Four former Vanderbilt football players were charged with five counts of aggravated rape and two counts of sexual battery on Friday. The charges stem from the alleged rape of a 21-year-old student,, who was reportedly passed out in a campus dorm room at the time of the assault.
The players, who had been dismissed from the team and barred from the university since late June, each face charges totaling more than 100 years in prison.
Vanderbilt issued its own statement on the incident Friday. You can read the entirety of the statement here.
The most interesting aspect of that statement? These two lines:
“The charges brought today against the four former Vanderbilt football players allege conduct which is abhorrent and will never be tolerated. We will review our athletics program to be sure that it, like all other programs at the university, reflects our culture of community and respect for others and that our student athletes are held to the same high standards of conduct as all our students.”
I always hesitate to pull out individual sentences and make them the focus of an article, so I’d encourage you to read the statement in its entirety, but that second sentence sounds an awful lot to me like the athletic department is being singled out for blame here.
If that’s the case, it raises a whole host of difficult, challenging and potentially troubling issues.
Because what Vanderbilt’s really asking here is a major question when it comes to big-time college athletics — does winning big in sports require an unacceptable level of off-the-field conduct?
After all, Vanderbilt’s standard for off the field trouble is going to be much lower than it is for the 13 other SEC schools. That’s what you’d expect from the only private school in the SEC. Looking at the football arrest rates for Vanderbilt as it compares to every other SEC school over the past three years, Vandy had the fewest.
Prior to this incident one Vanderbilt player had been arrested in James Franklin’s three-year tenure. During the same time frame Missouri and Florida each had 18 players arrested, Georgia 16, Arkansas 12, Ole Miss 11, Auburn and Kentucky each had nine arrests, Alabama and Texas A&M had seven, LSU had six, while Mississippi State, South Carolina, and Tennessee each had five arrests. (I’ve updated arrest totals as since this late May article as best I can).
Now Vandy’s arrest number is up to five.
So in order to win big in the SEC do you have to take off-field risks with the players you admit?
The evidence isn’t that clear.
For instance, Missouri, which had limited success last year in the SEC, has had 18 player arrests — and two coach arrests — while Alabama, LSU, South Carolina, and Texas A&M — four of the top six teams in the conference last year — all had seven or less players arrested over a three-year period. That suggests that player discipline on and off the field could be correlated. But then Florida and Georgia have both been successful teams as well and they have high arrest rates. That suggests that arrest rates don’t really matter that much.
So what does the data really show you?
It’s difficult to tell.
You college and law school kids are always writing me asking for sports ideas for your papers. Here’s one: I’d love to see: a longterm nationwide statistical analysis of player arrests as it compares to university wins and losses. Is there any statistical correlation at all, either positive or negative, when it comes to player arrests? One of you number-crunchers out there should dive in and find out. (There’s also an argument that all college arrests shouldn’t be treated equally — after all, some of these are relatively minor offenses, drinking underage, for instance, while others are much more severe. So you’d probably need to establish a severity scale. Plus, all police departments aren’t arresting at similar levels. For instance, the Athens police department appears to give no leniency to Georgia players over the past several years while other schools seem to get passes.)
The bigger question here though is the one raised in Vanderbilt’s release.
Will this incident change the way Vanderbilt admits athletes?
The even more difficult question though is this one, should it?
Each of these questions that unspools from Vanderbilt’s release just begets newer, more difficult questions.
Because ultimately what Vanderbilt is asking is this — are athletic admittees more prone to violate standards of university conduct that than other students? (It’s important to note here that we don’t know the academic background of the four arrested Vanderbilt players. But it’s fair to say that if a player is a four-star with a perfect SAT or ACT score he or she would be admitted anywhere. So the question Vanderbilt raises in the release is an interesting one, what does the review consist of and what will the findings show? Will admissions decisions be reviewed, for instance? Will the school analyze the cost of winning?)
And, ultimately, isn’t the sample size of athletes, regardless of what Vanderbilt uncovers during its review, so small as to be of limited predictive value?
Let’s take this story outside of athletics. While it would be an awful story, would it shock anyone if a gang rape occurred among non-athletes in a fraternity house? Is athletics really the story here, or is this just an awful story of several college students making terrible decisions at a prestigious academic institution?
What’s more, should the awful alleged acts of several athletes change the chance for others who have done nothing wrong to attend Vanderbilt in fhe future? After all, deep down don’t we all believe that if given the opportunity and support that all students, regardless of their backgrounds, can achieve academic success? If you’re a rich kid from an elite high school, you’re well-prepared for Vanderbilt’s academics. You’ve already had all the advantages bestowed upon you by birth. But what if you haven’t been to top schools and suddenly you get academic support and tutoring unlike anything you’ve ever had before? You have the chance to alter your life’s trajectory forever. Isn’t that what we all truly hope college athletics can manage?
Ultimately, we come back to a very difficult question that’s raised by Vanderbilt’s release, how can you predict which athletic admits will flourish and which will flounder?
That’s especially the case when you keep in mind that these four players had a bevy of college offers from major schools across the national landscape. Take away the crime these men are accused of committing and dive back into their Rivals profiles with a fresh look.
Consider Brandon Vandenburg, for instance, one of the nation’s top junior college tight ends. Vandenburg had offers from Florida State, Miami, Texas A&M, Tennessee, California, Nebraska, and a host of other schools.
These four guys could have gone lots of places to play football. Would they have also gotten in trouble at these other schools? We’ll never know. But if you buy into the culture of a program having an impact on a kid off the field, don’t you have to think that Vanderbilt, given it only had one player arrested in the past three years, was among the best decisions these guys could have made in terms of staying out of trouble?
The biggest question of all is this, as Vanderbilt climbs the college football ranks, how does the school balance the quest for football wins, while at the same time managing its justified reputation for athletic excellence?Because let’s be honest, Vanderbilt became one of the top twenty schools in the nation despite a long history of football futility. Does football success really matter to a tenured chemistry professor? How do you balance the competing demands of faculty, fans, parents, and students? Especially in the wake of the nasty situation at Penn State, when it would appear that the athetic department was allowed to play by its own set of rules.
While none of the four ex-players charged with aggravated rape had anything to do with last year’s team on the field — three were redshirt freshmen and the fourth was a junior college transfer — will their arrests have something to do with who can represent Vanderbilt in the future?
We don’t know yet.
The more difficult question is this, should they?
I don’t know the answer.
Chances are you don’t either.
Such is life in the moral morass of major college athletics.