Crime and College Football: A Troubling Relationship

Chart: Matt Ishii

When one thinks of college football, images of packed tailgates, rowdy student sections, and filled stadiums come to mind. Don’t forget the piles of merchandise branded with a team’s logo that fly off the shelves at university book stores across the country. It has become a college tradition for students to rally around their school’s football teams. Amidst all the glamor of big-time college athletics, lies a dark side. Many of these athletes, who are Gods on campus and worshipped on Saturdays during the Fall, commit serious crimes, and in many instances avoid criminal charges.

Discovering a Trend

In a book titled The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football, investigative reporters Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian explored the issue of crime in Division I college football programs. On page 309, they wrote, “Research conducted for this book found that 197 players on BCS teams were arrested in 2012.” Such a large number of arrests show that there is problem in college football; these athletes are prone to getting in legal trouble. In August 2015, Fox Sports posted an article on its website titled “The Most Arrested College Football Teams in America.” This article only supports the issue of crime in college athletics as it said “there have been more than 900 arrests in FBS college football over the last five years.” The school with the most arrests was Washington State University with 31, and nine other schools had at least 20 arrests.

NCCA President Mark Emmert (Photo: David J. Phillip/AP)

The alarming numbers sent shockwaves through the National Colleigate Athletic Association. In a 2011 interview with Sports Illustrated, NCAA President Mark Emmert reacted to a study conducted by SI and CBS News that found “seven percent of players in the preseason Top 25…had been charged with or cited for a crime.” He said, “Seven percent that’s way too high. You certainly don’t want a large number of people involved in activities that represent the NCCA.” That same investigation also discovered that of the 277 criminal incidents, 56 were for violent crimes. Richard Lapchick, founder of the Center for Sport in Society and president and CEO of the National Consortium for Academics and Sports at the University of Central Florida, also gave SI his opinion. “[These findings] sound an alarm bell that some new policies are going to have to be developed on individual campuses or at the national level to take a look at who we’re recruiting to our campuses,” he said.

Avoiding Charges

While these numbers show the prevalence of crime in Division I college football, there is also evidence that colligate athletes are more likely to avoid charges in a criminal case than a normal student. In June 2015, the Houston Chronicle published a story online in which it examined an ESPN Outside the Lines study, and found a trend. The the data shows that college basketball and football players avoid criminal charges at higher rate than normal students. For example, at the University of Florida there were 80 incidents of football or basketball players breaking the law, but they were charged only 56 percent of the time. Other male students, at the University of Florida, that were not athletes were charged 72 percent of the time. At Texas A&M University there was a similar situation, as there were 50 criminal incidents implicating basketball or football players. However, only 40 percent of the time the charges were pressed. These two schools represent only a fraction of the data, but those case studies provide evidence that athletes have a greater chance of avoiding criminal charges than normal students.

In June 2015, an ESPN Outside the Lines report investigated ten universities to discover why football and basketball players frequently avoid or receive reduced charges. The three primary reasons they uncovered are “near-immediate access to high-profile attorneys, the intimidation that is felt by witnesses who accuse athletes and the higher bar some criminal justice officials feel needs to be met in high-profile cases.” These reasons along with other minor ones give athletes an edge over their fellow students. Furthermore, a study titled “College Athletes and Violence” provided another reason to why athletes are not charged for the laws they violate. According to the research, “on college campuses, the ‘star’ status protects many student athletes from punitive sanctions when they violate the law.” The study also stated that when athletes commit criminal offenses society tends to let them slide.

A case that the Outside the Lines report used to highlight an athlete’s access to legal assistance was Florida Gators running back Chris Rainey’s connection to attorney Huntley Johnson in his 2010 felony stalking case. In ESPN’s interview with Gainesville Police Department spokesman Ben Tobias, he said that Florida’s athletes access to Johnson was the reason the they were likely to not be prosecuted.

Chris Rainey in 2011 (Photo: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images North America)

According to ESPN, Rainey “remained wary of police but that he had confidence in Johnson to keep him, and the team, out of serious trouble.” In the end, the charges were reduced to misdemeanor stalking, but Rainey was quoted saying, “…we got Huntley…he will get you out of anything, everything.” This is just one example of a university providing its athletes with legal assistance should they run into legal trouble; normal students do not have this luxury.

Officer Tobias addressed another reason why student athletes frequently avoid criminal charges. “It’s the fault of the athletes, it’s the fault of the victims, it’s the fault of society, it’s the fault of the media, because everyone paints this picture and holds athletes up on a pedestal sometimes and we all are making them invincible,” he said.

While the reasons maybe various, it is clear that colligate athletes avoid criminal charges at a higher rate than normal students.

The presence of crime in Division I College Football is an important issue the NCAA, universities, and athletic departments face. Numerical data shows that players have frequent legal trouble, and often walk away without facing criminal charges. Although there are various factors that contribute to why athletes avoid charges at such a higher rate, it is clear that universities make it a top priority to protect athletes who are under criminal investigation. So the next time the crowd goes wild when their team’s running back scores the game-winning touchdown, just remember that he might be a criminal.

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