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ESPN OTL Report: When Does Preferential Treatment Go Too Far?

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We could all kind of assume that was the case, but ESPN blows the lid off how deep the layers actually go.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

In case you missed it this weekend, ESPN's acclaimed Outside the Lines reported on the state of college athletes and criminal behavior. In a report that began last fall, OTL requested all police reports involving football and men's basketball players from campus and city police departments surrounding 10 schools. They found that high-profile college athletes not only receive preferential treatment but sincerely benefit from a "confluence of factors that can be reality at major sports programs."

Direct from the OTL article on, they found the following factors:

-Near-immediate access to high-profile attorneys.

-Intimidation that is felt by witnesses who accuse athletes.

-The higher bar some criminal justice officials feel needs to be met in high-profile cases.

Among the schools listed, the two most egregious offenders were the University of Florida and Florida State University. The report found that Florida had the most athletes named as suspects in more than 100 crimes (80), yet had charges dropped or failed to prosecute in 56% of cases. The second-highest number came from FSU, where 66 athletes were named as suspects but had 70% failing to reach prosecution or charges or had those charges dropped.

The numbers provide a stark reality that does exist in college athletics - at certain schools, athletes are given god-like status and are treated with a blank check to do whatever they want as long as they perform on game day.

I'm not going to get into the specifics of the athletes named in the report or the institutions. I'm not here to discuss the details of each school. You can go read those for yourself by clicking on the ESPN report, which provides links to information based on each institution with complete data analysis (if you have a couple of hours, it's fascinating stuff).

But I will talk about the culture surrounding athletics and how, occasionally, we all forget about certain aspects. These are student-athletes, and while athletics are incredible sources of revenue for the institution and amazing elements of school pride, we forget that these are kids and, when treated like demigods, kids make dumb decisions.

From an outsider's perspective, Boston College isn't without guilt through its history. The 30 for 30 series documentary on how the basketball team wound up in a point-shaving scandal in the late 1970s is certainly proof of that, as is the 1996 gambling scandal that suspended 13 players and effectively ended Dan Henning's reign as head coach. More recently, we would have to acknowledge the incident involving former tight end CJ Parsons, convicted after pleading guilty to assaulting a homeless man but with a suspended sentence and five years' probation.

But, for the most part, BC runs a clean program and deals with issues swiftly and decisively (even though he wasn't charged or convicted, Jim Sweeney is barely a ghost in the Eagles record books in basketball, and nobody seems to talk about that '96 football season too much).

Again, those are discussions for another day. This is a multi-faceted discussion with layers upon layers of issues. You would be hard-pressed to find a 20 year old kid who hasn't done something stupid. Among us, I'm sure we could come up with at least 100 really, really dumb things we've done. But when you give that kid carte blanche to do whatever they want, you venture into dangerous territory where negative behavior is reinforced and perpetuated through a cycle in the name of football or basketball.

It's not to say that cracking down on these kids is the answer. Noted American psychologist B.F. Skinner is famous for his theory of "operant conditioning." He talked about negative reinforcement by using avoidance, removing the "aversive stimulus." It means removing the negative behavior doesn't actually fix the problem, it just removes the contributing factor.

In plain English and related to this story, to tie it all together, simply making the issue go away doesn't teach anyone that it's a problem. If a kid makes a mistake, he needs to understand the consequences and have them reinforced. Just handling it "internally" or with "their own investigation" doesn't actually fix anything. Simply ignoring the problem and cranking the volume up doesn't teach anyone about consequences or why it's a problem. Preferential treatment is one thing, but venturing well beyond that is much, much worse.

Likewise, tossing the athlete aside isn't the answer either. Removing him from the equation doesn't teach the others why what he did was wrong. It only enforces that one athlete made a mistake, but it doesn't explain to everyone else that it could happen to them. It's like the thought process regarding high school students - we always hear tragic stories on the 10 PM news, but we seldom think it can happen in our town with our kids.

Nobody wants to admit their heroes are flawed and make mistakes, but if someone makes a mistake, they need to realize there are consequences. That is especially true for athletes, demigods at institutions that generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for the school and its surrounding communities. They want to believe in the quasi-utopian perfection. They want to dream about how everything is awesome.

The truth is, however, it's not, and it's up to us to make sure we can support and nurture the right environment, not reinforce the wrong one, whatever that may be.