USA TODAY - 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.
"We get looked at a lot more than the average Joe Blow because of what kind of car we drive or how we look," said Washington Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss, who was not one of the arrestees. "You see a young, black kid in a nice ride, and chances are he's an athlete. Sometimes you get labeled."
It's not just an NFL issue. The national debate erupted anew this year with the Trayvon Martin case in Florida and the stop-and-frisk police policy in New York City.
The overall numbers on traffic stops continue to show differences along racial lines: A study released this year by the Justice Department showed a higher percentage of black drivers (13%) than white drivers (10%) reported their most recent contact with police came from being pulled over in a traffic stop. In a similar survey released in 2011, a greater percentage of black drivers (4.7%) than white drivers (2.4%) were arrested during a traffic stop.
The challenge with racial profiling is that whites and blacks generally perceive the issue much differently because white people have not experienced it, said Cyrus Mehri, a Washington, D.C., attorney who has studied racial stereotypes and worked on big race and gender cases.
"It's very, very painful to the African-American community, and the white community is not fully sensitized to how big of an issue this is," Mehri said. "The best thing we can do as a country is to talk about it and deal with it than to sweep it under the rug."
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 probable cause to stop the car?
"Racial profiling is bad police work," Roberts said. "Situational profiling is good police work."
The American Civil Liberties Union defines racial profiling as "law enforcement and private security practices that disproportionately target people of color for investigation and enforcement."
"It's safe to say that goes on," Tennessee Titans wide receiver Kenny Britt said. "Because people are human, and it is not just policemen. You can't just say it's cops. But they make their own judgments, and some of them use their power. ... It definitely makes you leery about where you go and who is watching for you. "
Britt has been arrested or faced charges in four traffic stops since 2010 — two for license issues, one drunken-driving case and one case of eluding police. He paid fines in two of those cases, was acquitted of the DUI charge and saw one license case get dismissed. Two of those incidents were in his home state of New Jersey, where the state police were embroiled in a scandal in the 1990s that resulted in authorities agreeing to a consent decree that expressly barred racial profiling in traffic stops. The decree was dissolved in 2009.
"I don't bring ... my (expensive) cars to New Jersey anymore," Britt said.\
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."
Reason for stop
To civil rights activists, another question should be asked first: Did the officer have probable cause to make the stop? If he didn't, they point out, there should be no questioning of the motorist and no search of the car.
Mehri, the attorney, says racial profiling and guilt are not mutually exclusive — both can happen in the same incident and in the same pool of arrests.
Mehri says he thinks two factors are affecting the traffic-stop arrest rate for black NFL players. First, he says, an officer might see a situation he thinks is out of place — a young black man in an expensive car. Secondly, Mehri says some white officers might harbor prejudice against young black athletes. "There's no doubt in my mind these NFL players are being subjected to some level of discrimination," he said.
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.
Critics rejected the law enforcement claim that window tint prevents officers from knowing the race of a car's occupants.
"To heck with the window tint, all they (officers) have to do is put a license plate in a computer and they know exactly who it is," said Harry Edwards, a sociologist and consultant to the San Francisco 49ers.
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.
The data only include cases that resulted in an arrest. They do not include traffic stops that resulted only in a traffic ticket or no citation, although some black players who experienced such stops thought racial profiling was a factor.
In June 2011, Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Darnell Dockett was driving a black Cadillac Escalade when he was pulled over in Maryland. The officers said he was speeding and wanted to search his car. But Dockett refused unless police obtained a search warrant, and he started to film the incident — while famously going on Twitter to publicize the stop as it was happening. He said one of the officers even asked him if he played sports. Dockett thinks he was racially profiled.
"Black car with rims, a big African-American guy, an in-shape guy," he said. "Of course, no question."
Dockett said he was released without a ticket after insisting that police get the warrant or arrest him.
In January 2002, then-San Diego Chargers wide receiver Jeff Graham was talking on his phone while sitting in his truck as it was running in his driveway near Dayton, Ohio. A sheriff's deputy approached, pulled Graham from the truck and found a gun registered to Graham's father. No traffic offense was cited, but the deputy said the vehicle might have been stolen, according to court records.
Graham was released after six hours and not charged. But Graham sued the sheriff, alleging racial profiling and a violation of his civil rights. The sheriff denied it, and Graham dropped the case in 2006.
Players get training
All arrests involve situational analysis by police — what the suspect is doing, where and when, for example. But police have discretion in deciding whether to stop a car.
Edwards, who is black, says he has been living in the same house and married to the same wife for 47 years but has been pulled over there.
"The first question is, 'Do you live around here?'" Edwards said.
Even when the face of a driver can't be clearly seen by police, other types of profiling can disproportionately affect black motorists — where and what they're driving and areas where patrols are more prevalent.
"Nobody is going to be profiling (white former quarterback) Steve Young after the game when he goes to a Mormon retreat to talk to Mormon kids," Edwards said. "They (officers) are going to profile somebody partying at the club after the game. When you profile all those factors in, where police are likely to be looking for suspicious behavior, that's going to eliminate a number of white guys right off the shoot because they're not going to be going to those areas in those neighborhoods, looking at those kinds of activities."
Since 2000, black players have been arrested in traffic stops at least 10 times in Miami Beach, where the club scene is popular with players.
"On Miami Beach, those police officers know who's an athlete and who's not," the Redskins' Moss said.
In 2009, police arrested then-Philadelphia Eagles player Juqua Parker in a traffic stop after midnight in Bethlehem, Pa. The driver, teammate Todd Herremans, who is white, was pulled over for driving without headlights and making an illegal left turn. Parker, who is black, was arrested for marijuana possession; the officer wrote in his report that he saw marijuana in plain sight under the seat.
The district attorney said that wasn't possible and dismissed the charge against Parker. "You can't just go and search a car," Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli said at the time.
Knowing their rights can help players if they are stopped. Edwards says the league helps counsel players on how to interact with police during traffic stops, advising them to cooperate and avoid aggravating the situation.
"We try to let them know it's not like they're Joe Sixpack driving around at 3 o'clock in the morning," Edwards said. "It's not that simple."
Contributing: Jarrett Bell, Jorge L. Ortiz, Jim Wyatt, Kent Somers
Follow Brent Schrotenboer on Twitter @Schrotenboer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org