Few football programs had a more difficult season in 2010 than the University of Pittsburgh. Led by running back Dion Lewis, a Doak Walker candidate, the Panthers were the preseason pick to win the Big East and go to a BCS bowl. But things quickly began unraveling -- on and off the field.
In a span between mid-July and late September, four players were arrested for four separate, violent crimes.
First, senior defensive end Jabaal Sheard was charged with aggravated assault and resisting arrest after allegedly throwing a man through the glass door of an art gallery. Authorities told SI that even after an officer arrived on the scene, Sheard continued to punch the victim in the face as he lay on his back, bleeding. Sheard was suspended from the team. But after pleading guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct on Aug. 4, 2010, he was reinstated for the 2010 season.
In an interview last month, former Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, who resigned after his team finished a disappointing 8-5, defended Sheard, saying he was just trying to come to the aid of another player and break up a fight.
On Sept. 12, redshirt freshman running back Jason Douglas was charged with aggravated assault by vehicle while driving under the influence. According to court records, Douglas hit a male pedestrian, whom police found lying in the street, bleeding from open wounds to his head and throat. As Douglas was handcuffed he said: "Hey I play for Pitt football ... please don't arrest me." He was suspended from the team and has pleaded not guilty.
On Sept. 18, sophomore offensive lineman Keith Coleman was charged with aggravated assault and harassment. Police records indicate that in an incident on the street near the Pitt campus he beat up one man and body slammed another who attempted to intervene. One of the victims was treated for a broken shoulder. Coleman was suspended indefinitely. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges and is awaiting trial.
Finally on Sept. 22, police responded to a 911 call reporting that a man was choking a woman at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. Officers found Donna Turner bent over on a porch, crying and vomiting. She identified her attacker as Jeffrey Knox, a freshman defensive back at Pitt.
"Knox ... open handed slapped Turner in the head with such force that she was thrown to the ground," the police report states. "Knox then jumped on her, grabbed her by the throat, picked her up by her throat and slammed her head into the wall. He held her against the wall, continuing to choke her."
When two female witnesses tried pulling Knox off Turner, he allegedly threw punches at them and knocked them down. He then left the scene before authorities arrived. A day later, Knox was dismissed from the team after being charged with assault and reckless endangerment.
"The charges are garbage," Knox's attorney, Martin Scoratow, told SI. "They don't reflect the incident. There was something between the two of them. But it was like a teenage spat."
When asked about Knox, Wannstedt said, "He did things he never should have done and was dismissed from the team."
Knox will be formally arraigned on March 3 and could stand trial later in the spring.
Before this rash of arrests, Pitt had no procedure for screening football recruits for past trouble with the law. But after Knox's arrest Pitt's athletic department implemented a new policy requiring coaches to seek more detailed background information on potential recruits.
"This evaluation is not a legal criminal background check," the school said in a statement. "Rather, it is a checklist of questions that attempts to gain greater knowledge of the behavior and citizenship of an individual prospect from a variety of people."
It's a good first step, but doesn't go far enough. An unprecedented six-month investigation by Sports Illustrated and CBS News found that Pittsburgh had more players in trouble with the law (22) than any other school among SI's 2010 preseason Top 25. The joint investigation involved conducting criminal background checks on every player -- 2,837 in all -- on the preseason rosters of those 25 teams. Players' names, dates of birth and other vital information were checked at 31 courthouses and through 25 law enforcement agencies in 17 states. Players were also checked through one or more online databases that track criminal records. In all, 7,030 individual record checks were performed.
Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg and athletic director Steve Pederson declined requests for comment, but the school issued another statement, which said, "We have publicly acknowledged the unacceptable number of off-the-field incidents involving members of our football program during the past season. We have addressed these with the appropriate sanctions and spoke out against such behavior."
Pitt was far from the only school with players who had criminal records. The results of the investigation include some striking revelations. Among them:
• Seven percent of the players in the preseason Top 25 -- 204 in all (1 of every 14) -- had been charged with or cited for a crime, including dozens of players with multiple arrests.
• Of the 277 incidents uncovered, nearly 40 percent involved serious offenses, including 56 violent crimes such as assault and battery (25 cases), domestic violence (6), aggravated assault (4), robbery (4) and sex offenses (3). In addition there were 41 charges for property crimes, including burglary and theft and larceny.
• There were more than 105 drug and alcohol offenses, including DUI, drug possession and intent to distribute cocaine.
• Race was not a major factor. In the overall sample, 48 percent of the players were black and 44.5 percent were white. Sixty percent of the players with a criminal history were black and 38 percent were white.
• In cases in which the outcome was known, players were guilty or paid some penalty in nearly 60 percent of the 277 total incidents.
