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This particular list of college football arrests is a lot less useful than it appears

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Note: In light of developments in the summer and fall of 2016, this story has made its way back to our front page. Please note the original publish date, and read accordingly.

A former reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, Mike Rosenberg, posted a list to Twitter this morning of the top 25 college football programs in terms of arrests. Guess who was at the top?

This seems to be getting some traction around Twitterverse, mostly because it looks awfully bad for ol' Wazzu. Especially in this context -- I mean, if you're going to have a program full of criminals, you should at least win a bunch of games right? Hahaha Washington State is a national punchline again.

But at the risk of sounding like an apologist for WSU and people who get arrested in general*, I don't put a whole lot of stock into the work Rosenberg has done here, specifically for WSU but even as it applies to college football in general.

*Getting arrested is not good. You shouldn't do it. Like really. Don't do stuff that could get you arrested.

Being at the top of this list would seem to imply that WSU football (and anyone else near the top) has a pretty big problem with criminal behavior. It's a pretty baseless implication, actually. Here's why.

The numbers come from arrestnation.com, which aggregates reported arrests and citations and charges. That actually presents a number of problems.

First, if your university is located in a small town where the majority of the residents are college students and the local police readily admit that they take a "proactive" stance toward making arrests for minor infractions committed by that specific population which tends to do more dumb things than the population at large, well, your arrests are naturally going to skew upward.

A few examples!

  • The most recent arrests at WSU -- last September -- involve then-20-year-old defensive lineman Daniel Ekuale sneaking into a bar, and running back Theron West driving recklessly to flee a domestic violence dispute between two women.*
  • Ivan McLennan is on the list for being stupid with an Airsoft gun.
  • Logan Mayes was arrested for driving away after backing into another car in a parking lot.
  • Toni Pole was arrested after giving police a false name when they showed up to a noise complaint.
  • Noted criminal team captain and otherwise model citizen Travis Long is on the list for picking up an MIP four days before his 21st birthday.

*Think maybe -- JUST MAYBE -- there is a chance West left the way he did because he was worried he'd get arrested if he stuck around?

Yes, there was the grow operation by Jamal Atofau and Andre Barrington, and C.J. Mizell beating people is really bad. But the list is littered with stuff like the offenses in the previous paragraph -- stuff where people are "arrested" at the scene and released rather than thrown in a car and booked, stuff that might not (probably wouldn't?) result in arrests in a lot of other places.

And that's a pretty significant problem when looking at this "ranking." Beyond differences in philosophy of policing, the data relies on comprehensive and accurate reporting on arrests/citations/charges. Not every school has a reporter mining police reports everyday for infractions, and not every school has publications that find all of those infractions newsworthy enough to write about. (Heck, when Ekuale and West were arrested, we didn't even bother to report on it. Sneaking into a bar? THE HORROR.)

Since the vast majority of these arrests of WSU players are for what could be deemed "knucklehead behavior," does anyone really think the Cougars have a larger proportion of knuckleheads than anyone else? Or conversely, does anyone really think that Stanford and Cal -- five-year combined total according to arrestnation.com: three arrests -- have that many fewer knuckleheads than anyone else? (For what it's worth, the Bay Area is pretty famous for paltry coverage of college sports.)

You might also note that most of the schools at the top of the list are winning schools. But even Rosenberg wonders if the reason more successful programs are higher up on this list could be something other than "they give more scholarships to criminals":

So, if actual intellectually honest comparisons are largely futile based on this data, the question is this: What purpose does the list serve?

In its current form, I'd say next to nothing beyond earning the author lots of retweets from the looky-loos on Twitter. It feels a bit like a drive by that doesn't do much to forward any substantial conversations that people might want to have about the behavior and culture surrounding Division I college football. I mean, when you have Darren Rovell's endorsement, that should tell you something about the level of discourse you're forwarding.

Are there culture issues in some places? Undoubtedly. (Looking at you, Vanderbilt, Penn State, Florida State, and others.) Does this attempt to unearth that? Nope. Heck, arrestnation.com even says on its "about" page that it makes no distinction between arrests/citations/charges, nor does it report on charges that are later dropped. It just throws everyone into the same giant bin, concluding that "even when an athlete is found not guilty or a declaration of innocence is made by the government, the fact of the arrest may be instructive, demonstrating the risks of engaging in certain activities or behaviors and providing a teachable moment."

Respectfully, I disagree -- for all the reasons outlined above. It might be worth noting (or not, your choice) that a search of "arrestnation.com" on Google Scholar turns up zero articles.

There are a lot of ways this could be meaningful with some work -- categorizing the seriousness of arrests, calculating the rate of charges being brought from arrests, and calculating conviction rates, just to name a few ideas -- but until that work takes place, I'd encourage you to do little more than simply shrug your shoulders and treat as what it is: Something ultimately devoid of any real meaning, despite appearances to the contrary.

Or, alternatively, if you're really interested in this topic, might I suggest simply checking out the Fulmer Cup?