Analysing Shorter Sentences for Athletes


The purpose of this proposed design is to examine whether or not an athlete’s elitist status in society determines the length of time they receive for criminal offenses in comparison to non-athletes? The goal is to show that the majority of the research discussed below demonstrates that athletes are given fair punishments based on the crimes that they have committed. This has been done by examining the literature and identifying the problem. All of the sources connect together and believe that athletes get punished for crimes, but none of the sources touched on the fact that athletes seem to receive shorter prison sentences or easy punishments by athletic officials and court legislation. In some of the literature it discussed how athletes seem to get by the legal system fairly easily, but research has not been done to prove that theory. This proposal will examine how athletes are treated favorable in criminal court cases based on their wealth, class, and status. The research design that will be used for this proposal are case studies, which will be examining similar crimes committed by athletes as well as non-athletes. Case studies will be able to examine similar crimes committed by athletes as well as non-athletes. This research will not only help prosecutors who study entertainment law, but it will help all citizens that have been given longer punishments simple because they were not athletes.

This proposal is examining if an athlete’s elitist status in society determines the length of time they receive for criminal offenses in comparison to non-athletes. This research question examines something that has never been explored before, which is the connection between wealthy elite athletes and political legislators. Elitism is defined as the belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources The elitist theory is a theoretical view held by many social scientists which holds that American politics is best understood through the generalization that nearly all political power is held by a relatively small and wealthy group of people sharing similar values and interests and mostly coming from relatively similar privileged backgrounds (Johnson 2012). Most of the top leaders in all or nearly all key sectors of society are seen as recruited from this same social group, and elite theorists emphasize the degree to which interlocking corporate and foundation directorates, old school ties and frequent social interaction tend to link together and facilitate coordination between the top leaders in business, government, civic organizations, educational and cultural establishments and the mass media (Johnson 2012). Athletes are also placed into this elite class because of their wealth and worldwide recognition (Acemoglu 2008, 270).

This “power elite” can effectively dictate the main goals, if not always the practical means and details, for all really important government policy making as well as dominate the activities of the major mass media and educational/cultural organizations in society by virtue of their control over the economic resources of the major business and financial

organizations in the country (Reynolds 2012). Their power is seen as based most fundamentally on their personal economic resources and especially on their positions within the top management of the big corporations, and does not really depend upon their ability to garner mass support through efforts to “represent” the interests of broader social groups (Reynolds 2012). Thomas Dye, a political scientist, finds that 54 percent of the top corporate leaders and 42 percent of our highest political officials went to just 12 private colleges including Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford (Horn 2012). But it is while advancing through their professions that the unity of thought begins to emerge. By the time men and women reach the top of the corporate or professional ladder, their common experiences have given them a shared way of looking at economics and politics so that they experience and react to events in the same ways (Horn 2012). When they enter public service these people cannot shed their traditions.

Political legislators use their political ideology to determine what society should be like and that impacts the decisions they make day in and day out. Political legislators are most often times described as elite individuals who make the rules in society by controlling the political system (Acemoglu 2008, 268). The preferred economic and governmental order for society is run by and catered to the rich, which means the elites are able to influence government officials by their means and income. To make it in to the notorious top one per cent of earners in the U.S., it is necessary to have an annual income over $500,000 (America is the 1%: You need just $34,000 annual income to be in the global elite… and HALF the world’s richest people live in the U.S. 2012). According to C. Wright Mills, among the best known power-elite theorists, the governing elite in the United States draws its members from three areas: (1) the highest political leaders including the president and a handful of key cabinet members and close advisers; (2) major corporate owners and directors; and (3) high-ranking military officers. The elite occupy the top command posts of society. These positions give their holders enormous authority over not just governmental, but financial, educational, social, civic, and cultural institutions as well. A small group is able to take fundamental actions that touch everyone. Decisions made in the boardrooms of large corporations and banks affect the rates of inflation and employment. They take the enormity in the world of commerce for granted. More important, they are united in their belief that the primary responsibility of government is to maintain a favorable climate for business. Members of the elite agree on the basic outlines of the free enterprise system including profits, private property, the unequal and concentrated distribution of wealth, and the sanctity of private economic power.

