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Lessons to be learned from the SI/CBS News investigation

Today Sports Illustrated and CBS News unveiled the results of an unprecedented investigation into the backgrounds of college football players. More than a dozen reporters, writers, researchers, editors and producers worked on the project.

Over a six-month period we conducted criminal background checks on all 2,837 players whose names appeared on the rosters of SI's 2010 preseason Top 25 poll on Sept. 1. We turned up 204 players (7%) who had been charged with 277 incidents or crimes. Nearly 40 percent involved serious crime.

A project of this scope has never been undertaken. First, vital information was gathered on every player (date of birth, race, sex, hometown, etc.), a tedious process that entailed using everything from team media guides to players' individual Facebook pages and everything in between. Second, this information was furnished to clerks of courts, record keepers at police departments, prosecutors' offices and state criminal record repositories.

Every player was checked in at least one jurisdiction and many were checked in several. In all, 7,030 individual record checks were performed at 31 state and local courts and 25 police departments and prosecutors' offices. Players were also checked through 16 court databases. At the same time, 318 players from Florida were run through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement database and a private investigator was used to check players in California.

The record checks were buttressed by more than 150 interviews with law enforcement agents, court officials, criminal defense attorneys, criminally accused players, victims, witnesses, high school and college coaches, school administrators and NCAA officials.

The numbers are an important place to start any conversation about the situation. But the most striking revelations from this investigation are not statistical. The guts of the story are what college coaches know and don't know about the players they are recruiting.

We polled all 25 schools in our sample and found that only two (TCU and Oklahoma) perform any kind of regular formal criminal background checks on recruits. But even those two schools don't look at juvenile records. Yet virtually every football recruit is a juvenile when schools make contact with him. And many are still considered juveniles when they sign a letter of intent. So looking at the adult criminal history of an 18- or 19-year old will not often yield much.

In most states, juvenile records are not a public record. Florida, however, permits anybody to run a complete criminal history check on an individual for $24. Those searches include juvenile records.

But the simplest way for a coach to learn a recruit's juvenile history is to ask him for it. That doesn't seem unreasonable before handing over a four-year scholarship worth well over $100,000.

The second big revelation to emerge is that college coaches have been operating in the dark when it comes to players' criminal histories. In our interviews, most coaches said they don't look at criminal records, choosing instead to rely almost entirely on high school coaches for character references relating to off-the-field problems. This is not sufficient. One of the cases we looked at most closely involves University of Utah recruit Viliseni Fauonuku, an all-state lineman at Bingham High in West Jordan, Utah. Last year, Fauonuku was charged with felony robbery after holding up two young men at gunpoint. Bingham coach Dave Peck was unfamiliar with the details of the incident until we provided him with a copy of an arrest affidavit that spelled out the crime.I mention this not to fault Peck. As you would expect, his interest is in looking out for the best interest of his players and doing all he can to help them develop and succeed both on and off the field. The point here is that college recruiters need a more comprehensive approach when it comes to doing character checks.

I've been looking at athletes and crime since 1994 when I was the research director at Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. That year we published a landmark national study on college athletes and violence against women. With access to confidential judicial affairs records from Division I schools with top football and basketball programs, we found that male college athletes comprise three percent of the male student population, yet were responsible for 19 percent of the sexual assaults reported to campus authorities. Football and basketball players figured prominently in that study, accounting for 67 percent of the reported incidents involving student-athletes.

I followed up that report with a study that looked at arrest and conviction rates for college and pro athletes accused of sex crimes. Then I went on to write four books on athletes and crime, including Pros and Cons and Out of Bounds, which examined the criminal backgrounds of players in the NFL and NBA, respectively. Each of these projects contributed to a series of reforms that have taken place in college and pro sports over the past 15 years when it comes to off-the-field behavior.

The new information that has come to light from the SI/CBS News investigation gives the NCAA and individual colleges the impetus to make some positive changes to recruiting practices. Simply drawing a line in the sand and banning players with an arrest history is not the answer. A more nuanced approach is needed. Here are a couple of broad suggestions to consider:

• Require all recruits to sign a waiver authorizing schools to have access to their juvenile criminal history. Many colleges already require applicants to sign a form that states they have never been convicted of a felony. Certainly it's not too much to ask those being awarded a scholarship to disclose any juvenile arrests, particularly those involving violence, weapons or drugs.

• The NCAA should push for an across-the-board adoption of such a policy, averting the possibility that those schools who take this approach aren't disadvantaged by those who avoid it.

• The screening process for recruits should be expanded beyond coaches. When a criminal history is discovered on a recruit, that information should be shared with at least one other individual -- preferably someone outside the athletic department -- for review. Schools make a big investment in football recruits and should be part of the decision-making process when a player's prior history poses a risk.

Obviously, there are a variety of ways to improve the system. But the bottom line is that it's time to fix a major flaw. Perhaps the most stunning discovery of the SI/CBS News investigation is that two of the best teams in the country this past season largely avoided trouble. TCU finished undefeated and we found zero players on its roster with criminal histories. Similarly, Stanford won the Orange Bowl and had just one player who had been arrested for a very minor offense that was later dismissed. This makes a powerful point: Teams can win at the highest level while being very particular about who they put in uniform.

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