NCAA Student-Athletes and Criminal History: An Analysis of SI and CBS's Study

David MartinContributor IMarch 10, 2011

March 7, 2011 SI Cover
March 7, 2011 SI Cover

Sports Illustrated recently published an article based on its joint study with CBS into the criminal backgrounds of college athletes.  The article, entitled “Rap Sheets, Recruits and Repercussions,” has analysts, administrators and experts unified in condemnation and rhetoric.  The primary takeaway—the headline scrolling across ESPN’s bottom line—is “One in fourteen (7%) of college football players found to have been in trouble with the law.”  I want to consider a simple question with a difficult answer:

How high is 7% really?

By indicting the system in place—which pundits and high-ups alike have been quick to do—we’re saying that it's shocking that 7% of college football players has “been in trouble with the law.”  Really?  Doesn’t that reaction ignore the socioeconomic realities of the situation?  Doesn't damning the Viliseni Fauonukus of the world to life without college directly contradict our nation's second chance crime-and-punishment perspective?  Are we really going to expect seventeen year olds to make the right decision every second of the day, and red flag them for life if they slip up?

For instance, only 2% of the student-athletes in the study have committed violent offenses.  Over half of the crimes found in the study are drug- and alcohol-related, only the very worst of which are to be considered serious offenses.  We have little to compare these statistics to.  Would it be better if the percentage were 4% instead of 7%, or 2% instead of 4?  Sure.  But the NCAA's higher-ups are vastly out of touch with what it's like to be seventeen and in the situations many of these kids find themselves in.

As much as I hate to agree with Rick Neuheisel, people make mistakes.  Don’t get me wrong: universities should absolutely perform background checks on their recruits; this is one of the main arguments of the article.  Athletic departments can inform themselves about a recruit’s past at a relatively low cost.  But this information should merely provide background on which to decide whether an athlete with a troubled past is worth taking a risk on.

To be fair, certain business and PR pressures help cause the alarmist reaction we hear.  SI and CBS devoted six months and hundreds of thousands of dollars to the study.  Even if the fraction was one-in-thirty student-athletes it would have been made into a special report and we’d be hearing the same reaction.  The sponsors feel compelled to make a splash with the research.  Hence Sports Illustrated’s beet red, photo-less cover and the report’s sensationalist title.  Meanwhile NCAA President Mark Emmert is not going to go on record approving a 7% run-in rate among student-athletes, so of course he rings alarm bells.

The simple fact of the matter is ‘one-in-fourteen’ should not surprise us.  After all, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that over 3 percent of the U.S. population is currently imprisoned—the 7% of student-athletes includes all players who had EVER “been in trouble with the law.” 

If SI and CBS have this much time and money to devote to research, why not look into the elephant in the room: the abhorrent exploitation of collegiate football and men's basketball players, whose unpaid labor often subsidizes the tens of millions of dollars lost by the rest of the athletic department. These kids need a much louder and smarter voice than mine speaking for them.