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Data, Semantics and Context All Victims in CBS/SI Crime Soup Preparation

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Wow, is this the new MSM recipe for The Big Story? Get two historically major outlets (CBS & Sports Illustrated) to partner, round up a bunch of writers (7 listed in the bylines) to leverage FOIA or for-fee information requests, liberally mix the data into some sensational rollup summaries, throw in some hefty semantic vagaries, add a dash of spicy contextually-flamboyant samplings and french-serve a cold soup of slop? If it wasn't so easy to pick apart the preparation and the final dish, they may as well have just tried to pour it directly in our laps! In its final presentation, tho, we have plenty of opportunity to tell them to pack up their knives and go home.

The Problem with the Word Crime

As the authors followed the old-world MSM recipe and rang up NCAA president Mark Emmert for comment on THE BIG STORY they're about to run, Emmert did what was probably prudent and provided this blurb for their piece:

"[It is] a set of facts that obviously should concern all of us," said new NCAA president Mark Emmert, when presented with these findings. "Seven percent, that's way too high. I think two percent is too high. You certainly don't want a large number of people with criminal backgrounds involved in activities that represent the NCAA."

Listen, any Penn State fan following coverage of Joe Paterno as Head Coach is by now inherently understanding of the fact that Characterization is the name of these games. But in this usage and, as we see later in the piece's 'data', 'criminal backgrounds' doesn't distinguish between arrest, dismissal of charges or acquittal. Many among us can look back on our college and high school years with regret at having run afoul of the law at one time or another, but would we refer to ourselves as folks with criminal backgrounds? For your name to have arrived on this piece's radar, you need only have ever crossed a single line of the criminal justice system: gotten arrested. Dropped or dismissed charges, acquittals, and purged records as a result of penance paid, all continue to count toward the base numbers of this report:

An unprecedented six-month investigation by Sports Illustrated  and CBS News found that Pittsburgh had more players in trouble with the law (22) than any other school among SI's 2010 preseason Top 25. The joint investigation involved conducting criminal background checks on every player -- 2,837 in all -- on the preseason rosters of those 25 teams. Players' names, dates of birth and other vital information were checked at 31 courthouses and through 25 law enforcement agencies in 17 states. Players were also checked through one or more online databases that track criminal records. In all, 7,030 individual record checks were performed.

The Problem with the Data

The biggest problem with CBS/SI's piece of course is that they haven't released the full data set. Instead, we get fun rollups, some of which we can even deconstruct.

• Seven percent of the players in the preseason Top 25 -- 204 in all (1 of every 14) -- had been charged with or cited for a crime, including dozens of players with multiple arrests.

The first part is fairly straight-forward: 2837 players divided by 204 who had ever been cited = 7%. It's unclear how many 'dozens of players' is, but the multiple arrests is continued in the next bullet:

• Of the 277 incidents uncovered, nearly 40 percent involved serious offenses, including 56 violent crimes such as assault and battery (25 cases), domestic violence (6), aggravated assault (4), robbery (4) and sex offenses (3). In addition there were 41 charges for property crimes, including burglary and theft and larceny.

Maybe we can assume that an Incident = an Arrest? Such that we have 204 players who account for 277 arrests? How many dozens filled that 73-arrest gap? If literally two dozen, then 24? Such that 180 of the players in the original count have only ever been arrested or cited a single time?

• There were more than 105 drug and alcohol offenses, including DUI, drug possession and intent to distribute cocaine.

We'll get to the seriousness and distinctions of the charges later, but for this next one:

• In cases in which the outcome was known, players were guilty or paid some penalty in nearly 60 percent of the 277 total incidents.

we'll go ahead and let Slow States handle its addressing:

If we assume "nearly 60 percent" means 57% (shockingly, the actual numbers and survey methods aren’t given), then 4% of players on top 25 football teams have been actually convicted of, or plead guilty to, a crime. The number of average college students with the same criminal record? According to this article from Corvallis, Oregon’s Daily Barometer, 3.45%. That’s right: Your typical college football player is one-half of one percent more likely to have a criminal conviction. To put that in perspective, a team of 85 players has half a person more convicted criminals on it than a sample of 85 students drawn randomly. Hide yo kids, hide yo wife.

The Problem with the Crime Distinctions

As you might expect in a collection of 277 arrests, the types of crimes charged varied quite a bit as well. The story had some interesting groupings/characterizations of the crimes it describes:

  • Serious Offenses / Violent Crimes: assault and battery, domestic violence, aggravated assault, robbery and 'sex offenses.' (56 of the 277)
  • Property Crimes: burglary, theft and larceny (41 of 277)
  • Drug and Alcohol Offenses: DUI, drug possession and intent to distribute (105)

Those total 202 incidents/arrests; the remaining 75 fell into what category? And while we all have our own hierarchy of tolerance for different flavors of crime, these groupings are rolled up rather curiously as well. Many readers might think it important to distinguish between, say, a fight among boys at an apartment and the throat grab/head slam of a woman like the Pitt DB is accused of. Or, of an Abe Koroma or Mo Evans passing the peace pipe vs. someone blowing a .3 BAC after getting pulled over doing 90 in a 30 zone.

The One Redeeming Factor?

Despite so obviously messing up the ingredients, seasoning and presentation, deep down in the middle of this saucy and superficial dish was the one point worth emphasizing here: the responsibility for the character of the young men recruited to our universities lies foremost with the coaches who recruit them. Could they use a bit more support or even some helpful oversight from the universities that employ them? Probably. But still, when it comes to arrest records, morally and ethically revered former BYU coach Lavell Edwards has got it right:

"My natural feeling is I really like to give a guy a break," said Edwards. "In my own mind I never draw a line. It has to be flexible. I don't like hard and fast rules."