Players who would have been on last year's rosters but had been charged and expelled from their teams before Sept. 1 -- and there were dozens -- were not counted in our sample. Nor did SI and CBS News have access to juvenile arrest records for roughly 80 percent of the players in the study.
"[It is] a set of facts that obviously should concern all of us," said new NCAA president Mark Emmert, when presented with these findings. "Seven percent, that's way too high. I think two percent is too high. You certainly don't want a large number of people with criminal backgrounds involved in activities that represent the NCAA."
Added 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: "This sounds an alarm bell that some new policies are going to have to be developed on individual campuses or at the national level to take a closer look at who we're recruiting to our campuses. 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."
The number of players with criminal histories turned up by the SI/CBS News investigation reinforces a pervasive assumption that college coaches are willing to recruit players with questionable pasts to win. More surprising, however, is just how little digging college coaches do into players' backgrounds before offering them a scholarship.
Among the 25 schools in the investigation, only two -- TCU and Oklahoma -- perform any type of regular criminal background searches on recruits. But even TCU and Oklahoma don't look at juvenile records. No school does, even though football and basketball players are among the most high-profile representatives of a university. (Of the 25 schools, only Virginia Tech did any type of background checks on admitted students, and admissions questionnaires at more than half the other universities ask applicants if they have ever been arrested.)
Yet it wouldn't take much for schools to access this information. Take Florida, for example. The Sunshine State is not only one of the nation's largest football hotbeds, it also has the nation's most open public records law. Through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, anyone can check a person's complete criminal history -- including many juvenile arrests -- for $24.
Using this service, SI and CBS News checked all 318 Florida-based players in our sample. Thirty-one players (9.5%) had a criminal record. Twenty-two of those players had a juvenile record. Their juvenile offenses included felonies such as armed robbery, assault, domestic violence and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.
Despite the easy access to this information, not a single school contacted by SI uses the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to check the criminal backgrounds of the players recruited from the state of Florida -- not even Florida, Florida State and Miami.
By failing to take this simple step, schools may miss players who may be high risk. One example is Antwan Darling, a Miami native and now a freshman linebacker at Cincinnati.
On March 22, 2010, Darling was arrested for burglarizing a residence in Miami. That day, 17-year-old Kimberly Lewis was home alone from school sick when she heard two men prowling around the outside of her house, locked herself in a room and called 911:
"He's at the back door ... he's trying to get in!"
The dispatcher tried to keep Lewis calm.
"They're in the house!" said Lewis. "I hear them in the kitchen."
Miami police responded quickly and Darling was arrested at gunpoint and charged with felony burglary of an occupied dwelling. He subsequently entered a pretrial intervention program and the charge was dropped, clearing the way for him to accept a scholarship to Cincinnati.
But the burglary wasn't Darling's first run-in with the law. In 2006 he was charged with a felony count of firing a weapon in Dade County (which was disposed in juvenile court) and in 2008 he pleaded no contest to possession of marijuana after being arrested by police in Orlando.
When SI contacted Cincinnati for comment on Darling, a football spokesman said he was unaware of the player's arrest in the burglary case. Bearcats coach Butch Jones declined to comment specifically on Darling but said in a statement: "When recruiting a prospective student-athlete, we do our due diligence in exhausting all avenues looking into an individual's background."
Coaches contacted by SI/CBS News provided numerous reasons for not digging deeper. Some didn't know juvenile records were available in certain jurisdictions. Others said they trusted their ability to get to the bottom of a recruit's past without resorting to a records check. But most said they rely heavily on intelligence provided by players' high school coaches.
"We don't really go into anything outside of the school system," said Ohio State coach Jim Tressel. "Hopefully, through the school system we can find out just what we need."
It's an approach that makes sense on one level. After all, high school coaches often know more about their players than anyone. "I can tell you anything you want to know about my kids," said Bill McGregor, the coach at DeMatha Catholic in Maryland, which has had 10 or more players sign Division I football scholarships for 22 of the past 23 years. "We are zero tolerance on drug-related stuff or theft."
But there's a conflict when it comes to high school coaches passing this information along to recruiters. First, there are privacy laws that restrict what coaches can say about minors. Second, and more important, is that high school coaches are the biggest advocates for their players, making it difficult to share unflattering details that may derail a kid's chances of landing a coveted scholarship.
Consider the case of Viliseni Fauonuku, a 6-foot, 290-pound defensive lineman from Bingham High in West Jordan, Utah, and a University of Utah recruit. On March 31, 2010, Fauonuku carried a concealed weapon in his waistband when he and his 20-year-old cousin Sam Langi entered a detached garage, where a loose collection of five neighborhood teens and young adults were hanging out.
