The young man you've never met has just returned your call with unexpected promptness. Collect, from prison. Quick, what do you say? The best you can do is to blurt out, "So, Marcel, tell me: Is jail as bad as they make it seem in the movies?"
Marcel Brown takes his time answering. These days he has nothing but time. "Yeah, it is, sir," he says. "A little worse, maybe. Everyone here's a gang member."
"Here" is the Los Angeles County jail, where Brown, unable to make bail of $100,000, has been incarcerated since late April. Next week Brown is scheduled to appear in superior court on robbery and kidnapping charges.
"The other inmates want to know what gang I'm with," Brown continues. "But when I tell them I'm not a gang member, they think I'm on the other side. I can't win. I already got jumped a couple times."
Before he was issued his orange prison uniform, Brown's colors were the cardinal and gold of the University of Southern California. On April 23, three days after USC's final spring football scrimmage, in which Brown, 20, a redshirt freshman, played as a reserve cornerback, he was arrested at a bank in Torrance as he was allegedly trying to use a stolen bank card. Apprehended with Brown was his teammate Howard McCowan, 19, a redshirt freshman defensive back for the Trojans, and a third man, Garlyn Coleman, 19, a friend of Brown's from San Diego. The trio was also charged with committing another robbery earlier that evening, which led to additional charges of kidnapping. The kidnapping occurred when one of the robbery victims was allegedly forced into a car and driven around for a brief time while the suspects allegedly extracted from him his bank ATM number. After Brown's arrest, it was discovered that both he and Coleman were out on bail after having been charged with a robbery committed on March 2 in San Diego.
Trojan coach Larry Smith suspended Brown and McCowan indefinitely. "You can't condone felony crimes in your program," he says. "Those guys are gone."
Lately, Smith has come to appreciate the difference between felonies—what Brown and McCowan are charged with—and misdemeanors. In January starting quarterback Todd Marinovich, 21, was arrested and charged with possession of less than a half gram of cocaine—a misdemeanor. Marinovich, who was subsequently drafted by the Los Angeles Raiders, agreed to undergo drug counseling for one year, at the conclusion of which the charge against him will be dismissed.
Southern Cal players aren't the only ones who have recently been read the Miranda warnings. Since January, arrests of college football players have included five from Missouri, four from Georgia Tech, three from Syracuse and two from Purdue. Space considerations make it impossible to provide a complete list of the schools with a single player arrested.
While neither the NCAA nor any other official body compiles hard statistics on the number of college athletes who find themselves on the wrong side of the criminal justice system, coaches agree that off-duty football players are getting busted in record numbers. Here, in part, is why:
•From January to July, football players have a lot of free time. "During the season we keep them nailed down pretty good," says Pitt coach Paul Hackett. With mandatory breakfast, classes, lunch, meetings, practice, weight training, more meetings, dinner and study hall, says Hackett, "they barely have time to breathe." During the season, for instance, the Panthers' starting nosetackle, Derrick Hicks, 21, reserve linebacker Terrance Wheatley, 20, and reserve cornerback Ken Abrams, 20, would probably not have had the time or the energy to use a teammate's credit card, as they did on April 9 at an off-campus restaurant. Although restitution was made to the credit card company and neither the teammate nor the card issuer pressed charges, the three players were dismissed from the team.
Not surprisingly, Hackett is troubled by the recently passed NCAA regulation that limits athletes' practice time to a maximum 20 hours per week during the season. "This is going to leave a huge void," says Hackett, ominously. His implication—that the limit is bad because athletes will have more time on their hands—is, of course, preposterous. If athletes in their late teens and early 20's need constant supervision to keep their names off police blotters, they belong in day-care centers, not universities.
•Coaches and players agree that plenty of barroom brawls involving jocks go unreported. Yet they also agree that police are less willing than in the past to let combatants off with a warning. Says Missouri coach Bob Stull, "Fifteen years ago, when a player got in trouble, the police would call the coach, and the coach and the player would get it straightened out privately. Nowadays, if a kid is charged with a misdemeanor, his parents have read about it before we even hear about it."
On May 23, Georgia Tech linebackers Rich Strohmeier, 19, and Bill Neuss, 19, were in a brawl at the Wreck Room, a bar near the school's campus in Atlanta. Strohmeier was in on the fight from the beginning; Neuss, who was outside the bar when the fracas started, joined in when he saw Strohmeier getting the worst of it. Though no one was seriously hurt, both players were convicted on two counts of disorderly conduct, and each was fined $400. Strohmeier was thrown off the team, and Neuss was placed on probation by the athletic department. "[Strohmeier] had gotten in a lot of fights, and a few weeks before he was arrested, he'd punched one of the guys on the team," says one Tech player. "There were a lot of guys who wanted him off."
•Under pressure to win, more coaches are more willing to recruit athletes of suspect character. No coach in history has admitted to this practice. USC's Smith denies it adamantly. Each recruit is subjected to an exhaustive review, he says. "We ask their high school coaches, teachers and administrators what kind of citizens the recruits are. If a kid is a great talent but a bad actor, we won't recruit him."
