Probing Question: Do student athletes get a bad rap from the media?

James Conroy
October 08, 2007
penn state football players gather
Omar Hasan

It seems like we're constantly reading about student athletes getting into trouble with the law. The Duke lacrosse case and last year's hazing incident involving players on the Northwestern University women's soccer team are just two of the recent incidents that have been in the news because of alleged misdeeds by student athletes. But are our perceptions accurate? Are student athletes really as bad as we think they are?

Marie Hardin, associate professor of journalism at Penn State, says her recent study shows that the answer is a resounding no.

Says Hardin, "I love to ask my students, 'What percentage of college athletes do you think get in trouble with the law in a given year?' And the estimates will range anywhere from 15 percent up about as high as 40 percent." Hardin's research paints a different picture: "Our 2006 study of media coverage of Big Ten athletes found that less than one percent got in trouble with the law, according to published news reports. So it's much lower than people might think it is."

For the study, Hardin and her students looked at media coverage of off-the-field issues involving Big Ten student-athletes on the Web sites of two national, 10 regional, and 11 college newspapers covering Big Ten universities from January 1, 2006 thru January 1, 2007. A surprisingly small number of athletes were named in articles about off-field trouble, Hardin said.

"We know that in the Big Ten there are thousands of athletes—and, of these, a total of 42 were arrested during 2006." Says Hardin, "If you have a city of about 8,000 people, and in that city in an entire year you have a total of 42 people arrested, that likely wouldn't be considered a crime-ridden town."

Then why do we see so many news stories about student athletes accused of crimes? Hardin says our celebrity-obsessed culture might be one explanation.

"There's definitely an appetite for this kind of news," says Hardin. "I think we've positioned college athletes as celebrities in many ways, and people spend their weekends following every move of these athletes on the field. People have an emotional stake in the college teams, so they're interested in reading these kinds of stories."

The way our judicial system works also plays a part in the number of stories about athletes on the wrong side of the law. As Hardin points out, every time a new development occurs in a case, a new story is written.

The event that received the most coverage during the period of Hardin's study, eventually accounting for seven percent of the total number of articles written, concerned former Ohio State University running back Maurice Clarett, who led the Buckeyes to a national championship in 2002. In August of 2006, Clarett was involved in a high-speed chase with police after failing to pull over for a traffic violation. He later pled guilty to aggravated robbery and carrying a concealed weapon and was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. Because the news of Clarett was changing daily, sometimes hourly, newspapers found the need to update readers instantaneously.

"Newspaper's Web sites would sometimes put an AP update on Clarett twice a day," says Hardin.

"For every single athlete who gets in trouble," she adds, "readers can see up to a dozen stories about that incident. So although only a handful of athletes are arrested, this volume of news coverage contributes greatly to people's misperceptions."

Hardin points out the need to maintain perspective when looking at news stories, especially when they deal with high-profile people like athletes.

"To say all athletes are troublemakers is greatly exaggerating," says Hardin. "If we don't stop and put things in perspective, we can really get a skewed picture."

Marie Hardin, Ph.D., is associate professor of journalism and associate director for research at the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism in the College of Communications. She can be reached at mch208@psu.edu.

Last Updated October 08, 2007