A police officer in Cincinnati watched a large black man get into his car and turn on the engine after being told it was illegally parked.
The officer thought the man was trying to avoid a parking ticket and told him to stop. So the man—Matthias Askew, at the time an NFL player—stopped his Cadillac Escalade, got out and was arrested in a scuffle with several officers. Police used a stun gun on Askew four times, alleging he resisted arrest.
A judge rejected the police account and cleared Askew of all charges.
“They tased him simply because he was a big black man, not because he did anything to make them fear for their safety,” Askew’s former attorney, Ken Lawson, told USA TODAY Sports about the 2006 incident.
For many black players in the NFL, it’s a familiar scene. Of 687 NFL player arrests since January 2000, Askew’s was one of 294 that came in a traffic stop, according to a USA TODAY Sports investigation. In a league in which 66% of the players are black and 31% are white, black players were arrested nearly 10 times as often as white players (260 to 28), accounting for 88% of those NFL traffic-stop arrests.
That percentage is consistent with the overall NFL arrest numbers: Of the 687 total player arrests in the USA TODAY Sports database that spans 14 seasons, 607 involved black players—88%, a disproportionate rate sociologists attribute to several social factors in the black population at large, including a disproportionate rate of poverty and single-parent backgrounds. Those factors also include profiling, civil rights experts and NFL players say.
Police advocates argue that profiling is not the reason players get stopped and arrested. Rich Roberts, a spokesman for the International Union of Police Associations, says when police decide to pull over a motorist they often can’t see the skin color of the vehicle’s occupants. He also says the decision to make a stop comes down to a simple question that does not involve race: Did the driver violate traffic laws or give police a reasonable suspicion to stop the car?
“Racial profiling is bad police work,” Roberts said. “Situational profiling is good police work.”
Of the black players arrested during a traffic stop, about 70% were convicted or agreed to a punishment with prosecutors. Yet about 30% saw the arrest charges get dropped or were cleared when they fought the case. And the statistics do not include the number of NFL players who were stopped and not arrested; such data were not available.
Roberts said the conviction rate couldn’t be ignored. “The bottom line is did he do it?” he said. “That’s a yes-or-no question.”
The USA TODAY Sports investigation found other differences in how authorities handled black players vs. white players during traffic stops:
About 6% of traffic-stop arrests for black players resulted only from charges related to their driver’s license, such as driving with a suspended license. The records showed no white players arrested on such license charges.
Black players were pulled over at least 13 times for playing music too loud or having window tint that was too dark. By contrast, USA TODAY Sports found no examples of white players stopped for those offenses during the period studied.
Rarely were white players arrested on charges that resulted from a search of the vehicle. Twenty-three of their 28 traffic-stop arrests, 82%, were because of suspected intoxicated driving. For black players, 56% of traffic-stop arrests were because of suspected drunken or reckless driving. Another 26% were arrested or cited mainly because of alleged gun or drug possession, often discovered in a car search.