Thursday, March 03, 2011

Database Journalism Strikes

Yesterday's SI/CBS story about Criminal Records in College Sports is sparking a lot conversation. First and foremost, kudos to our PR team for stepping out front to call out some of the structural problems with this story. You can read Arkansas' response here.

I'm going to be very, very clear at this point -- I am speaking personally and not representing in any form or fashion the University of Arkansas or it's athletic department. And nobody here asked me to say that. The great "they" are unaware that I'm making this post today.

This story was database journalism, and not a strong example. The study group was arbitrary -- the preseason top 25 of Sports Illustrated. At the least, look at the entirety of football in some way. If the goal is to say "big time" has a problem, do just the BCS schools. Or all of the FBS. Or all of Division I.

So Arkansas is #2 in the "Top 25" as listed by SI. However, let's concede the point made in the study that SI/CBS is revealing a huge problem previously uncovered or undetected. If SI's writers had deemed the Razorbacks not worthy of the preseason top 25 -- Arkansas was 23rd -- then the shocking 18 players would not have been included. Some other school would be in the study.

Follow my logic here: This is one of the functional faults -- you would have not had an "offender" school that was #2 in the study if, say, Arkansas loses the Liberty Bowl and Ryan Mallett doesn't return for 2010 leading to the Razorbacks not being preseason top 25.

There is a lack of context in the stats -- 7% of the 25 schools have criminal records. And how does that compare to the student body, first at the school, second among the group and third nationwide. Is the comparison number 4% or 10%?

The authors repeat over and over it is to get universities to "have their eyes open" about recruits. I feel like I can make this point -- the 18 athletes included in Arkansas' criminal records include individuals who got into trouble at college.

So, are we talking about criminal records of recruits? OK, then our number is wrong.

Or, are we talking about college students getting in trouble at school. Then all the bluster about getting juvenile records is off point.

One of the persons taking part in the study is Jeff Benedict. He explains his background working at Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society and how he sees the value of the project. Benedict also reveals the methodology. The full story from his point of view is here, and I highly recommend you read it all.

So is Benedict's point that we should isolate college athletes for special screening and special attention? Would he advocate that for all students entering college? If so, fine. Good luck with that at public universities. Benedict makes the claim his previous work on the NBA and NFL led to reforms.

Here is a very, very important point. NU's center does landmark work that revealed important problems to address -- the higher than average percentage of violence against women among male college athletes does result in more education programs. But those studies were done confidentially, and with the cooperation of the universities involved.

One of my long-standing lecture points: we collectively give away too much of our privacy voluntarily. Get ready to be creeped as Benedict lays out the methodology of how SI/CBS was able to do background checks on college students without their permission:

First, vital information was gathered on every player (date of birth, race, sex, hometown, etc.), a tedious process that entailed using everything from team media guides to players' individual Facebook pages and everything in between.

Because without that, you're going to have a hard time getting public records or a private investigator to pull up the info.

So am I the only person concerned about that point? Some level of privacy should be accorded to college athletes because, let's remember, they are not professional athletes. They are nominally public figures. To defend SI/CBS, the collective we -- schools via bios and athletes on their social networks -- volunteered the info, and didn't think twice about the consequences.

Wanna bet that changes nationwide after this?

But what would Benedict suggest having the complete criminal past of a potential college student lead to?

The new information that has come to light from the SI/CBS News investigation gives the NCAA and individual colleges the impetus to make some positive changes to recruiting practices. Simply drawing a line in the sand and banning players with an arrest history is not the answer.

Not to sound enabling here, but college can be a transformative second chance. Having our "eyes open" by knowing all the details may or may not change the situation. Let me change the debate slightly.

Should we also see all the medical records of every recruit? Because if performance is what it's about, we should have total access to that too, and then decide not to accept athletes that may have health risks. Oh, wait, that would violate FERPA. You can't do that across the board.

The reporters proposed to ask student athletes to waive their rights to their juvenile records so we could all see them. Really? Do we want to break open that seal, there for the reason of allowing young people to overcome the bad decisions they have made.

As the SI/CBS crew discovered, these are matters for the states, and every state has a different standards of criminal record keeping. Is it really the intention to create some NCAA clearinghouse for criminal records? What kind of legal hell awaits that group when young men or women can't earn a scholarship because their records are unsealed.

I also highly recommend you watch the video of the reporters explaining why the story was important. One of the things that caught my eye -- that all schools must do this because it would be a recruiting disadvantage if some did the background checks and others didn't. It would become a deterrent to recruits because they would know they would be under more scrutiny. Is the thought that their criminal record will be looked at by college recruiters is going to keep a 16-year-old from making a stupid decision at a party? That's darn naive.

Maybe I'm getting too much indignation at this than I should, but it bothers me that we're going to town on young people with what is functionally what we'd call profiling. Think I'm being a bit strong? Consider this:

Perhaps the most stunning discovery of the SI/CBS News investigation is that two of the best teams in the country this past season largely avoided trouble.

Was the assumption that no one could win without having "bad kids" on their rosters? Sorry, I can't let that one pass.

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