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SI and CBS's Exposé on Crime and College Football Ultimately Has a Small Point to Make

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SI and CBS News teamed up on an exposé regarding college football and the arrest records of those who play it. You should read the whole thing to get every point in context, but after finishing it, I'm wondering what the big deal was. Or, at least, why the article was structured the way it was.

What the organizations did was look into the backgrounds of every player on every roster from SI's 2010 preseason top 25 and figure out how many have arrest records. It found that seven percent of total players and 8.1 percent of scholarship players had arrest records.

To be clear, some of the other revelations from that study were eye popping. Pitt's 22 players with arrest records jumps off the page, for instance. Around 40 percent of the indicents included serious charges. The organizations couldn't get access to juvenile records for 80 percent of the players in the study, so the actual figures could be higher.

However, this is nothing that anyone who follows the Fulmer Cup or simply the off season news wire didn't already know. College football players get in trouble. That some of them got in trouble before college is also not news when you consider that a nontrivial percentage of football players come from low a socioeconomic status, where arrests are more common than in the general population.

Ultimately when you get past the initial flurry of numbers, it appears that the point of the article is to point out that few schools run formal criminal background checks on players. The obvious cautionary tale that the article somehow missed is Willie Williams (and really, what is he not a cautionary tale for?), who was pursued by many high profile schools until it was revealed that he was arrested nearly a dozen times by the end of high school. Several suitors backed off him after that.

But even if schools did do more rigorous study of players' backgrounds, how much would actually change? The obvious bad apples like Williams wouldn't get a sniff from image conscious schools anymore, but someone would take them, just like Miami and later Louisville had no problem bringing Williams aboard. Plus the article even points out that giving people a second chance is not necessarily a bad thing, and all coaches have success stories where they helped turn the life of a troubled soul around.

It's important to restate that the demographics of college football players don't line up at all with the general population or the population of all college students. To do a more thorough study, the organizations would have needed to figure out the socioeconomic backgrounds of each of the players in the study and compare it to a proportional sample of the college student population. If the arrest percentages between those two were not similar, then we'd have a real story. Who knows if all that data is available, though.

Besides, players with troubled backgrounds usually end up at schools outside the sample that SI and CBS News looked at, and the organizations didn't bother to throw out from their overall numbers the arrest records where the charges themselves got thrown out. Being arrested and exonerated is much different than being arrested and having to pay a price.

Sometimes you have to quantify a problem before it will be solved, but ultimately it's a lot of noise just to say that most schools don't do criminal background checks on their athletes. But as I said before, even if they did, how much would actually change?

UPDATE

Matt Hinton actually did take a look at some arrest statistics for a point of comparison. Good for him.