NCAA Football: Critical Analysis of SI's "Criminal Records in College Football"

Sharp TuskContributor IIMarch 8, 2011

SI and CBS News Cover "Criminal Records in College Football"
SI and CBS News Cover "Criminal Records in College Football"

Before a word might be read, the cover’s crimson background, almost blood-red, looks violent behind the innocent white words as they are surrounded by the words and images in black.

In saint-like white “Special Report,” “,” “College Football,” “a six month investigation…,” “The Coaches’ Dilemma,” and “What Should Be Done” play out the “dark and stormy night” cliche and urge a corrective call-to-action, while more white words, “Sports Illustrated” and “CBS News,” symbolically speak from inside the black comment box of criminal records.

Totally black letters inexorably link “Criminal Records In” and authors “George Dohrmann and Jeff Benedict” while the blackness of the publication name title “Sports Illustrated” remains outlined in saintly white as if truly untainted from the salaciousness of it all.

While their bold headlines promise drama worthy of O.J. Simpson’s attempted escape from a murder arrest with a gun pointed at Al Cowling’s head as a company of police officers engaged him in a slow-motion car chase on Los Angeles freeways on live television, Sports Illustrated’s and CBS News’ “Special Report, Criminal Records in College Football” delivers instead a police chase shot for a commercial.  

They would have done better to stop the issue with the umpteen thousandth acknowledgment of Ali-Frazier I on its Fortieth Anniversary as the greatest fight of all time.

Beyond the obligatory anecdotes to set the scene, Sports Illustrated and CBS News prosaically lay out the issues regarding football players’ “criminal records”:

It is a visible black eye on the game. Yet even as criminal incidents involving players appear to have become more widespread in recent years, the scope of the problem has never been fully explained…How much do schools really know about the prospects they recruit and reward with scholarships? How much do they know about their behavior of their players off the field?

As much of an admirable task as it is to investigate “criminal incidents” to expose systemic injustices of awarding athletic scholarships to undeserving players, common sense sends up red flags when the article touts its own work as “an unprecedented six-month investigation” and then offers that “7,030 background checks” were conducted on “2,837 players” on “SI’s 2010 preseason football top 25 as of last Sept. 1.”

Never mind old standard journalistic considerations of personal matters and societal decorum, or even new facebook descriptions like “creeping,” practical, fair questions arise:

From the beginning what would happen if SI and CBS Sports spent a significant amount of money, worked hundreds or thousands of man-hours, and the data do not support the premise of “widespread 'criminal' incidents” involving football players? Was it a decided premise of the article before the effort began that background checks were needed for all college football players? Why did Sports Illustrated, maybe the most respected sports publication in the United States, decide to team up with CBS News and potentially compromise the objectivity of this endeavor when CBS Sports invests heavily in college football and particularly in the Southeastern Conference?

Beyond the obvious questions and before any conclusion is examined here, the fact that the authors’ label virtually all incidents in the examined records as “criminal incidents,” “criminal records” or the like, belies this study’s most unfortunate characteristic.

Here are few examples of what they do.

“Criminal incidents” first appears in the right column of page 32 at the second line from the bottom, “It is a visible black eye on the game.

Yet even as criminal incidents involving players …” The authors describe the process as conducting “criminal background checks.” (p. 33, left column) In the first bullet paragraph in the right column of page 33, the story reads, “Nearly 40 percent of the alleged incidents were serious offenses. Players had been charged with…There were 41 charges for.”

Even when SI and CBS News choose to describe the records accurately as “arrest records,” for the study’s purposes the authors treat “arrest records” as being synonymous with “criminal records” to tally the numbers for the study’s conclusion.

Without detailing each and every use of the words “crime,” “criminal,” “arrest,” or “charges” references, suffice it to say that the article is replete with the assumption that all of the above may be piled together to become a single “criminal record.”

Along with the accurate word “arrest,” the words “alleged” or “allegedly” appear only one time each, for “alleged” in a quote above and for “allegedly” on page 34 in the right column, “victims of crimes allegedly committed by scholarship athletes.”

Only with reference to identifiable incidents does the word “accused” appear. (See p. 38, middle column, discussion of past transgressions at TCU.)

The article wipes out professional precision from Journalism 101 between “alleged criminal incidents” and “criminal incidents” and ignores the practical problem that even a “charge” or an “arrest” does not make the athlete a “criminal.”

Former newspaper columnist Jack Anderson best illustrates the distinction in his February 23, 1982, column when he quotes ABSCAM Prosecutor Thomas Puccio who boasts about his ability to persuade a federal grand jury to charge someone saying, “I could indict a ham sandwich.” (See, Weinberg rated more scoundrel than folk hero, Lawrence-Journal World, Lawrence, KS, February 23, 1982, p. 4, via Google News Archive.)

Therein lies the problem. An “allegation” or even an “arrest” which is unfounded is hardly a “criminal” incident but for the purposes of this crack investigation, it counts as a “criminal record.”

Along those lines, some states make distinctions between “criminal” and “traffic” matters or even charges like “contempt of court for failure to pay fines as agreed” or “driving on a suspended license.”