The purpose of this proposal is to demonstrate that athletes get shorter sentences because of their elitist status in society, caused by political legislators making decisions based on class status. The research that is being explored could make a tremendous difference in the study of athletes that have committed crimes. The audience of experts that could best use this research are from Western Carolina University. They have a special Sports Management Program that researches and examines athletes that have committed crimes and could use the research to explore how athletes receive favoritism in comparison to non-athletes. This research proposal is significant to the audience because it will help them in figuring out if there are any particular preferences towards athletes when they are being sentenced. By helping the audiences figure this information out they will be more aware of what they are up against and will have more knowledge when they are prosecuting athletes.

Political institutions are chosen either by the elite or the citizens depending on who has more political power. The elite, by virtue of their smaller numbers and their greater expected returns from controlling politics, have a comparative advantage in investing in effective power (Acemoglu 2008, 268). Over the past twenty years, researchers have been studying athletes and their criminal behavior on and off the court, but the matter of if athletes are favored in criminal courts has not been researched. Political researchers agree that athletes never seem to pay for when they commit in sports violence, but they have not drawn any conclusions or made any connections to tie their lack of punishments to a favorable judicial system (Standen 2009, 630). A large portion of the literature focuses on journal articles that believe that athletes receive fair punishments based on crimes they have committed, but the problem with the literature is that it does not examine how athletes get shorter sentences because of their elitist status in society, which is due to political legislators basing their decisions about athletes on wealth, class, and status.

Athletes and Sports Violence

In an influential journal article Standen, analyzes how in game assaults are considered “part of the game” because they happen during the course of a violent sport. Typically, where such assaulting acts exceed certain perceived standards of appropriate play on the field, the worst result an athlete may expect is a league sanction in the form of a fine or brief suspension (Standen 2008, 623). The article discusses how only in unusual, and entirely rare, cases does the act of violence on the playing field subject the participant to a risk of criminal prosecution. The article articulates that there are several strong policy-based arguments against extending criminal liability to athletic endeavors. Nonetheless, egregious assaults have, with notable frequency, generated criminal prosecutions, but the problem is that it has produced a zero percent conviction rate on in-game violence (Standen 2008, 623). The main topic in this article is the rule of consent. It tells readers that the reason athletic participants may consider assaults and batteries are revolved around the idea of “consent” that permeates the relevant decisions. In the context of sports, consent is a term that eludes easy definition. It refers to the issue of whether or not consent to a particular sport, presumably given voluntarily, is nonetheless valid (Standen 2008, 632). The articles examines how factually consenting participants may not be given valid consent to certain sporting activities, such as a sport that occasions excessive risk to life and limb. In this sense, the law provides limitations on consent. Consent can also, more commonly, refer to the automatic, “presumed consent” that a participant impliedly gives upon agreeing to play a particular sport. In these presumed-consent cases, consent is found even if, in fact, it is not given in an informed, volitional, affirmative manner. Finally, the term consent is used to refer to the factual provision of affirmative consent in the particular case. The article ends discussing how a participant in a sports contest, even an illegal one, may nonetheless defend his assaulting conduct on the grounds that the plaintiff consented to the assault through a demonstration of “volitional consent.” Sports that are deemed “non-dangerous” or “reasonable,” however, consent remains a viable defense (Standen 2008, 635). This article differs from a lot of other articles because it focuses on violence in general and not just off-court misconduct resulting in crime. This article describes in detail the defense that athletes use to get themselves out of criminal court cases. This article is similar in parts to the Zajda article because it discusses athletes committing crimes in games, but nothing being done about it.

In a more recent article Zajda, analyzes a few notable examples of over-the-line game-related violence in professional sports that arguably warranted criminal sanctions but never resulted in prosecution. One of the primary examples that the article focuses on is that of defensive back Albert Haynesworth. The article states that Haynesworth, the six-foot-six, three-hundred twenty pound man was found standing directly over another player of the opposite team. The player was later identified as offensive center Andre Gurode, and Haynesworth was then seen kicking at Gurode’s upper torso, dislodging his helmet. With Gurode’s head exposed, Haynesworth inexplicably stomped his foot two more times, both stomps landing squarely onto Gurode’s face (Zajda 2011, 1). Haynesworth’s metal cleats caused openings in Gurode’s forehead and cheek – narrowly missing his right eye -which required thirty stitches to close (Zajda 2011, 3). Gurode was forced to exit the game and received immediate medical attention. He missed a total of three games due to temporary loss of vision in his right eye. Though he would eventually go on to make a full recovery, Gurode suffered from migraine headaches and blurry vision for the entire year following the attack. The article states that although this was a vicious attack criminal charges were not given to Haynesworth and the only punishment that he faced was with the NFL commissioner (Zajda 2011, 5). Haynesworth was only given a five game suspension without pay, but if things were reversed and he was not an athlete he would most certainly have received a prison sentence for aggravated assault (Zajda 2011, 9). This article is very different from other articles about criminal athletes because it focuses on in game violence that should have resulted in criminal charges but never did. It also is different because instead of giving opinions like many other articles do, it gives factual examples of when players have severely injured other players and received no punishment and if they did receive a punishment it was just a slap on the wrist. The article gives a perfect example of instances in which a regular citizen would serve time in prison, but because they were elite athletes they were given a pass, although their actions were criminal.

