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Risk Taking and Aggression On and Off the Field: Evidence from the National Football League

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We study the behavioral link between NFL players’ off-field misconduct and their on-field infractions by matching a comprehensive dataset of players’ off-field arrests with detailed record of on-field penalty calls. Results from Poisson regressions indicate that players with arrest record are likewise observed to have significantly higher tendencies for aggression-related penalties, implying their inherent preferences toward risks or aggression. Such association is particularly salient among repeat offenders. We also find that repeat offenders boast stronger overall career performance and longer career span compared to non-offenders and one-time offenders, suggesting that the related behavioral traits can be instrumental to job performance in professional football.

JEL Classification: D9; K00; Z2


I thank the Editor-in-Chief, Robert Fleck, and an anonymous referee for helpful feedback. I am grateful to Michael Lopez for data provisions, comments and discussions. A significant portion of this research was carried out during my academic affiliation with Skidmore College. Yuanding Chen and Lirong Ma provided excellent research assistance. The remaining errors are mine. The opinions in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Vassar College and Skidmore College.


Table 5:

Category of on-field rule infractions

CategoryRule infraction
Pre-snap focus12 On-field; Delay of Game; Delay of Kickoff; False Start; Illegal Formation; Illegal Motion; Illegal Procedure; Illegal Shift; Illegal Substitution; Kickoff Out of Bounds; Offensive Offside; Offside on Free Kick; Short Free Kick.
Pre-snap aggressionDefensive Offside; Encroachment; Neutral Zone.
Post-snap run of playIllegal Forward Handoff; Illegal Receiver Pass; Illegal Scrimmage Kick; Blocking after Fair Catch Signal; Defensive Holding; Defensive Pass Interference; Illegal Bat; Illegal Block Above the Waist; Illegal Contact; Illegal Forward Pass;Illegal Kick; Illegal Snap; Illegal Touch Kick; Illegal Touch Pass; Illegal Use of Hands; Illegal Wedge; Illegally Kicking Ball; Ineligible Downfield Kick; Ineligible Downfield Pass; Intentional Grounding; Invalid Fair Catch Signal; Leaping; Leverage; Offensive Holding; Offensive Pass Interference; Player Out of Bounds on Punt; Running Into the Kicker.
Post-snap aggressionChop Block; Clipping; Disqualification; Face Mask; Fair Catch Interference; Horse Collar; Illegal Blindside Block; Illegal Crackback; Illegal Cut; Illegal Peelback; Low Block; Personal Foul; Roughing the Kicker; Roughing the Passer; Taunting; Tripping; Unnecessary Roughness; Unsportsmanlike Conduct; Interference with Opportunity to Catch.
Table 6:

Frequency distribution of players by position types

BigBigBig skillBig skillSkillSkill
Full sample62158120564366746
Full sample126462
Full sample264
  1. Note: The position abbreviations are as follows: OL, offensive lineman; DL, defensive lineman; LS, long snapper; QB, quarterback; TE, tight end; LB, linebacker; RB, running back; WR, wide receiver; DB, defensive backs.


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Published Online: 2019-06-04

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