Those “offenses” vary among really low level “violations” of traffic laws which do not require any intent on a person's part or consist of problems with compliance that usually deal with money, like failure to pay a reinstatement fee to the DMV.

Surely both are kinds of wrong, but they are not of the same character as any offense which is likely to inflict harm upon a person, the place where he lives, or to his property.

While “Criminal Records in College Football” is the authors’ work, and they have every right to make their own definitions of what is or is not a “crime” or a “serious crime,” if they employ that kind of license, they need to define their terms. Here, they fail to do so other than by implication.

The authors indicate that nearly 40 percent of the 277 alleged incidents were serious offenses.

Exactly 40 percent of 277 is 110.8, so we are looking for a number close to 110. We could agree that the 56 violent crimes are included as serious which leave us about 54 more offenses to account for.

If the solution were simply that the entire category of property crimes (41) is included, the total of the two categories would only amount to 35 percent (97) of 277.

Without question most, if not all, drug offenses are serious, but on the other side, some property offenses like some theft (larceny) offenses may be “petty.”

Even with some analysis, how SI and CBS reach the figure of 110 serious offenses remains a mystery. Whether Joe Reader or NCAA President Mark Emmert read the study, the answer may effect their perception of the study's meaning.

On another point, the authors grapple with their treatment of juvenile convictions and the varying ability or inability for anyone to obtain those records.

Most of that discussion is common sense and fairly well-treated but like other matters, remains incomplete.

One right which may come with juvenile convictions is the sealing of the juvenile records.

In some places like Arkansas, when a juvenile record is sealed, the person may legally maintain to everyone but courts and law enforcement that he has no criminal record.

"Upon the entry of the uniform order to seal records of an individual, the individual's underlying conduct shall be deemed as a matter of law never to have occurred, and the individual may state that no such conduct ever occurred and that no such records exist.” Ark. Code Ann. §16-90-902 (via free public access search on Lexis /Nexis from the Arkansas Bureau of Legislative Research).

Further, because his record is sealed, even a coach or a prospective employer cannot independently obtain sealed records in Arkansas, and any NCAA legislation would need to compel a minor's parents to provide them with the record.  Ark. Code Ann. §16-90-903

As some coaches and schools suggest later in the article, ultimately trust must exist between the player and coach.

With the important but relatively boring detour aside, basic football questions exist.

Which preseason SI poll did the writers use? The magazine story (p. 33, left column) states that they considered records of all “who were on the rosters of SI’s 2010 preseason Top 25 as of last Sept. 1.”

The information repeats on the same page under “Methodology” as well, and in author Jeff Benedict’s online column entitled, “Lessons to be learned from the SI/CBS News investigation” Posted Wednesday, March 2, 2011.

“Over a six-month period we conducted criminal background checks on all 2,837 players whose names appeared on the rosters of SI's 2010 preseason Top 25 poll on Sept. 1.”  

It would seem abundantly plain, in fact readers are lead to believe, that the SI preseason poll in existence on or just before September 1, 2010, is the one employed, but finding the 2010 preseason football poll online with confidence is elusive. 

In a way, the description might be a curious side step to the answer of which preseason poll was utilized. Logically, one would expect to find the correct poll on's 2010 College Football Preview.

As expected, the page contains a photo link which reads “College Football Top 25” with Mark Ingram, Prince Amukamara and Jacory Harris pictured and redirects the reader to SI writer Andy Staples’ column, “Alabama enters 2010 where it ended '09 -- as nation's top team -- 2010 Preseason Top 25.”

The same Andy Staples column is the result using search engines.

Additionally, week one of the college football season, which extends from August 23, 2010 through September 6, 2010, can filter solely the Top 25 scores. 's 2010 Week 1 Top 25 Scores 

Either way, the “College Football Top 25” for the “Criminal Records” article is different than either the rankings in Staples’ column or the rankings in the week one results with the most notable difference being that “Criminal Records in College Football” does not include the eventual BCS National Champion which had at least one high-profile player with a suspect past.

Depending upon the preseason link above, Auburn is No. 25 or No. 22, but SI/CBS News’ story does not include War Eagle and omits Georgia (at No. 20) and Connecticut (No. 23).

Probable explanations are that the poll in SI’s magazine is different than the ones online, or that the writers labor under a colossal mistake, or worse, that while the authors use the rosters of September 1, 2010, they chose a preseason poll which conveniently did not include matters affecting their partner’s interests which became more obvious after Auburn beat South Carolina.

At the very least, the article suspiciously does not reveal the specific date of the preseason poll itself or where it may be found.

Very purposely, an effort to go to the library to investigate the origin of the poll will not be made and those rank insinuations will linger. My view of the world is paramount to what the facts are.

Then there is the matter of the rosters.

At least the authors fix a date of September 1, 2010, to determine the rosters. But have you ever tried to determine exactly who was or was not on a single team’s roster without calling up the coach and asking him the status of each and every player?

Even if you left out non-scholarship and gray shirt players, simply determining who has or does not have a scholarship can be tough with precision from the outside.

In the quote above from Jeff Benedict, the players’ names “appeared on the rosters of SI's 2010 pre-season Top 25 poll.”