Athletes and Punishment

There is considerable evidence that commissioners of sports league do not want to punish athletes for crimes they commit on or off the court, so they pretend like the events never took place or punish them as little as possible. One of the best examples is found in an article by Amy Tracy. In the article Tracy discusses how commissioners as well as athletic departments do not want their interests devalued by star player suspensions. However, commissioners do punish players, whether it is civilly or criminally so they don’t make their teams look bad (Tracy 2010, 257). With that being said athletic officials do everything they can to try to stop athletes from being punished to the fullest extent of the law; they want athletes to suffer as little as possible (Tracy 2010, 260). This article contrasts directly with the next article titled “Off-Court Misbehavior: Sports Leagues and Private Punishment”, because that article claims that athletes are only punished if they are charged or commit offenses and not at all if they are sued civilly.

Another example of athletes receiving punishment was by Janine Kim and Matthew Parlow. This article focuses on the punishment that commissioners give athletes, but it completely disagrees with Tracy’s article. This article plainly states that sports leagues have begun to take a firmer stand on disciplining athletes for their transgressions (Kim and Parlow 2009, 579). It says that commissioners of the leagues are imposing harsher and more frequent penalties when athletes commit criminal acts. The article says that the primary reason for this change may be the fact that when a league’s player commits criminal acts off the court or field, the league’s image and profitability can be significantly harmed (Kim and Parlow 2009, 284). Although this article says that athletes are punished if they face criminal charges, that same rule does not apply to civil court cases. Athletes do not face any disciplinary actions if they are caught facing any civil suits (Kim and Parlow 2009, 288). This article discusses how athletes are punished criminally but not civilly. This differs from what Tracy’s article says because it states that athletes face punishment only if they commit a criminal offense. This article declares that sports leagues do not care about civil lawsuits because suspending the players would cost them too much money (Kim and Parlow 2009, 594).

More recent studies by David Sirotkin examine commissioner’s outlook on players when they commit crimes and the criteria they use to punish them. The article discusses how commissioners of sports only look out for themselves and not the sports players, so when they get into trouble they try to give them as much punishment as possible so that their franchise is not put into any harm (Sirotkin 2009, 290). This article differs from the others simple because it maintains that athletes are punished too much by commissioners of sporting leagues rather than not enough (Sirotkin 2009, 310).

Athletes and Crime

Marcus Grant wrote a somewhat controversial article concerning athletes and crime. The article blatantly stated that college basketball teams and coaches are corrupt and cover up when athletes commit crimes (Grant 2012). This goes against what Tracy’s article says because it says that athletes are punished for on and off court misconduct even if they receive a light punishment. This article also differs from the rest of the articles because it gives the distinct impression that athletes commit crimes purposely because they know they will not get in trouble (Grant 2012).

Researchers have been studying athlete’s criminal behavior for over twenty years, but only recently did a study take a look at the crimes that have been committed by athletes. Kadence Otto wrote an article that gives statistics from the last 15 years of athletes committing crimes. It points out that the majority of time athletes are punished, but their sentences are reduced drastically or their punishment is dropped all together (Otto 2009, 69). This article is very different than other articles because it actually gives you facts about athletes who have been set free based on them get favorable treatment in the courtroom (Otto 2009, 78).

Another article that focuses on crime is an article by Adam Kurland. This article is very different than the rest because it depicts athletes as people who get longer prison sentences than regular people. In this article its main focus is Michael Vick and how he had to serve nearly two years for something a non-athlete would probably have received community service or at maximum a couple of months in jail (Kurland 2011, 473). This article contrasts with all the other articles mentioned because the other articles say that athletes get off on lower sentences based on their social status. This disagrees completely and even goes as far as to say that he was only sentenced for that length of time because of the state he was sentenced in (Kurland 2011, 500).

