Student Well-Being

Should Background Checks Be Mandatory for All Prospective College Athletes?

By Bryan Toporek — March 02, 2011 4 min read
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In light of a new Sports Illustrated/CBS News investigation into the criminal backgrounds of high-profile college football players, student-athletes hoping to play at the college level may soon be facing background checks in their recruiting future.

The report, released today, lays out the results of a criminal background check SI/CBS News ran on all 2,837 players on the preseason rosters of the teams in Sports Illustrated‘s 2010 preseason Top 25. The findings were chilling: Seven percent of the players in the preseason Top 25, a total of 204 student-athletes, had been charged with or cited for a crime, and dozens of players had multiple arrests on their records. The report didn’t specify whether the crimes occurred before the recruits arrived on their college campuses.

"[It is] a set of facts that obviously should concern all of us,” new NCAA President Mark Emmert told SI/CBS News after learning of the report’s findings. “Seven percent, that’s way too high. I think 2 percent is too high. You certainly don’t want a large number of people with criminal backgrounds involved in activities that represent the NCAA.”

More chilling: Virtually all the coaches interviewed by SI/CBS News had no idea. According to the report, only two of the 25 schools in the investigation—TCU and Oklahoma—run any type of criminal background checks on recruits. Yet neither TCU nor Oklahoma looks into a recruit’s juvenile record—not a single school in the Top 25 does. In those schools’ defense, neither SI or CBS News had access to juvenile arrest records of approximately 80 percent of the players in the study sample, as most states don’t allow juvenile records to be a public record.

As the report points out, some states, such as Florida, make background checks almost painfully easy, with a person’s complete criminal history, including juvenile arrests, available through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for a total of $24. That said, not a single state contacted by SI/CBS News utilized this service. SI/CBS News did, though: They checked all 318 Florida-based players in their investigation and found that 31 players (9.5 percent) had a criminal record.

The study did not provide data about what percentage of total incoming college freshmen had criminal records.

SI/CBS News asked a number of college coaches why they didn’t run background checks on recruits, and according to the report, most echoed the words of Ohio State coach Jim Tressel. “We don’t really go into anything outside of the school system,” said Tressel. “Hopefully, through the school system we can find out just what we need.”

The problem with that logic is, as the report addresses, high school coaches are often their student-athletes’ most valuable advocates—would they really bring up an arrest record if they’re trying to land their kids a scholarship? That’s not even to mention certain privacy laws that could tie the high school coaches’ hands in terms of sharing details about a student’s criminal past.

The report concludes:

The issue isn't that colleges should never accept a kid who has made a mistake; part of education is second chances. But too many football programs, out of a desire to win more games, either overlook a player's past or don't bother looking into it at all. That's a flaw in the system that has to change.

Richard Lapchick, founder of the Center for Sport in Society and president and CEO of the National Consortium for Academics and Sports at the University of Central Florida, was quoted in the report as saying: “I think it’s almost incumbent on all those universities who play at this level to do criminal background checks on the people they’re recruiting. Not only for the nature of the football program itself, but for public safety on campus.”

While Lapchick isn’t clear on whether the NCAA has the authority to require schools to conduct criminal background checks on recruits, he believes Emmert should “use this as a kind of bully pulpit” to ask schools around the nation to run background checks on an individual school basis.

Whether or not the NCAA has the authority to mandate background checks for every college athlete (something that’s unlikely to happen in this economic era), one thing is true: These college athletes are receiving scholarships worth thousands upon thousands of dollars. Is it unreasonable to expect said students to keep their noses clean, even before they move onto college?

Now, it’s worth noting that this study didn’t investigate every Division I college in the U.S., and only looked at one specific sport (football). Whether a similar pattern of criminal activity would hold for college athletes in other sports is anyone’s guess at this point.

But, as Emmert said, the NCAA can’t be thrilled that 7 percent of its most high-profile college football players have criminal backgrounds—heck, Emmert said 2 percent is still too high.

So, what’s the solution? Short of Congress passing a law mandating that high schools and high school coaches divulge all students’ criminal records to their prospective colleges, there likely won’t be a quick fix to this problem. (And something tells me Congress has something a bit more important to focus on currently.)

Certainly, no college will jump at the thought of dropping thousands of dollars on background checks of prospective athletes, either. And quite honestly, there’s no feasible way to run a background check on every student interested in every sport at a given college.

However, why not make a background check the final step in the recruiting process? Before offering a prospective athlete an official Letter of Intent, why not see if they’ve ever been accused or convicted of a crime?

It’s not a perfect solution by any means. But, much like the federal budget, this issue needs as much of a short-term fix as it does a permanent solution.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.