On March 2, Sports Illustrated and CBS News published the results of an “unprecedented special investigation” on college athletes. S.I. and CBS conducted a six-month investigation into the criminal history of all of the players on the S.I. preseason top 25 college football teams for 2010. The results stunned many athletic departments, and condemning articles quickly appeared in newspapers across the nation.
The S.I. article revealed that 7 percent of the players on the top 25 teams had been charged with a crime, amounting to 204 athletes. Nearly 40 percent of the 277 incidents discovered can be classified as serious offenses, such as assault and battery, aggravated assault, and sex offenses. Several of the athletes had been arrested for multiple crimes.
The article profiled several of these charged athletes, as well as the coaches that recruited them. The S.I. authors made sure to cover their butts, mentioning athletes like Kevin Claxton from the University of Wisconsin who have had stellar academic and civil records since being arrested. On the whole though, the message was clear: College athletic departments and coaches are not diligent in the examination of their players, and in fact will overlook criminal records in order to improve their teams.
The University of Pittsburgh stood at the top of the chart, with 22 members of its 2010 roster charged with criminal records. Penn State tied for 4th, with 16. So when I got home to Harrisburg, Pa. at the start of spring break, it was no surprise that our sports page ran a column shrugging off S.I.’s investigation. David Jones of the Patriot News opened by suggesting that “list stories” such as the S.I. study “distill complicated, often arcane subjects into simplistic narratives easy to digest,” going on to say that he “believes in complexity of analog thought.”
It’s easy to agree that in a story about college athletes with criminal histories, any binary oversimplification of these inherently individual circumstances will lead to a misrepresentation of the “data” that a list summarizes. But more importantly, this list obscures the greater narratives behind these numbers — that oftentimes, colleges with competitive programs at the national level overlook misconduct by their athletes in order to ensure success.
Why was there any degree of surprise when Bruce Pearl was fired as the head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers men’s basketball team earlier this week? Or when it was revealed that Jim Tressel, the Ohio State football coach, had known about his players’ NCAA violations for months without disclosing this knowledge? How many investigations into illegal compensation, criminal conduct, and NCAA infractions do we need before we address the real issue here?
The shock here is not that a substantial percentage of athletes of study pool have criminal backgrounds. It’s not even a shock to learn that prolific coaches like Jim Tressel are often complicit in shady activity. The real shock is that the NCAA has no official criminal background check, and that many students with multiple criminal priors are paid — oftentimes in full — in order to attend college.
It might be the case that the NCAA cannot require individual schools to conduct these checks themselves, but I fail to understand why this is not part of the existing NCAA clearinghouse. If academics and athletics exclusively comprise the college experience, then this can be overlooked. Given the greater goals of a student-athlete life that the NCAA extols, one would think that civic virtue should be an important standard.
Let me be clear, I do not agree with the somewhat overly dismissive reaction from Jones in my local paper, but I do agree that Sports Illustrated is a bit distant from the heart of this issue here in another respect. It is time for the NCAA to accept a greater responsibility in ensuring the accountability of athletic departments across the nation. It’s simply not enough for an athletic director to fire a coach, suspend a player, or “implement departmental standards assurance.” If we don’t want the NCAA to overextend its grip on the world of college sports, then we should reserve our outrage as the neverending stream of these stories continues. As we go forward, I’m afraid we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg. For now, though, let’s ignore the imperfections of the NCAA and let ourselves be deluded into succumbing to March Madness.
Sam Goldsmith is a senior in Branford College.