To complete its report, Outside the Lines selected 10 schools in various conferences and geographies, leaning toward colleges in quintessential college towns and in states that had public records laws that seemed favorable to accessing police and court records. Other considerations were the programs' revenues, fan bases and overall rankings of the football and men's basketball programs over the time period studied.
Once the 10 colleges were selected, Outside the Lines compiled the schools' football and men's basketball rosters from 2009 through 2014 -- a total of six sets. From summer 2014 to October, public records requests were filed to 20 campus and city police departments in all, for incident reports containing player names that appeared on the selected rosters.
State laws vary in how much information a police department has to release about an incident, as do laws allowing suspects to have their court and police records sealed or expunged. That likely made some athletic programs -- such as Auburn, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State -- return lower numbers of crimes than were actually reported. It's possible some cases were omitted because of law enforcement error, misspelled names or when the legal name on a police report differed from the athlete's name on the roster, although every effort was made to catch those variations ahead of time. Records are still missing from the Michigan State and Notre Dame campus police departments, and ESPN is engaged in legal action to compel their release.
With few exceptions, Outside the Lines counted each case in which an athlete was involved in a criminal incident if:
• The player was arrested or named as a suspect in a police report.
• The police report narrative included information that indicated an officer witnessed the player committing a criminal act or noted evidence to the same; a witness or alleged victim described him engaged in a crime; or the athlete admitted to wrongdoing.
Driving under the influence citations, using a stolen permit, hit-and-run incidents or moving violations involving intentional harm were included, but other traffic or driver-related offenses were not counted, including driving with a suspended license, unless failure to address those incidents resulted in an arrest warrant. Outside the Lines hired researchers who checked municipal, county and state court records to determine which incidents resulted in charges and how those cases were decided.
In its statistical analysis, Outside the Lines factored in only incidents that happened while the athlete was on the roster or in the semester or summer immediately after his last season. (Because some athletes in the 2009-14 roster pool were also student-athletes before 2009, crimes they were involved in during earlier years were included, but those cases were few.) Crimes committed by former players were logged but were not counted in the overall numbers.
In one final piece of analysis, Outside the Lines compared the disposition of cases involving athletes at three schools -- Florida, Florida State and Michigan State -- against those involving males ages 18 to 24 for the respective cities of Gainesville, Tallahassee and East Lansing. The sample sets of cases included hundreds of incidents in a four-month span in fall 2013. Those schools were selected in part because of public records laws that allowed for easier access to data and/or for the total number of athletes involved in crimes and their pattern of dispositions.
In the analysis of Florida and Florida State athletes, an "incident" was considered prosecuted if any of the charges, or related or lesser charges, resulted in a person's admission or determination of guilt, no-contest plea or other qualifying disposition that resulted in certain conditions of punishment or payment. Incidents were considered not prosecuted if there was no record, charges were dropped without condition or prosecutors declined to pursue the case for any reason.
Because laws vary among states, overall statistics for all schools in the study that show incidents "not prosecuted or dropped" generally referred to circumstances where there was no record of charges, prosecution was declined, or charges were dropped or dismissed based on information available in court records. Cases that showed deferred prosecution or other state-specific types of pretrial intervention as the disposition were counted as instances in which punitive action was taken, with a few exceptions caused by variability in state laws and information in court documents.
Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, reviewed Outside the Lines' methodology and said it was a valid way to measure differences in prosecution. He said it would have been helpful to include only students in the subset of 18- to 24-year-old males, but that information was not available for each case.
As to the findings showing the difference in the percentage of athlete cases compared with 18- to 24-year-old males in which no charges were filed or they were dropped or dismissed, Butts said: "In the field of justice, that could be a substantial difference. ... It's definitely a reason to look more deeply into it to find the reasons why."