Dana Mastro, Erin Blecha, and Anita Seate seem to agree with Adam Kurland’s article concerning the state being the one of the factors regarding sentencing, but it takes it a step further by also including race (Mastro, Blecha, and Seate 2011, 530). The journal article believes that the media puts a large focus on minority athletes when they commit crimes and do not care when white athletes commit crimes and simply let them go under the radar (Mastro, Blecha, and Seate 2011, 535). This article was very helpful because it gives a different view on how professional athletes are punished; saying that it is not based on the crime committed but the race of the athlete.

Media has become a huge factor surrounding sports, but Jay Granat believes that the media has not brought anything but problems to the sports world (Granat 2012). Granat’s article differs from all of the articles because it says that athletes rarely commit crimes. Granat points out that there are approximately 3,600 athletes who participate in the major sports of baseball, basketball, hockey, and football, so there is no way that half of them commit crimes or there would be no teams (Granat 2012). This article in particular says that the media blows issues out of proportion causing people to believe athletes are criminals, when in fact there crimes are very uncommon (Granat 2012).

The problem with all the literature is that they do not all connect together. Some of articles believe that athletes are truly punished for crimes they commit, while other article think courts give athletes shorter sentences but they are not sure why that happens. In some of the literature it discusses how athletes seem to get by the legal system fairly easily, but research has never been done to prove that theory. In this research design I will be examining the issues regarding athletes getting shorter sentences because of their elitist status in society. The end result will demonstrate that athletes are treated favorable in criminal court cases not only because of their importance to their athletic teams, but their overall importance to wealthy and upper-class citizens.

Research Design

Based on a review of literature noted earlier in this proposal, one major hypothesis area will guide the analysis of data.  It is hypothesized that athletes that commit criminal offenses receive favorable treatment in court and receive shorter prison sentences or punishments than regular people who are non-athletes. In this proposal I will identify the independent and dependent variable. The independent variable is manipulated in a study by you, nature, society, etc. It can be any aspect of the environment that is investigated for the purpose of examining its influence on the dependent variable (Develop a Research Proposal-Planning the Methodology – Qualitative Variables 2012). A dependent variable is measured in a study. This variable is not manipulated by the researcher, but is affected by the independent variable (Develop a Research Proposal-Planning the Methodology – Qualitative Variables 2012).  In this research proposal the independent variable are the athletes as well as the non-athletes. The dependent variable is the amount of prison time or punishment the athletes and non-athletes receive.

The next part of my research design I will discuss is my operationalization. Operationalization is the process of strictly defining variables into measurable factors. The process defines fuzzy concepts and allows them to be measured, empirically and quantitatively (Operationalization 2012). Let me first operationalize the word crime. When determining the criteria for crimes committed by athletes I will be looking at murder, rape, aggravated assault (battery, arson and robberies (burglaries and theft). However, athletes will be characterized as people who participate in an interscholastic, intercollegiate, or intramural athletic activity being conducted by an educational institution, or a professional athletic activity and make at least $500,000 a year (Athletes Definition in the Medical Dictionary 2012). The specific ages will range anywhere from seventeen to forty-two years of age. The research will focus strictly on male athletes that have committed crimes. The standard that I will use to determine a short punishment or prison sentence is any criminal charge by athletes that were thrown out, received community service, parole, or any crime that received less than 5 years in prison. In the analysis a middle class American will be defined as someone who does not play any type of sport and makes under $125,000 a year (Middle class a matter of income, attitude 2012).

The research design method that would be best for this experiment is case studies. The advantage of a case study is looking at past history of athlete sentences. This method is usually preferred when examining contemporary events, but only when the relevant behaviors cannot be manipulated. Case studies like experiments are generalizable to theoretical propositions and not to populations or universes. The case studies will closely examine similar crimes committed by athletes as well as non-athletes. Case studies are very strong in internal validity because they will be able to directly link athlete’s criminal records with regular everyday people and compare their criminal sentences and punishments. The problem with the research design will be the external validity factor because based on the cased studies I will not be able to make any generalizations. I won’t know the criminal background history of the people I am studying so the length of prison time or punishment they received on the case study would become somewhat irrelevant.

