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Crime and the college athlete

Photo by Jeffrey Shaw

Investigative journalist Jeff Benedict, MA’95, who’s penned four books on athletes and crime, recently co-wrote a 3,100-word exposé for Sports Illustrated in which he uncovered the criminal records of the nation’s elite college football players. We asked Benedict, who served as director of research for Northeastern’s Sport in Society center, to assess the revelatory report, which found that seven percent of players on teams in the magazine’s 2010 preseason Top 25 had been charged with or cited for a crime.

Why are so many college football coaches and athletics directors unaware of their players’ criminal records?

Almost all programs do what I would consider ‘cursory looks’ at criminal histories. There are a couple of reasons. One is because many coaches don’t really want to know the nitty-gritty details. I also think there are some coaches in programs who aren’t necessarily aware of how easy it is to do criminal background checks. Finally, there is institutional pressure not to dig too deep, in order to get the best players. It could be seen as a disadvantage for a particular school if a player knows which programs do and don’t dig into his history and then gravitates toward schools that are less careful.

Why are so many of the crimes committed by athletes violent crimes against women, and how do they routinely escape accountability for their offenses?

Sex crimes against women are a direct outgrowth of the lifestyle these players lead. I’ve looked at hundreds of cases and so often the circumstances involve allegations of abuse. The problem arises when a player, who is accustomed to getting what he wants when he wants, encounters a women who says ‘no.’ Athletes aren’t used to putting on the breaks.

There are a few reasons why players escape severe penalties. From the start, even college athletes who have no money often end up with the best lawyer in town with help from alumni or boosters. Pro athletes spend and spend and spend and hire lawyers who in turn bring in media relations firms and private investigators.

Police and prosecutors are particularly hard on athletes, but there is a huge drop off between arrest and conviction rates. That’s because athletes often enjoy a great reputation among jurors, especially if the accuser is portrayed as someone out to get money from the player.

What steps can institutions take to clean up their athletics programs?

A university should require criminal background checks on college athletes being recruited for scholarships. If a university has no idea of a recruit’s history of violent crimes as a young adult, and he rapes a woman or severely beats a man on campus, that student can turn around and sue the school for negligence.

If a background check finds that a player has a criminal record, there should be an impartial review of the athlete by an administrator at the school. Whether or not a recruit gets a break should not depend on the sole discretion of the coach.

This does not mean that every player found to have a criminal record would be denied a scholarship. On the contrary, it means that these situations would be vetted more carefully and everyone, including the player, would be made aware that the scholarship holder must abide by the rules of the community.

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