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Commentary

Crime and Punishment in American College Sports


     
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One of the alleged positive spillover effects of colleges is that they promote positive moral and civic virtues—adult college graduates volunteer more in community activities, commit fewer crimes, and in general contribute more to society than they take from it. I have always been somewhat skeptical of this argument given my anecdotal knowledge of what goes on in college classrooms, but the new CBS/Sports Illustrated investigative report on college athletics shows that colleges are condoning and even subsidizing criminal activity. It is a scandal of the highest order.

CBS and Sports Illustrated found that over seven percent (7.19 percent, according to my calculation) of football players at schools ranked, preseason, in the top 25 in the nation, had some sort of criminal involvement. This compares, in any given year, with a crime rate among the general population that suggests that less than one-half of one percent of Americans are charged with a crime. Among teenage males and those in their early 20s, the rate is far higher, but it is still true that criminal activity among football players of top universities is dramatically higher than in the general population. At the University of Pittsburgh, 22 players had criminal records, on a campus where the number of arrests (including local police departments) amongst students appears to be under 200 a year for the entire university, according to crime statistics reported by the U.S. Department of Education.

Moreover, it is also true that nothing is being done about this, that coaches are giving scholarships to criminals who can barely read and write and are often getting bonuses for doing it, particularly if the hoods they hire at the margin get the team into a top bowl game.

This is beyond scandal—it is a moral outrage. It is an economic one, too, as most universities, even at the top of the athletic pyramid, use university funds, often provided by student fees, to subsidize this madness. At some universities, good students of high moral character are given little or no scholarship money, yet are expected to subsidize the scholarship assistance to criminals who would never have been admitted to the school in question (much less given a scholarship) were it not for their football talents.

It is sad that the NCAA slaps down coaches and schools heavily if, for example, an alumnus gives a player some cash, partly compensating the player for what he adds to the schools revenue–but at the same time ignores the practice of recruiting or retaining “students” with criminal records. My cynical side says the NCAA is trying to be sure that a competitive market does not develop for players based on pay, since if did, in the long run the salaries of coaches would fall (since they get paid largely for their recruiting prowess). This is child/young adult economic exploitation for the benefit of older adults in authority. It is a shame that colleges permit this morally depraved practice. It is or will soon tarnish the reputation that colleges hold in society—a reputation that provides them with vast amount of support from donors and taxpayers.

Other morally dubious practices abound. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that coaches in the SEC conference—the ultimate grouping of Bubba Universities, where classes are sometimes canceled when big games are pending—often offer more scholarships than they are entitled to offer, and then renege if it turns out that more students indicate they will be attending the school than scholarship rules allow. In other words, people collecting million-dollar paychecks are dishonestly and deliberately deceiving teenage kids who want to play ball and, in some cases, actually attend college. AND NOTHING IS BEING DONE ABOUT IT!!!!

What should be done? Criminal background checks are obviously needed, but seldom performed. Coaches who persist in hiring (and that is what it is) criminals to play should be banned from coaching. Teams with high percentages of criminals (e.g., the University of Pittsburgh, University of Iowa) should lose the right to play NCAA teams, or, at the minimum, be excluded for several years from bowl competition and lose their share of television broadcast rights money. Coaches who do a bait-and-switch act on high school recruits should, at the minimum, face similar penalties, or be placed in a room naked, tied, and gagged with Lorena Bobbitt armed with the weapon that made her famous (I am not serious about that last option, although it would do a lot to deter the problem).


Richard K. Vedder is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., Distinguished Professor of Economics at Ohio University, and co-author (with Lowell Gallaway) of the award-winning Institute book, Out of Work: Unemployment and Government in Twentieth-Century America.


  New from Richard K. Vedder!
CAN TEACHERS OWN THEIR OWN SCHOOLS?: New Strategies for Educational Excellence
In Can Teachers Own Their Own Schools?, Richard Vedder examines the economics, history, and politics of education and argues that public schools should be privatized. Privatized public schools would benefit from competition, market discipline, and the incentives essential to produce cost-effective, educational quality, and attract the additional funding and expertise needed to revolutionize school systems.






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