After two of Stull's running backs—freshman Michael Washington, 19, and redshirt freshman Mark Jackson, 20—were arrested on May 31 and charged with two counts of burglary, Stull expressed "surprise" that his players "could even be involved in a situation like this, based on the character evaluations we conducted during the recruiting process." Stull should not have been surprised; for Jackson, this latest brush with the authorities in Columbia, the site of the Mizzou campus, was his second in less than two months. In April, Jackson had been charged with two counts of assault, to which he pleaded guilty last month and for which he was fined $400. Jackson and Washington will be in court on July 9 for preliminary hearings in the burglary case.
•Players are increasingly disinclined to abide by the commandment that prohibits coveting thy neighbor's goods. On May 24, a few hours after Strohmeier and Neuss were booked, Georgia Tech sophomore tailback William Bell, 19, and redshirt freshman fullback James Reese, 19, were apprehended by campus police soon after the two players had left the Engineer's Bookstore. There they attempted to sell used books allegedly stolen from other Tech students. Bell and Reese were booked on a misdemeanor theft charge and released without bail; no date has been set for their trial. Bell, the Yellow Jackets' leading rusher last season (and SI's cover subject the week after Tech's big win over Virginia), and Reese had attempted to sell a total of nine books, each worth between $40 and $70, according to Georgia Tech campus chief of police Jack Vickery. Now they have arrest records and will lose at least a season of eligibility (though they remain on scholarship), all for the chance to score $250. In risking college—and perhaps pro—careers for chump change, Reese and Bell have had plenty of company in 1991:
•On Jan. 30, Akron linebacker John Clark, 23, a solid NFL prospect, was charged with two counts of aggravated trafficking of cocaine. After Akron police found that the powdery white substance Clark sold to undercover officers was actually crushed Tylenol in one sale and Exceed, a sports drink mix, in a second, the charge was reduced to two counts of trafficking in counterfeit drugs. Clark was given 30 days in jail, a one-year suspended prison sentence and two years probation, and was fined $3,000. He was dismissed from school and is negotiating with a Canadian Football League team.
One Akron school official who knows Clark describes him as a physical fitness fiend who would "work out all day, every day, if he could." The official says Clark's misbegotten stab at entrepreneurship "had to be all about money."
•On March 23, two days after the end of spring practice at UTEP, Michael Carr, 22, was arrested in Beaumont, Texas, after police allegedly found an undisclosed quantity of cocaine in a car he was driving. Carr, a transfer from Clemson who had won the backup quarterback job with the Miners, was indicted on a felony charge of possession of a controlled substance and will go to trial on Sept. 18. He was suspended from the UTEP team by coach David Lee. "He had all of his needs taken care of here," says assistant coach Roy Culberson. "Why would he throw it away? I wish I knew."
•On April 24, Florida State defensive back Corey Sawyer, 19, a redshirt freshman, was arrested in Tallahassee after allegedly trying to buy $200 worth of sportswear with a Visa card that had been reported stolen on campus. Sawyer was charged with three felony counts and is to appear for a "case management" conference next week. The Seminoles have taken no action regarding Sawyer, pending the resolution of his case.
•On April 25, Asaf Harris, 18, and Mike Martin, 19, freshman receivers at Purdue, were arrested at an Indianapolis shopping mall after allegedly charging more than $900 of merchandise to a stolen Discover card. The players were charged with two counts of forgery, three counts of theft/receiving stolen property and one count of fraud. Both players were indefinitely suspended from the team by new coach Jim Colletto. Their trial is set for July 17.
•On June 12, Pat Parr, 23, a starting noseguard last season for Division I-AA champion Georgia Southern, was arrested in Statesboro by undercover agents of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Parr was charged with selling one gram of cocaine, released on $5,000 bail and will soon come before a grand jury. The son of a West Point, Ga., insurance agent, Parr has yet to enter a plea.
No matter what a player's background, cash is the common denominator in most of these crimes. College athletes have everything—tuition, room, books, food, status, turf shoes, those eye-catching, form-fitting gray shorts—but currency. For many players, the monthly scholarship food allowance, which varies widely from school to school and is, for example, $250 at Southern Cal, is the only spending cash they have. The NCAA discourages athletes from seeking gainful employment during the school year—for fear that alumni and boosters will dole out large sums for no-show jobs—by mandating that any money they earn be deducted from their scholarships. In the summer many athletes have to attend school to maintain their eligibility and lighten their course loads for the upcoming autumn. They can either hold down a part-time job or follow to the letter the arduous training program devised by the strength coach.
Next to the ostentatious displays of affluence on campus—the $2,000 stereo systems, the fleet of BMWs in the parking lot—athletes see their own meager means in sharp relief. Brown sought to close the gap. He wasn't the first guy to try. Now he returns calls from jail.
"There's a lot of rich kids at USC," says Brown. "A lot of rich kids. And that $250 has to pay your phone bill and your water bill. It's not like you have any spending money. And if you want to get the girls, you've got to take them out."
Smith isn't buying. "So they have no choice but to steal?" asks the coach. "We've got a lot of kids strapped for cash that don't break the law."
The number who do, however, is growing. At the American Football Coaches Association meeting in Dallas last month, the rising tide of player arrests was a popular topic, says Smith. "I've had more incidents in the past year than I had in 10 or 12 years at other schools," he says.
And the summer is still young.