Criminal charges abound in Big Ten

Mitch Anderson

The Big Ten athletic conference has had a substantial amount of bad publicity this year.

Football players from Illinois, Michigan and Penn State have been charged with an assortment of crimes – from burglary to assault and battery to driving while intoxicated.

Other athletes found themselves in the spotlight for other reasons, such as the Purdue receiver who was stabbed in the chest following an altercation outside of a nightclub earlier this year.

The controversy surrounding the University football program is just one of many recent instances of athletes making news for all the wrong reasons, and many have taken notice of the intense scrutiny they face.

If the recent charges against University football players seem familiar, it’s because a similar accusation was made only five years ago. In 2002, a jury found football players Steven Watson and Mackenzy Toussaint not guilty of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman in a University Village apartment.

Kathleen Hansen, a University professor who specializes in the sociology of journalism, shared her thoughts on why athletes in trouble dominate so much of the news.

Hansen said there is always a heightened sense of public interest surrounding college athletics, particularly with charges of sexual assault, because of the stereotypes surrounding college athletes.

“In this particular instance, it was like the perfect storm of things that came together that were irresistible (for the media to cover),” she said.

Hansen said that although the media doesn’t normally release names until a suspect is formally charged with a crime, the same rule isn’t applied to public figures, such as college athletes.

“The people that decide news coverage recognize that someone that the public knows or knows of is going to be of much more interest than a stranger,” Hansen said.

This is true of all people of notoriety, not just athletes, Hansen said.

Hansen added that there’s nothing illegal with publishing the information. When someone is arrested, a police report is created and the public has every right to obtain that report.

Other students have taken up the cause of supporting the athletes. The Black Student Union is holding a rally at noon on Friday at Coffman Union in part to address the way they feel the media treated the three football players.

Bronson Hilliard, a spokesman for the University of Colorado, is all too familiar with the public fallout that comes with sexual assault allegations.

In 2004, a female kicker for the football team alleged that other members of the team raped her. No charges were ever filed, but the university suffered nonetheless.

“Even if it was only one or two players involved in the incident, it still causes a broad brushstroke to be painted against the program,” Hilliard said. “A sort of conventional wisdom was established that they had done it, even though nothing was ever proven. It’s very unfortunate.”

Hilliard said in the world of academics, a school’s reputation is of great importance. Any negative press coverage of athletics can have adverse consequences for the university as a whole.

“During those bad years – 2003, 2004 and 2005 – we definitely saw a decline in applications to the university and in donations to the university,” Hilliard said.

According to Hilliard, schools should proactively instruct athletes that their conduct on and off the field directly reflects on the universities they attend.