I would find the majority of the data I need for my research on the internet searching under public records of athletes. I would use the athlete’s records to compare it with people who are not athletes who have committed similar crimes. Getting a hold of all the records might be a bit of a struggle for just one person, so I would use colleagues that are interested in this topic to help me make connections with people who have access to all the records. I would also use the connections I made to get people to help me go through my findings.

I would try to conduct the research at Northeastern University Sports in Society Center and investigate athletes easy prison sentences and punishments. During my time there I would work in the internship program. The program allows students and individuals from any academic discipline the ability to gain hands on experience researching athletes in regard to crime in professional and college sports. Sports in Society welcomes both undergraduate and graduate students, as well adults who have an interest in sport, social justice, education, and healthy development to apply for the internship program. The internships are unpaid, but they are structured to help individuals who want to further to develop their research questions. The internship requires that students work at least 30-35 hours per week. There are three application deadlines for this internship. People are able to apply in April 1 for the summer, July 1 for the fall, and November 1 for the spring.

A grant that could really help me with this research is the Janet B. Parks North American Society for Sports Management Research Grant. This grant is intended to advance scholarship in athletic research of any kind and its purpose is to provide support to people interested in sports management or entertainment law as they pursue projects of importance to their field. The deadline to submit the research proposal is April 1st and awards are presented on or about June 1st. The grant amount recipients receive ranges from $10,000 to $25,000.

A challenge I could face in conducting my research is choosing someone to advise me with my study. I would need an advisor with whom I can build a supportive professional relationship with. This is perhaps the most critical decision I will make because whoever I pick to help guide me, will be with me throughout the duration of my research. Some other challenges I could face in doing my research is my audience. Although I have found my audience, there is always that fear that they will not find my work intellectually stimulating enough to read. I may also have a problem in finding the records of athletes that have committed crimes and if I do need a large amount of money I may have a problem getting the funding. The biggest hurdle I would have to face with my research is deciding whether I should focus on case studies or conduct a bunch of surveys with different athletes. My colleagues can help aid me with my research by helping me gather all the statistical data and information and go through all the records.


The goal of my research is to prove that athletes have gotten away with their criminal offenses for far too long. After examining my sources I was not able to identify any athletes that received a prison sentence of at least five years. This study is very important because it can give prosecutors an advantage when they are trying to put athletes in jail. Prosecutors will now know that the odds are against them so they will have to work and prepare their case ten times harder than they would have to for a regular person. No studies have been done to prove that athletes receive favoritism in criminal cases, but many articles discuss the topic.  In my research I want to evaluate case studies to prove that athletes are receiving biased treatment in comparison to regular people. This research question is significant because it examines the lack of equality that takes place within the justice system. It doesn’t just impact athletes, but it affects many individuals who may have committed a crime. Since athletes are automatically placed into the upper class of society their sentences have been shortened. Essentially this research proposal is about equal treatment under the law, which is explicitly stated in the14th Amendment of the Constitution. The end result of the research should connect all of the following things together: wealth, class, elitism, and ideology.


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*Kim, Janine Young, and Matthew J. Parlow. “Off-Court Misbehavior: Sports Leagues and Private Punishment.” Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 99, no. 3 (2009): 573-597.

*Kurland, Adam. “The Prosecution of Michael Vick: Of Dogfighting, Depravity, Dual Sovereignty, and “A Clockwork Orange”.” Marquette Sports Law Review 21 (2011): 465-516.

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*Otto, Kadence. “Criminal Athletes: An Analysis of Charges, Reduced Charges and Sentences.” Journal of Legal Aspects of Sports 19 (2009): 67-87.

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*Sirotkin, David. “Disciplining the Disciplinary Systems in Professional Sports: An Attempt to Fix the Arbitrary and Overreaching Disciplinary Powers of Sports Commissioners.” Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution 11 (2009): 289-317.

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*Tracy, Amy. “Athletic Discipline for Non-Sport Player Misconduct: The Role of College Athletic Department and Professional League Discipline and the Legal System’s Penalties and Remedies.” Virginia Sports and Entertainment Law Journal 9 (2010): 254-262.

*Zajda, Daniel J. “A True Home Field Advantage: A Striking Coincidence in the Criminal Prosecutions of Professional Athletes for In-Game Violence.” Sports Lawyers Journal 18 (2011): 1-9.

*= peer reviewed

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