Does a name appearing on the roster make a difference? According to SI and CBS it does.

“If the study had looked at only scholarship players, the percentage with a record would have risen to 8.1 percent (172 of 2,125).”

In other words, the subtraction of five non-scholarship football players made a measurable difference in the numbers. It did enough so that they mentioned it to support their ultimate call-to-action.

The whole thing makes one wonder, too, whether a roster “cut-off” date existed so that no further “incidents” would be considered.

It is fair to ask, “How did they treat Mitch Mustain’s situation?” If you will recall, he was arrested on one day and then exonerated within a day or two later.

Did his arrest count in the totals since his circumstances came before this article’s publication?

If not, when did the data terminate for each team? With injuries, academic issues, personal issues, last minute transfers and other considerations, without some significant investigation into exactly who was on each roster as of September 1, 2010, the room for error in the study increases.

Despite a criminal record, some players should get a second chance, and SI and CBS acknowledge the issue.

They do a nice job to present both sides of the propriety of giving a scholarship to a player as a way of giving the player a second chance. Like most chances in life, some work out and others do not, and no dramatic revelations came from their examples.

But for this piece, why did the authors utilize a nice, fair and balanced presentation?

At any other time, the approach would be welcome, but as the news organizations make sure we know, they examined 7,030 information records. With all that information at their fingertips, these giants punt rather than go for any substantial answers to the questions of whether second chances work or not statistically.

For those who were arrested before they were 18 and given an athletic scholarship, how many remain on rosters? How many have four, three, two or one years of eligibility remaining?

The answer would not resolve the issue and in fact might run contrary to their proposition that schools need to conduct background record checks because the athletes who remain are, by definition, the ones who did not get kicked off the team so the results would be skewed in favor of the success stories.

However, the information would provide some indication of the data for players who were arrested before attending college and who remain on a team.

If a coach has a significant number of those types of players, it might be said that without the media outlets’ uniform background checks solution that Coach X is a pretty good judge of character.

Too, the information may be important in deciding whether SI’s and CBS’s proposed solution of uniform criminal background checks is necessary at all.

Even with all of the suggested problems with the “Criminal Records” study, the single biggest problem is that SI and CBS did not finish the job. 

Rather (no pun intended) than obtain actual disposition of each and every incident, Sports Illustrated and CBS News chose to term "arrests" as "criminal records" when they acknowledge that a difference exists between the studied total arrests and the absent number actual convictions.

The following quote speaks volumes for its lack of clarity and specific information:

In cases where the outcome is known, players were guilty or paid some penalty in some 60 percent of the 277 incidents.

In the more likely interpretation, SI and CBS News know that at least 160 of the 277 incidents resulted in convictions, but the phrase “in cases where the outcome is known” is key.

Just how many dispositions are known to the media giants and why are the numbers not revealed if they were favorable to their position and support their solutions? Why not finish the data collection? No one would fault them for stating a fair conclusion which supports their final proposition.

But suppose that SI and CBS News are saying that they know that 60 percent of the 277 incidents resulted in conviction.

As a matter of basic math, if the number of people convicted is a smaller number than the number of people arrested and convictions are used, then the problem’s occurrence rate goes down.

Instead of relying solely upon allegations or accusations of wrongdoing, now with legal certainty the number of 160 instances of wrongdoing would justifiably replace 277.

For the sake of illustration, if 204 players produced 277 charges, then each person charged had an average 1.358 charges. If we used the same ratio to figure out the number of players involved in creating 160 convictions, then 118 players would be the appropriate number instead of 204.

To finish the extreme-end analysis, instead of having a rate of 7 percent of 2,837 players with accusations against them, the result would be that only 4.2 percent of all players (118 of 2,837) committed actual offenses.

Would a conviction rate of 4.2 percent of scholarship players for all offenses shock anyone into action or would NCAA President Emmert and the public wish that it would be lower but consider it to be indicative of society as a whole?

No one expects or wants to read a college professor's academic statistical publication in Sports Illustrated. However, a joint project by two media icons on a serious matter of nationwide sports concern warrants at least the appearance of a complete, objective, and reasoned presentation of the study.

But what SI and CBS News give us is much different.

Their cover looks like bulletin board material. The description of their study says "We're No. 1."  

Everyone lined up on the offensive line is a lineman.  Some of the water boys and trainers are suited up. They play ball on their own field with their own rules but do not tell us what all of those rules are.  They want us to study film, but we might be able to get it only from the other team if they agree to let us have it.

We know who most of the top teams are in the league, but we are not really sure on three of them.  The people on our team are the ones on their list of our players.  Most importantly, they pull slightly ahead with 10 minutes left to go in the fourth quarter, call game, and expect us to accept that they are the winners.  

Maybe they have what it takes to win but they cannot step off the field to prove it.  On the other hand, maybe they do not like how this game will play out.  

“Criminal Records in College Football” has all the hallmarks of an enormous effort which refuses to study and report completely the information they learn but rather looks to justify and advance the way SI and CBS News believes recruiting coaches should address and, in part, judge players' backgrounds.

(Thanks go to the attorneys who assisted me with some of the references above. They know who they are. – SharpTusk)


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