As we welcome another college football season, players, coaches, and fans are busy breaking down rosters, reviewing schedules and predicting which four teams will remain in the hunt for a national championship on New Year’s Day.
The arrival of a new season is an especially welcomed sight for the Big 12 Conference, with the 2016 season being such a forgettable one. Not only was the conference left out of the College Football Playoff, but two of their featured programs dealt with major issues and violations relating to the criminal behavior of their student-athletes. Baylor University fired head coach Art Briles and several high level university administrators in the wake of a sexual assault scandal involving numerous football players, and the University of Oklahoma had two players in Joe Mixon and Dede Westbrook that garnered national attention for their off-field issues. A video of Mixon striking a woman in 2014 was released, and it was reported that Westbrook had twice been arrested on domestic violence charges.
The Big 12 is not alone in its struggles. An ESPN Outside the Lines study found it is not uncommon for high level athletic programs to deal with off-field criminal behavior issues. According to the study’s lead author, Paula Lavigne, “student-athletes benefit from their 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.” Those benefits often help them avoid being charged or eventually having charges dropped.
In 2014, ArrestNation.com reported that college football players accounted for more than 65.71% of all college athletic-related arrests. That number is alarming when considering that during the 2014 season college football players represented 26.3% of the male student-athlete and 14.9% of the overall student-athlete populations. It is a commonly held belief that young people engaged in organized sport are less likely to participate in criminal activities, as sport is thought to build character, provide structure and teach young athletes how to be good citizens.
Unfortunately, this commonly held belief is inaccurate. The late sociologist of sport Stanley Eitzen observed that sport serves as a space where athletes form intense bonds with other athletes, which can breed a “jock culture”, whereby entitlement, hero worship, and machismo all emerge. Additionally, previous research suggests that athletes engage in more immoral behavior than their nonathlete counterparts. In youth sports, Shields and colleagues discovered that nearly 10 percent of participants acknowledged cheating in sport, and almost 15 percent had intentionally attempted to injure an opponent.
Despite the prevalence of criminal behavior by student-athletes covered in the media, there is a gap in the research literature aimed at examining the recruitment of student-athletes with criminal backgrounds or troubled histories. As Brad Wolverton opined, while coaches hold the most power in terms of recruiting, individuals outside of the sport program may hold considerable sway; so much so that their approval or condemnation of a student-athlete’s actions off the field can impact their position on the team, playing time and even recruitment.
In a study recently published in the journal Deviant Behavior, we sought to put this conjecture to the test by asking whether previous criminal actions (e.g., assault, using illegal drugs) committed by a recruit would deter fans from accepting that athlete to their team. Utilizing hypothetical vignettes, informed by real-life occurrences, the authors measured fan support for recruiting football student-athletes who had engaged in illegal activity.
We found that criminal behavior did indeed impact a prospective student-athlete’s recruitment support from fans. Interestingly, violence exhibited toward another man was scored similarly to the non-violent use of illegal drugs. However, violence toward a woman was received with much more criticism than either of the aforementioned acts. The fact that assaulting a man and using illegal drugs were scored similarly, deserves future consideration and investigation.
A racial element was also present, as black student-athletes that engaged in illegal drug use were judged less harshly than their white counterparts. These findings suggest that white prospective student-athletes may be held to a higher standard than black prospective student-athletes regarding drug use. This speaks to the potential existence of stereotypes and assumptions that black student-athletes already partake in the criminal, but non-violent, behavior of drug use. Thus, when the white student-athlete was portrayed as a drug user, perhaps fans were more upset because they expected better of him.
Provided the results of the current study and prevailing sport headlines regarding criminal behavior, it is no surprise that change is already occurring throughout the nation. The NCAA now requires its member institutions to provide sexual assault prevention training for coaches and players. Some programs, for example Indiana University, have adopted new policies that would ban incoming student-athletes with a history of sexual assault or domestic violence. The Big 12 and SEC have adopted proposals that prevent conference schools from accepting transfer students with histories of domestic violence or sexual assault.
Robert Turick is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Tourism, Recreation and Sport Management at the University of Florida. His research focuses on studying social issues in sport, with a specific focus on racial and ethnic discrimination in sport and student-athlete well-being.
Trevor Bopp is an assistant professor in the Department of Tourism, Recreation and Sport Management at the University of Florida and Co-Director of the Laboratory for Athlete and Athletics Development and Research (LAADR). His research focuses on racial and ethnic discrimination in sport, sport-based youth development, and student-athlete well-being.
Lindsey Darvin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Tourism, Recreation and Sport Management at the University of Florida. Her research interests include social issues and diversity in sport, with a specific focus on gender equity and women in leadership.