Report on Crime in College Football Exposes Brazen Double Standard in Sport

Michael JeeCorrespondent IMarch 14, 2011

Sports Illustrated and CBS News recently released a report on the criminal records of college football players.

An unprecedented six-month investigation by George Dohrmann, Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian uncovered damning evidence that appears to validate the suspect nature surrounding college football.

After monitoring media-reported crimes by student-athletes over eight months, the three reporters chose to exclusively focus on football because they discovered that football players dominated the majority of cases.

The report meticulously focused on the top 25 programs based on the 2010 preseason rankings and involved all 2,837 players, whose names, dates of birth and other vital information were checked at 31 courthouses and through 25 law enforcement agencies at 17 states.  One or more online databases used to track criminal records confirmed the report’s findings, resulting in 7,030 individual record checks.  

Consequently, the discovery proved embarrassing for college football, more specifically, the NCAA, universities and coaches regarding their oversight, purpose and credibility.

The investigative journalists disregarded minor crimes and largely exempted juvenile records because of privacy laws that made information unavailable.  They instead concentrated on serious offenses, including violent crimes such as assault and battery, domestic violence, aggravated assault, robbery and sex offenses.  Properties crimes included burglary, theft and larceny.

The report uncovered 277 incidents with 7 percent of the players, 204 in all or one of every 14, charged or cited for a crime, including more than 105 drug and alcohol-related offenses such as DUI, drug possession and the intent to distribute cocaine.

Dozens of players had multiple arrests, and the number could have potentially risen higher, but players originally listed on last year’s rosters but charged and expelled before Sept. 1 were not counted in the study sample.

Of the 25 universities, only one—Texas Christian University—did not have a player with a criminal record, but even TCU has seen cases of criminal behavior by its players.  As recently as 2007, a TCU player was arrested for domestic violence.  The year before, a player was accused of sexual assault.  More shockingly, a player was suspended from the school in 2002 shortly before being charged with the murder of his girlfriend’s 16-month-old daughter. Even now, the university will face trial in May after a former student filed a lawsuit accusing one football player and two basketball players of rape in the sexual assault case. 

Pittsburgh topped the list with an astonishing 22 of its players charged with a crime beginning last July.  The Panthers experienced a string of arrests prior to the season’s start, which forced the university to implement a screening process that had not existed. The new policy requires coaches to obtain more detailed background information on potential recruits.

Pittsburgh leads the dishonorable crimes list, but the school is far from alone in its neglect of screening prospective student-athletes.  In fact, only two—TCU and Oklahoma—performed any type of consistent criminal background check on recruits, and in TCU’s case, the school may not have such a process had it not dealt with a rash of disturbing incidents.

Still, neither TCU nor Oklahoma looks at juvenile records.  No university does despite football players, along with basketball players, serving as the institution’s most recognizable representatives whether they like it or not.

Even in Florida, a state that boasts an open public records law that anyone can utilize for $24 per individual record, schools chose not to obtain relevant information, a disconcerting reality considering the Sunshine State is a recruiting cradle.

What explains the widespread negligence?

For one, the NCAA has neither forcefully prodded universities to apply strict screening policies in their recruitment process nor has it publicly advocated for such reform.

NCAA president Mark Emmert’s unconvincing reaction to the report’s findings sums up the organization’s lackadaisical endorsement of more stringent background checks so far.

The NCAA currently has only enacted a broad set of guidelines regarding minimum academic requirements and scholarship limits, and it may not realistically possess the clout to address the problem of crime in football nationally.

However, it would appear the organization can and will flex its muscle, especially when externalities threaten its economic interests, primarily manifested in student-athletes.

The NCAA has repeatedly and consistently investigated players suspected of improper involvement with sports agents or the beneficiaries of any commercial incentive in various forms.  See Reggie Bush, Dez Bryant and Cam Newton for latest examples.

As recently as last Friday, North Carolina, whose football program was investigated by the NCAA for multiple violations, suspended repeat offender Charles Brown. The same week, Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel essentially received a slap on the wrist for a self-described “major violation” that he had known for for more than eight months while the NCAA has yet to levy any sort of punishment.

NCAA’s misguided behavior should translate into a more judicious effort of screening players; instead, it has accomplished the opposite while augmenting the attention on money.

The effect is shameful, for the power to actually minimize the recruitment of dubious student-athletes and preventing crime after admittance lies with each university’s president, athletic director and coach to a lesser degree.

Yet, the incentive for said personnel to practice more transparent recruitment simply does not exist.  Success on the gridiron translates into greater campus morale, better fundraising and a more positive school image, so university administrators purposefully opt for ignorance.

A disadvantageous cost-benefit relationship similarly encourages the coach to follow the president and athletic director’s footsteps.

As much as fans and the public like to believe coaches are in the business of building character and enabling the most promising future for student athletes, they are essentially looking to win—and as far as one can tell—at any cost.  After all, a winning coach commands admiration, recognition and a higher paycheck.

Good intentions do not make up for the possibility of losing their job. It's just not worth the risk of working within a more principled system. Many argue setting limitations, however noble, may actually result in competitors snatching up talented recruits with criminal backgrounds.  To remain competitive, coaches say they must remain flexible on who they recruit.

Truthfully, though, it appears this argument is given too much credence.  Take TCU, for example.  As aforementioned, TCU underwent a recruitment policy overhaul following several crimes by players and started performing more thorough background checks on potential recruits, which resulted in its status as the only university in the preseason top 25 without a player with a criminal background.  Traditional wisdom dictates that posing such a rigid standard would have limited TCU’s pool of prospective student-athletes and put the school at a competitive disadvantage.

Contrarily, TCU won the Rose Bowl, debunking the theory and strengthening the case that even a program outside of the traditionally powerhouse conferences can succeed without resorting to usual recruiting tactics.

Furthermore, most coaches dislike the idea of denying opportunities based on a hardline policy.  Changing lives and providing a path to redemptive success remains an integral reason of a coach’s mindset because just as cases of troubled recruits continuing to disappoint exist, the opposite occurs, as well.  These stories may not be reported as much due to their rarity and less controversial nature.

For the most part, coaches echo a moral sentiment, for an education equates the desire to learn—from mistakes or otherwise.  At issue is the fact that the people responsible for recruiting have often turned a blind eye towards crime in recruitment in the name of second chances and for the sake of all the benefits that come with winning.

The NCAA, university administrators and coaches should change the current culture so that the process truly provides both the academic and athletic opportunities to the most promising and honest individuals.  Without a serious effort at reform starting at the administrative level, the pervasive problem of college football programs stacking teams with players who have run afoul with the law will continue to plague the sport.

Until then, college football players will remain both perpetrator and victim to a hypocritical system where the term student-athlete ceases to exist as nothing more than a hyphenated moniker with no real meaning.