Study shows 'mythology' exists about student-athlete off-field actions

September 24, 2007

A comprehensive, yearlong study of online newspaper stories about intercollegiate athletics in the Big Ten Conference found a small number of stories about negative off-field incidents were often repeated among news organizations, creating a perception of student-athletes and their actions that was incorrect.

The study of the Web sites for two national newspapers, 10 major regional dailies and 11 college papers found more than 2,800 stories that went beyond game previews and recaps to focus on issues of player eligibility, health and career moves for coaches as well as misconduct by coaches and players.

Of those stories, 7 percent had a single focus -- the arrest and charges against former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett, the heralded recruit who played just one season (2002) before injuries and legal problems ended his college career and let to an ill-fated effort at professional football.

Two sports, men's basketball and football, accounted for 82 percent off the off-field stories. Three schools produced the most stories: Indiana, with the hiring of men's basketball coach Kelvin Sampson; Ohio State, with the Clarett story; and Penn State, with the on-field knee injury and subsequent recovery of veteran football coach Joe Paterno as well as legal cases involving former Nittany Lion Scott Paxton and former women's basketball coach Rene Portland.

Still, just 42 student-athletes -- one half of one percent of those who participate in all Big Ten sports -- were named in stories about arrests or criminal charges.

"The study shows that the idea that student-athletes are always getting in trouble is wrong," said Marie Hardin, an associate professor and associate director for research in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State, which conducted the study. "There's a mythology out there that intercollegiate athletics has a majority of problem children, but that's just not the case."

According to the study of news on the Web, one or two stories can dominate coverage and shape perceptions because the same stories, or versions of those stories, get picked by different news organizations and updated regularly online.

Some media outlets consistently face staffing shortages, and a sometimes slow-moving legal process provides times for multiple stories about the same subject. Also, Internet technology allows information to be disseminated and shared as never before.

All of those factors made stories about individuals, most often coaching career moves and contracts, much more common than off-field stories about more general problems or trends in intercollegiate athletics.

"Whatever the practical reasons, such emphasis reinforces negative framing of intercollegiate athletes," Hardin said. "Off-field coverage of student-athletes in any sport, even those that receive very little on-field coverage, moves into high gear when someone faces allegations of wrongdoing."

According to Hardin, the results of the study, while addressing the "mythology" about student-athletes, do not serve as a condemnation of the media.

"There are a number of complex factors at work here," she said. "News organizations can think a little more about opportunities for different types of off-field stories and how their heavy reliance on wire services is shaping the overall tone of their sports coverage. It would be easy, based on the coverage, for sports fans to reach the wrong conclusions about college athletes in general."

The study focused on stories posted online from Jan. 1, 2006, to Jan. 1, 2007.

Negative stories -- those that focused on academic ineligibility, controversial comments by coaches, crime or rules violations -- accounted for 29 percent of the 8,500 stories.

News about actual or speculated coaching moves made up 57 percent of the coverage, and stories about student-athletes represented 29 percent of the stories. The remaining stories concentrated on issues involving athletic programs and the NCAA.

Off-field news about women's sports accounted for just 11 percent of the stories, and most of those (68 percent) were about women's basketball. Of the 42 student-athletes mentioned in stories, all were men.

For a complete version of the study, visit http://www.comm.psu.edu/sports

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 19, 2009