Sports Illustrated and CBS News are out with a big investigation into crime in college football. They looked at the teams in last season’s preseason Top 25 poll and pulled the records of all the players to find out how many had been arrested and/or convicted and to rank the worst teams.

Its eye-opening finding: Seven percent of college football players have been “charged with or cited for a crime.” Very interesting.

Or is it?

Maybe not.

College football’s demographics alone are sure to result in high-seeming arrest rates. All college football players (besides a kicker here or there) are male. Males get arrested at far, far higher rates than females. College football players at the elite level are disproportionately black. Blacks are far more likely to get arrested than whites and other races. College football players are young: Young people are far more likely to get in trouble with the law than older people.

That all points to a giant hole in the SI/CBS investigation: Context. How does that 7 percent compare to the arrest rate for the general population? Amazingly, we’re not given a hint of that and without it that information just isn’t worth much.

So what is the arrest rate for the general population? It’s hard to say conclusively, but about 27 percent of all Americans have been arrested, The Wall Street Journal’s Carl Bialik roughly calculated a couple of years ago using FBI rap sheet numbers.

That number includes women and excludes juvenile arrests, the latter of which is included in the SI CBS report. Adjusting that for males’ higher arrest rates and the exclusion of juveniile arrests brings the lifetime rate for men to somewhere around 50 percent.

But hold on, you say, college football players are mostly between 18 and 23 years old. They’ve had less years to commit crimes so their percentage should be lower. Sure, but again, crimes are disproportionately committed by younger men.

Bialik pointed to a 1987 study by the sociologist Robert Tillman that found the arrest rate for men born in California in 1956. About 33 percent of them were arrested between the ages of 18 and 29. To be sure, the arrest and crime rates are lower now than they have been for decades. But the arrest rate isn’t that much lower: About six arrests per 100 people now compared to about eight arrests per 100 in 1987.

Now, one thing to acknowledge here is that SI/CBS’s 7 percent number is probably artificially low. We all have known or suspect football players—especially the good ones—getting off the hook because the cops don’t want to hurt the team. Back at my college paper at the University of Oklahoma, a colleague and I broke a story about two football players, including a star linebacker, getting arrested the weekend before No. 1 OU was to head to Lincoln to play No. 3 Nebraska. As we wrote then:

The police reports on the incidents were not put in the public information book until The Oklahoma Daily made inquiries about the incidents.

Conveniently enough.

But, alas, there’s no way to quantify how often football players—or other VIPs for that matter—get let off the hook. If we hadn’t heard rumors from the parties that weekend, the OU arrests might never have been made public.

Which is one of the reasons why it’s good SI and CBS are putting resources into this. There’s excellent information, for instance, ranking the top teams by the number of arrestees who play for them.

But failing to giving us context on how the football players’ arrest numbers compare to their peers seriously undermines the effort.


Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu.