KCBS Sports Anchor Steve Bitker and KCBS News Anchor Stan Bunger offer their unique sports analysis.

SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS) — CBS News and Sports Illustrated magazine are making a big splash out of what they’re calling “an unprecedented six-month investigation” into the criminal records of football players on Top-25 college teams. Their big finding: 7% of the athletes had been charged with or cited for a crime.

Well, pardon me for not getting all hand-wringy about this. Let me explain why this is a classic case of making a mountain out of a statistical molehill:

•CBS News and SI use reports of arrests and citations–not convictions–to build their case. You don’t have to be a criminal defense lawyer to recognize that not everyone who gets arrested or cited is actually guilty of anything. In fact, the report says more than 40% of the incidents uncovered by the investigation did not result in a conviction or fine.

•The news organizations say more than a third of the offenses were for drugs or alcohol. That covers a lot of ground. Do we really think a kid with an open-container citation in his past is a danger to decent society?

•Even if the 7% number shocks you (and it apparently does shock CBS News correspondent Armen Keteyian, who went on the air to describe the report as a “game changer”), is it really that big a deal? The adult US population (18+) is around 250 million. I’ve seen credible estimates saying anywhere from 45 million to 64 million Americans have a citation or arrest on their records. Using the lower number, that’s still somewhere around 18% of the adult general population!

CBS News and SI trot out appropriately hair-raising stories of football players breaking bad–ugly stories of aggravated assault, armed robbery, weapons, reckless endangerment, resisting arrest and the like. But curiously, we don’t read about any shoplifting arrests or drunk-in-public citations which one has to assume are part of the dossier.

Look: I’m not condoning bad behavior by anyone. But in case you haven’t been paying attention, kids do screw up. CBS News and SI appear to be lobbying for colleges to conduct criminal background checks on athletic recruits (they take pains to point out that in Florida, for $24, you can get a criminal report on anyone–including many juvenile arrests). So then what? Should we tell a kid who got in a fight at the mall that he can’t play college football?

By overplaying these statistics, the news organizations risk burying the real lead here. There remains a pervasive sense of entitlement among many athletes, aided and abetted by institutions which profit from their athletic exploits. Without question, colleges should take a firm stand against bad behavior by their jocks. Some already do: BYU may have just destroyed its shot at a national basketball championship by suspending forward Brandon Davies for violating the school honor code.

But who benefits if the institutions become unnecessarily punitive when assessing a recruit’s background? How long should a youthful indiscretion remain a burden to a developing adult? Society has long agreed that, except in the most egregious and violent cases, juvenile crime is treated differently from the crimes of adults. A key component of that philosophy is the belief that young people can grow and change for the better. Let’s hope this report is eventually seen for what it is: a bunch of numbers that don’t really add up to much.

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