Use of Background Checks Intensifies in Collegiate Athletics

Aug 31, 2007

By Mark Henricks
After University of Texas football player Robert Jones was arrested in June in Austin and charged with burglarizing two cars, Texas athletic officials learned he had received deferred adjudication for two more misdemeanors, one for possessing drugs and one for evading arrest, while in high school in Port Arthur, Texas. Texas Coach Mack Brown kicked Joseph off the team, but the question of how colleges recruit athletes with prior criminal histories is not as easily dismissed.
The problem is widespread. One of the most egregious cases was Miami University recruit Willie Williams, who was arrested during a recruiting trip to the campus and later found to have 10 prior arrests on a variety of charges. But many schools have faced similar situations, embarrassing their athletic programs and sometimes involving other athletes in trouble. For example, Texas football player Andre Jones was arrested along with Jones — by then an ex-player — and charged with aggravated robbery in August.
One possible solution would be performing criminal background checks on prospective student athletes. In 2004, the University of Oklahoma became one of the first programs to institute that policy. “This practice is another step we take in trying to bring to campus the best and brightest student-athletes,” said Kenny Mossman, Oklahoma’s senior associate athletics director for communications. “No system can guarantee perfection, but we take seriously the responsibility we have to our campus and community so we try to be as detailed as possible. While we do not discuss the specifics of our checks, we have found them to be useful in helping us to be better informed. The reaction to the checks has been positive in that the diligence in the recruiting process is appreciated.”
Baylor University began doing background checks after they were recommended by a task force investigating responses to the 2003 murder of a basketball player by a teammate. Baylor, however, only checks transfer students rather than all recruits. “We decided that was impractical, particularly since the law wouldn’t allow us to access records of minors anyway,” Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw said. Both the Baylor athlete who was murdered and his killer were transfers, and McCaw said officials felt that transfer students were the most likely to come in with prior problems.
Kansas University began doing background checks on transfers in January. Judith Pottorff, corporate counsel for Kansas Athletics Inc., the non-profit corporation that manages Kansas sports programs, said privacy laws that keep juvenile criminal records secret was the main reason they limited the program to transfers. “It just seemed to be a good practice to start implementing,” Pottorff said of the checks. “We had no particular impetus to push us that way. It seemed to be a trend going on. Kansas State had just started it.”
Two factors that seem to argue for the implementation of the practice are the minimal cost and prompt turnaround. Checks can be performed for less than $100. And time wouldn’t seem to be an obstacle either, according to Kansas’ Pottorff, who said background check results are usually available in 24 to 48 hours after requesting one. Sometimes it may take 72 hours if the check requires checking in a county that does not make its records available online, she said.
The use of background checks seems to be growing trend. One security company that markets its background-checking service to universities claims to have grown from a dozen university clients to more than 500 in the past several years.
Most Schools Rely on a Standard Questionnaire
Nevertheless, most institutions do not contact law enforcement offices to check on student criminal histories. Instead, they rely on a standard questionnaire that asks students, among other things, whether they have ever been convicted of a crime.
That’s the situation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Every prospective student at the University fills out a form that asks questions such as: have you ever been convicted of a crime, do you have criminal charges pending against you, et cetera,” said Steve
Kirschner, associate athletic director for communications. “There is not a separate form or inquiry for student-athletes.”
The problem with that approach is that, obviously, students may not tell the whole story. But background checks have their own problems. The prohibition against accessing minors’ records is one major one.
Coaches could be a bigger obstacle. Gene Chizik, the head football coach at the University of Iowa, has said he opposes background checks because they would add unwelcome delay and other complications to the task of recruiting. Some Kansas coaches also were worried that the move would affect recruiting, Pottorff said. However, Kansas restricted the added paperwork to a single sheet granting permission for the university to conduct the check, one of many that recruits are asked to sign.
For now, most universities continue to rely on standard recruiting practices to identify recruits with past legal problems. These include coaches talking to and building relationships with recruits and their coaches, teachers and families. That’s usually a sound approach with players coming out of high school, Pottorff said. “If there is something there, they’re going to get wind of it,” she said. The same sort of past recruiting relationship is often absent in the case of transfers, she added, which is another reason Kansas chose to check only them.
Some potential issues have yet to be tested. For instance, privacy concerns may give some future recruit standing to complain or even sue a university that conducts a check. So far, however, that hasn’t happened. Nor, according to officials at Kansas or Baylor, have their checks so far turned up anything that caused their athletic departments to withhold a planned recruiting offer.
Perhaps the biggest question is whether criminal background checks will even help. Some states such as Florida have few protections for minor criminal records. But most, including Texas, prohibit releasing information about juvenile criminals, which suggests that even if Texas had a policy of performing background checks, it wouldn’t have help warn its officials of their player’s past, which only came to light after he got in trouble again as an adult.
It’s even unclear whether checks would have helped Baylor avoid its 2003 tragedy, according to McCaw. “But it would have certainly put us in a better situation,” he added.


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