So Sports Illustrated has done a comprehensive investigation of the college football recruiting process and determined that lots of players have less-than-exemplary criminal backgrounds, but also that major programs (with one exception) do not do background checks on their recruits. I don’t know about you, but I’m personally shocked that football players at major programs – players who tend to come from underperforming high schools in impoverished areas (Georgia isn’t building an SEC Champion with players from Westminster, Pace, and Woodward) – are more likely to have a criminal background than normal college students. I’m doubly shocked that players who play an inherently violent game and receive local adulation for playing this game at a very high level will end up thinking that the rules don’t apply to them and therefore commit crimes. Nothing in the SI piece is surprising, right down to the admission from one assistant coach that he doesn’t want to know the criminal background of the players because his program would “lose some talented players.” SI is out in front of the hype machine that creates great rewards for winning programs, but now they’re shocked, shocked that those incentives cause coaches to look the other way when recruiting players. In the words of some guy from northern Minnesota, pay for your ticket and don't complain.
That said, I’m not as negative on SI’s endeavor as Spencer Hall for a couple reasons. First, it’s good to see a major media outlet doing actual research. Here’s the description of what SI did in its investigation:
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.
I’ll take that level of effort over acting as the NFL's PR firm any day of the week and twice on Sunday. I agree with Spencer that SI was not as rigorous as they should have been in terms of the statistical analysis. SI didn’t properly contextualize its stats against other athletes and the general student population. That said, this article was based on a good amount of research and for that, I feel somewhat reassured that I’m getting my money’s worth with my subscription.
The weakness in the SI piece is the lack of solutions. There is one throwaway line in the magazine piece about how programs would be able to do a better job of serving their players if they knew their criminal backgrounds. Really? There’s something that programs should be doing on top of academic centers devoted to football players, training tables, strength & conditioning coaches, tutors, surveillance to make sure that they are going to class, and year-round “voluntary” workouts? There isn’t a subset of the student bodies at schools with major football programs that is more cared for than football players.
In one of the web pieces accompanying the article, George Benedict offers additional suggestions:
• 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.
And then? The unanswered question hanging over the entire piece is what a school should do with that information. Should a school deny admission to a player who was arrested for a felony offense, but pled it down to a misdemeanor? Should all schools deny that player admission, knowing that college football represents pretty much the only route for that individual to ply his trade, i.e. take a shot at making the NFL? Is it better that a player with a criminal history just plays his football out of sight and out of mind? I guess it’s better that coeds at a junior college suffer an assault than the coeds at LSU or USC.
One last, semi-related thought on this piece: it further indicts the Detroit Free Press’s coverage of the Michigan program under Rich Rodriguez. One aspect of the jihad was a detailed look at Demar Dorsey and his rap sheet, with the implication being that win-at-all-costs Rodriguez was endangering the state by bringing in Dorsey. As with its investigation of Michigan’s practice practices, the investigation was context-free. Michigan didn’t run a full background search on Dorsey, but as it turns out, almost no major programs run background checks. In other words, the Free Press flayed Rodriguez’s Michigan for a practice that is almost universally accepted. I’m rooting for Michigan because that’s what I do, but if the team succeeds over the next several years, my joy will be tinged with slight feelings of annoyance that a collection of dolts in the local media will experience misplaced feelings of vindication.