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By Eric Stirgus June 17, 2011

Ray Lewis crime claim gets flagged

For more than a decade, Ray Lewis has been one of the most fearsome players in professional football.

Lewis, a 12-time Pro Bowl linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, recently offered a prediction if the ongoing National Football League lockout continues through this season that sounded scarier than getting tackled by him. There’s talk that NFL owners and players are closer to a labor agreement, but if not, Lewis says watch out.

"Do this research," Lewis told ESPN. "If we don’t have a season, watch how much evil, which we call crime, watch how much crime picks up if you take away our game."

Lewis, to be clear, was talking about fans committing more crime, not players.

Lewis, as some Atlantans remember, has a criminal history in this city. In 2000, Lewis and some friends got into an argument at a Buckhead nightclub with two men who were fatally stabbed. Lewis pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of obstruction of justice and was sentenced to probation. Lewis now speaks of his Christian faith and is one of the sport’s most popular players.

Thus far, many bloggers and others have laughed at Lewis’ comments. Considering his size and hitting ability, we won’t. Still, we decided to be game and, as Lewis advised, do some research. We tried to talk to the former Super Bowl MVP or one of his representatives, but our efforts were unsuccessful.

Our first thought was to look at past NFL work stoppages and see whether crime did increase.

In the Super Bowl era, there have been two work stoppages during the regular season. In 1982, the 16-game season was cut down to nine games because of a 57-day labor dispute from late September to mid-November. There was a 24-day strike in 1987.

We thought it would be more interesting to see whether there was an increase in crime in 1982 than 1987 because the work stoppage in the earlier year was almost two months long. The nation’s violent crime rate in 1982 was slightly lower than it was the year before the work stoppage, according to FBI crime data. The violent crime rate dropped more significantly the following year, the data show.

Northeastern’s Sport in Society center examined Lewis’ claim after a call from us and also focused on the 1982 NFL work stoppage. It, too, reached a similar conclusion.

"There is very little evidence supporting Lewis’ claim that crime will increase the longer the work stoppage lasts," the center told us.

The Baltimore Sun also looked at crime in 1982 and found an increase during the strike in only one category: homicides.

The Sun tried some other methods to tackle Lewis’ claim. The newspaper’s Crime Beat blog looked at crime data last season when the Ravens had their bye (off) week. The Sun found there was slightly more crime during the bye week.

The Sun looked at crime in Baltimore the four weeks before the season started and the first four weeks of the season. There was the same number of crimes. The Sun also examined the crime rate there at the end of the Ravens’ season and what happened afterward. What did it find? There was less crime after the season ended in early January.

The Sun stressed several times that its findings were unscientific.

We tried the Sun’s approach and examined Atlanta crime statistics during the Falcons’ bye. The Falcons’ bye weekend in 2010 was Sunday, Oct. 31, and Monday, Nov. 1, just like the Ravens’. Again, it may be unscientific, but the data do not help Lewis’ argument. They show crime declined around that time.

Two weeks beforehand (Oct. 17-23), there were 771 Part I offenses reported. Part I crimes include murder, rape, robbery, auto theft and aggravated assault. There were 755 of those crimes Oct. 24-30. Between Oct. 31 and Nov. 6, there were 736 of those crimes. There were 683 Part I crimes Nov. 7-13.

We decided against comparing crime from the last week of the Falcons’ season and the week after. The last week of the Falcons’ season was also the week a snow and ice storm kept much of the region’s population at home.

"[The storm] caused a decrease in crime, since there were very few people on the streets," Atlanta police spokesman Carlos Campos said.

The FBI says crime typically decreases during football season, but it doesn’t see a correlation, according to a newspaper account provided to us by the Sport in Society center. The FBI believes criminals prefer to strike when the weather is warmer.

Some current and former NFL players have argued Lewis has a point, including his quarterback, Joe Flacco.

One criminologist we interviewed had a different take. Northeastern University professor James A. Fox heard Lewis’ comments and did a study. He looked at key FBI data from the last three years available, 2006 through 2008, focusing on the week before the Super Bowl because there were no games that week and there was intense interest in football around that time of the year. Fox, who was referred to us by the FBI, found no increase in crime the week there was no football.

"I took the Ray Lewis challenge and I don’t see any evidence of [a crime increase]," said Fox, the author of several books on crime who also writes a crime and punishment blog for the Boston Globe.

We, too, took the challenge and found no substantive evidence that Lewis has a point. Hopefully, we won’t see this fall whether Lewis is right. For now, we’re throwing a flag on this claim. Our rating is False.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

ESPN, "Ray Lewis discusses lockout issues," May 25, 2011

Emails from Atlanta Police Department spokesman Carlos Campos, June 9, 2011

NFL Gridiron Gab, "Ravens QB Flacco Agrees with Ray Lewis On Crime Going Up If the NFL Doesn’t Play," June 8, 2011

Sport in Society analysis of crime during NFL work stoppages, June 13, 2011

Telephone interview with Northeastern University criminology professor James A. Fox, June 8, 2011

The Baltimore Sun, "Putting Ray Lewis’ Crime Prediction To The Test," May 24, 2011

The Washington Post, "Backing up Ray Lewis: Crime will rise if there is no NFL season," May 25, 2011

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