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Keith Strudler: College Sports And The Law

I have long understood that college is a kind of suspended reality from the real world. It’s four years of limbo that separate the parental control of adolescence to the crime and punishment model of the adult world. In college, you are privileged – encouraged, even – to make mistakes. In some cases, that’s good. Like taking an acting class, or finding out you’re not good at fly fishing. But that latitude often extends beyond the benign to more questionable. Things that in the real world would earn you an arrest or even a conviction – and all the downside that comes with that. That’s what happens in the grown-up world. You commit a crime, and you suffer the consequences.

That’s not always the case in college. Sometimes, when you commit a crime, your punishment comes not from the authorities but rather from the campus authorities. So instead of a criminal record, you get kicked out of campus housing. Or you lose priority points, or fail a class. It’s punishment light, like getting paid in bitcoin instead of real money. So while your age may indicate legal adult, it’s really more of an adult learner’s permit.

It seems that ethos may be especially true for those college students who also happen to be star college athletes. That’s become apparent again this fall, this time at Florida State University, home of the nation’s second ranked and defending champion football team, and a place where the team, the town, and the university appear separated by a dotted line at best. College towns and major athletic programs have symbiotic existence, which, left unchecked, can make for bad policy, at the very least.

At FSU, at least according to a lengthy New York Times report, the Tallahassee police department may have been far too cozy with the Seminole athletic department, either excusing, ignoring, or explaining away several criminal acts by the university’s football players. The most public, and potentially egregious of these is the case of Jameis Winston, who’s dismissal on rape charges is now being reexamined by the university, some two years later. When it originally happened, it’s reported the Tallahassee police department may have acted in collusion with the university athletic department to protect Winston, allowing them to preemptively destroy the case. There are other cases at FSU where the police have treated football players with far greater leniency than other students, much less other city residents, all with the willful knowledge of the athletic coaches and administrators. If it’s true, it’s more than just campus cops going easy on the frat house. It’s the police force, the people we’re supposed to trust above all else, systematically ignoring their responsibility to those they claim to serve and protect.

To be fair and honest, we know little about how prevalent this alleged practice is. Certainly, the importance of college sports in a college town, where the police are likely fans as well as off duty officers working security at school games, can’t be overstated. It’s a relationship almost demanding corruption. But assuming it is an issue, the more important question then becomes, how do you fix it? The answer goes far deeper than training and seminars. This isn’t simply a question of process. It’s a question of priority. Right now, big time college athletes are more than athletes. They heroes, celebrities, icons, and something approaching mythic figure. Even when they’re really supposed to simply be students, at least according the NCAA marketing team. So, to suggest that athletes are just like other kids in town is like pretending your wedding day is just another date on the calendar. It’s not. And that’s why local police systematically may treat star athletes different than, say, that chemistry major across the street.

There’s not a whole lot colleges can do to change that reality, especially not when they’re doubling down on athletic profits. You can say Jameis Winston is just like everyone else on campus, which will be true when everyone else sells shirts in the bookstore and generates millions in alumni donations. So while universities may publicly denounce the kinds of corruption that may have happened at Florida State, they’ll only really mean it when the pull back the reins on the professionalization of college sports, something neither they, or heck, even I as a college sports fan are all that excited about.

Which is why these kinds of unlawful partnerships – here, between the FSU athletic department and the Tallahassee police force, as a likely to continue to happen as afternoon summer showers in Miami. It is, for worse in this case, just a reality. One that, unlike a lot that happens in college, something that won’t be suspended.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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