Thursday, March 3, 2011

Sports Illustrated: Deceiving and Uninquisitive

Over the last two months I've been creating a magazine with a couple friends. In short, it's a monthly general interest periodical intended for a wide audience. It's written from a universal perspective, but has the feel of a small-town newsletter.

Though our topics will vary from month to month, my partners and I have agreed on three guiding principles: 1) Write passionately. 2) Debate intelligently. 3) Relate precisely.

I firmly believe these ought to be building blocks for any and all media outlets -- from the underground to the mainstream. The first invokes emotion. The second opens minds. The third ensures credibility.

If I read an article that lacks any of these elements, I'm not likely to finish reading it.

But when the cover story of a long-running magazine (with a circulation of about 3.5 million) lacks any of these elements, I read it in its entirety.

Why? Because deception by way of the pulpit has always amazed me.

Such was the case yesterday when I read the findings of a six-month investigation -- boldly titled "College Football and Crime" -- published by Sports Illustrated and CBS News.

What lies therein is a narrow case study into the criminal records of college football players. At the Football Bowl Subdivision level. Among SI's 2010 preseason Top 25 teams.

Like I said: narrow.

This misleading investigation is the cover story for the latest issue of SI (pictured below), has been classified as a "Special Report" by CBS, and has been prominently featured across the Web since its publication early yesterday.

If you hadn't noticed, the first issue I have with this report concerns the chosen title.

But before I begin (and to avoid being called a hypocrite), I'd like to make a point of clarification on my title: When I use the words deceiving and uninquisitive, I am referring solely to the issue at hand -- which is to say that Sports Illustrated is not wholly deceptive or unquestioning.

My title is nothing more that an attempt at satire. Thanks for noticing.

As for the SI/CBS News investigation, no where do these researchers explain what their title is intended to do (although I have some ideas). And I'm quite positive they weren't joking.

So let's get serious.

To use the words "college football" in America is to say all national institutions of higher education that compete in American football, i.e. not soccer. At the start of the 2010 college football season there were literally hundreds of such schools.

However, this report conveniently groups all five levels of college football together in its title, when it was only referring to a small percentage of all college football programs.

Now I know what some of you are thinking: "But, Kyle, you're nit-picking. You know as well as I do that they were referring to Division I-A, the top level of college football."

My response: You're probably right. But is specificity too much to ask?

I've heard many people -- many well-educated people -- read a headline aloud, and immediately think they "know" what something is about.

Rather than use a headline to gauge whether to read on or not, many rely on their conditioning and jump to conclusions. In essence, they're judging an article by its title.

But let's give the genius who devised the title the benefit of the doubt.

Maybe he didn't read the study in full. After all, he could've missed something. Maybe he was under strict laws of concision. Or maybe (and this is the most likely scenario) an editor at SI who double-majored in psychology knew that generalized headlines are naturally inclined to peak one's interest.

All kidding aside, does that excuse misrepresenting the majority by conducting an investigation that accounts for just 20.8 percent of all FBS programs?

Furthermore, we all know that the polls are dominated by one demographic: upper class institutions from power conferences. In other words, the sample for this study is equivalent to a private country club in an exclusive neighborhood. And would you go there for an accurate portrayal of social life in the day of the average American? Of course not.

But let's move on to the report itself. The generalized title was an easy target.

The first part of this article -- sixteen paragraphs long -- details how "four (University of Pittsburgh) players were arrested for four separate, violent crimes" between mid-July and late September of last year.

Judging by SI's lead, it's implied that the disappointing season that followed this summer of tumult was a direct result of these four arrests. Au contraire, it should be noted that only one of the four was expected to start. So to imply that these crimes led to Pitt's subsequent letdown is simply wrong.

But beyond the perverted lead and the singling out of four University of Pittsburgh football players, our colleagues finally report something of value: According to this investigation, Pitt had no procedure for screening the criminal backgrounds of its football recruits prior to this wave of arrests.

Since then, however, the athletic department at Pitt has enforced a policy that requires coaches to conduct a more thorough background check on potential recruits. Unfortunately, it's reported that this new method of screening is merely a checklist of questions to a variety of people connected to the athlete -- not a formal criminal background check.

This is where Sports Illustrated makes its first statement: "It's a good first step, but doesn't go far enough." Ah -- finally something I can agree with.

