone else. There are no data on whether NFL players are more likely to die violent, accidental, or premature deaths, for instance, but there's ample research on a larger group that is, one that happens to include every single player in the league: men. According to the CDC, in developed countries, the biggest single risk factor for dying early is having a Y chromosome. For young men, the outlook is even worse: the male-to-female mortality ratio peaks among people between the ages of 20 and 24, when men are almost six times more likely to be murdered and five times more likely to die in accidents. "As people age," says Dimeff, "their risk-taking behavior decreases significantly."

Henry was 26, a bit younger than the average NFL player. By all accounts, in the last year he had begun to mature out of his risk-seeking youth, turning his life around and getting engaged. Famously called a "one-man crime wave" by a judge on the occasion of his fifth arrest in 28 months, more recently he was likely to be described as "respectful," "polite," and "easy to talk to, easy to coach." His quarterback, Carson Palmer, went so far as to call him a role model, someone "it's great for the young players to see."

Henry might once have thought of himself as untouchable, perhaps even immortal, but he didn't anymore. "I really didn't think I was going to get in trouble. I was in the NFL, I had money," he recently told The Cincinnati Enquirer, reflecting on his checkered past. "Thinking like that got me into a lot of trouble." It's just a shame it had to do so one last time.

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