After a few minutes, according to police records Fauonuku's cousin inquired about buying some marijuana. That was a prearranged signal, Fauonuku later told police, for him to act. He pulled out what witnesses said looked like a 9-millimeter gun and pointed it directly at two 19-year-olds.
"I was shaking," one of the witnesses inside the garage told SI and CBS News. "All my friends were, too."
The boys complied while Fauonuku's cousin scooped up the marijuana and a wallet.
Before turning to leave, Fauonuku allegedly issued a chilling threat. "If I hear this on the news," one of the witnesses recalled him saying, "I'm going to come back and kill you."
In an interview conducted at his home in December, Fauonuku denied making the death threat, but admitted to brandishing a gun (he claimed it was a pellet gun) and committing a robbery.
"I was just like, 'All right, if we're gonna take the weed, then we're gonna take everything,'" he said. "I could tell they were really scared."
Police later arrested Fauonuku and his cousin, both of whom were arraigned in adult court on aggravated robbery charges. (Langi, who served 120 days in jail for the crime, could not be reached for comment.) But Fauonuku's case was transferred to juvenile court. It was a move that saved Fauonuku's football future.
The University of Utah has a policy against giving scholarships to felons. Although Fauonuku admitted to felony robbery in a juvenile proceeding on Nov. 4, 2010, the courts classify the incident as a "delinquent act," not a felony. That loophole paved the way last month for Fauonuku to sign a letter of intent to play football at Utah next fall.
Bingham coach Dave Peck didn't know the details of the crime, but was privy to tragic personal circumstances in Fauonuku's background. Initially Peck opted not to suspend him. Then midway way through the season he held Fauonuku out of two games after a local newspaper story mentioned that he'd been arrested. But the suspension, according to Fauonuku, was for violating the team's no-alcohol policy. "I knew there was an incident," Peck said. "I honestly didn't know a whole lot that happened at that point."
During the interview with SI and CBS News, Peck was handed a copy of the police report, detailing the robbery incident, which included the fact that Fauonuku pulled a gun on the victims. "I never heard anything like that," Peck said, after reading it.
Cincinnati wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins has had many chances. A Miami resident, Thompkins grew up in Liberty City, a neighborhood considered one of Miami's most violent. Between age 15 and 18, Thompkins was arrested seven times for felonies ranging from battery to robbery, but most of his arrests were drug-related (some of the charges were later dropped). Thompkins was able to turn his life around after spending two trouble-free seasons at a junior college in California. Last year he signed with Cincinnati, where he redshirted this past season while earning a 3.9 GPA in his first academic term.
"He has come a long way in a short time," Bearcats coach Butch Jones told SI last year.
Thompkins could end up being a success story, an example of a high-stakes risk that paid off. That's why most college coaches are strongly opposed to a hard and fast policy that denies players an opportunity to earn a scholarship if they have a criminal record.
Former BYU coach LaVell Edwards worked with one of the strictest honor codes in the country during his 28 years in Provo. Still, he maintains that coaches must be free to accept troubled players on a case-by-case basis.
"My natural feeling is I really like to give a guy a break," said Edwards. "In my own mind I never draw a line. It has to be flexible. I don't like hard and fast rules."
Taking that same view, Wisconsin's Bret Bielema signed linebacker Kevin Claxton even though Claxton had been convicted in conjunction with a home burglary in November 2007. When he was 18, Claxton drove the getaway car after a small group of teenagers broke into a home near Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. He was a prized recruit at Boyd Anderson High at the time of his arrest, but his dream of playing in college seemed dashed after he was charged with felony burglary.
While Claxton was out on bail, his lawyer told the court that Claxton wouldn't receive a scholarship to Wisconsin should he be convicted of a felony. After spending weekends and spring break of his senior year in jail, Claxton was treated as a youthful offender and the charges were withheld from his record pending the completion of five years of probation, enabling him to keep his scholarship.
"We came to believe that this was one of those cases where an otherwise good kid made a mistake," Bielema says. "Since he's been here he has maintained the [grade-point average] that the court required and has done everything we have asked of him. He's been a great kid."
It's unclear how much Utah knew about Fauonuku's crime when the Utes recruited him and ultimately gave him a scholarship. But the fact is if Utah didn't take him some other school would.
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.
Emmert, the new NCAA president, has said that he's prepared to take up the issue. "Whether it's among student-athletes or the student body more generally, violent crime is something that we all need to address -- very seriously," Emmert said. "And if it involves student-athletes, then that's something that I as NCAA president want to work hard on."
It's unclear where this is headed, and reformers like Lapchick aren't sure the NCAA has the power to require athletic programs to conduct criminal background checks on recruits. But Lapchick and others are certain that the NCAA must act. Says Lapchick: "The new NCAA president could use this as a kind of bully pulpit to talk to the presidents of the universities around the country to ask them to do this on an individual school basis."
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