But sure enough, this "unprecedented" report -- unprecedented being original, but certainly not superior -- then takes a turn for the worst by introducing an ambiguous chart intended to trick the simple-minded, and highlighting an array of feeble statistics, such as the "striking revelation" (their words, not mine) that seven percent of football players among preseason Top 25 schools have been charged with or cited for a crime in their lives.

Seven percent, huh? Is that figure supposed to be high?

Because according to the U.S. Department of Justice, nine percent of American men will be incarcerated in their lifetime.

But then again, that figure takes men of all ages into consideration and, more importantly, it's a tally of incarcerated men -- not those charged with or cited for a crime.

Then what about this one: In a 2009 Pentagon study, researchers found that five percent of young men between the ages of 17-24 (college-aged men) have criminal records.

Yes, that's 2 percent lower than the figure among the twenty-five schools sampled in the SI/CBS study. But it doesn't take much imagination to suggest why there's a discrepancy.

Idea #1: Competitiveness

Athletes who have reached the pinnacle of their sport are highly competitive. Not only are they pumped up with testosterone, but they're also more apt to take on a challenge, such as a physical altercation. And that's especially true when talking about football players, as they lift weights regularly and engage in hand-to-hand combat every day at practice.

Idea #2: Pressure

Getting back to the fact that most Top 25 teams are annual powerhouses with devoted fanbases and loyal alumni, the players implicated in this investigation have far more pressure on them to perform well both in and out of the classroom. For instance, if Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck throws a game-clinching interception at home, on Senior Day, versus his rival, he's more likely to get heckled by restless fans after the game than the quarterback from North Texas (a perennial also-ran) when he does the same.

Idea #3: Entitlement

As we've seen over the last few years, the best players at the FBS level -- Reggie Bush and Cam Newton come to mind -- are given preferential treatment over their peers. It starts from a young age, as many are told that they're a cut above the rest. Consequently, this instills in them a sense of entitlement very early on. Then they get to college, and find themselves in situations in which cash, cars, and young women are available to them with just one phone call. And where do most of these highly-talented, entitled athletes attend college? More times than not, they choose to play for a top-tier (Top 25) football program.

Now these are just a few thoughts as to why there's any discrepancy between crime rates among Top 25 teams and the national crime rate. But if you look closely at the numbers, you'll find that there may not be any gap at all.

The SI/CBS report states that nearly (meaning less than) 40 percent of the 277 incidents uncovered in this investigation were serious crimes, e.g., assault and battery, domestic violence, aggravated assault, robbery, sex offenses, burglary and theft, and larceny.

That means that more than 60 percent of the crimes were not serious, and it doesn't take into account misdemeanor offenses that are only deemed serious by those writing the report.

Sports Illustrated goes on to say that this study "reinforces a pervasive assumption" that coaches will recruit whomever it takes to win.

In most cases, I tend to disagree. But that's besides the point.

Since when did head coaches become responsible for admitting students? If anything, the college/university should be responsible for background checks on prospective student-athletes -- though we all know that isn't economically feasible.

Plus, how could an institution discriminate against an athlete? It would have to run a background check on every student. Talk about unfeasible!

Now let's throw all that aside and take a step back.

The biggest issue with this investigation is that it implies that anyone with a criminal record is unfit to represent his football team or school.

That is a dangerous implication.

The fact of the matter is that many loving, kind-hearted people -- some of which you, the reader, know personally -- have some kind of juvenile or criminal record.

But would you consider them a "criminal"? No.

Far-reaching media conglomerates such as Sports Illustrated and CBS News think they can conduct a study, come up with an eye-popping title, and sell their findings to the public as fact. And with this investigation, they've proudly published something that misleads and embellishes -- and all because they know you won't challenge them.

That, my friends, is called indoctrination. And it needs to stop. But it won't until readers exhibit just a bit of skepticism. That's all it would take.

And it's easy as this: When you read something -- anything -- you should immediately ask yourself, "Is this true?" Do a little homework. Don't assume that because a publication has a readership of millions that it's telling the whole truth.

So did SI act in accordance with the guidelines I've laid out for my magazine? By my count, they were one for three. The only guideline they followed was the first: Write passionately.

But I guess that's the only one that matters when you produce cover stories like a propaganda machine that specializes in fancy photographs.

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