From gangs to colleges
Expert: Schools need background checks on recruits
Posted: Wednesday August 8, 2007 11:43PM; Updated: Thursday August 9, 2007 2:40PM
Last year, Derrick Watkins, a former police detective in Southern California, spoke at the NCAA Convention on a panel about athletes and violence. Halfway through the discussion, Watkins, the co-author of a book on gang culture, was stunned as officials from several schools explained how helpless they felt.
"People kept saying, 'we are bringing this kids to our universities, kids with a criminal background, and we don't know how to deal with them," Watkins says. "Here you have these big schools, these wealthy athletic departments, and it was pretty clear from what people were telling me that they had no idea the type of kids they're recruiting."
Since speaking on the panel, Watkins has studied dozens of cases of violence by college athletes. He has tracked cases at small community colleges and higher profile incidents, such as those at Montana State, which I wrote about in this week's Sports Illustrated. He sees a pattern emerging, a growing problem he believes schools are not able or willing to address.
"They get these kids on campus, kids who grew up in a gang culture, and then the schools are surprised when the kids bring crime with them," Watkins says. "Kids revert to what they grew up around."
Watkins views what has happened at Montana State -- two players accused of murder, another two allegedly heading a drug ring that created a cocaine problem in Montana -- as a premonition for other college towns if schools don't change their recruiting tactics.
"The kids they brought (to Bozeman) came from gang areas, probably grew up around violence, and that's what they know," Watkins says. "The only way to really prevent that is to stop recruiting kids like that or knowing what you are getting and doing something to help them."
Coaches hell bent on winning aren't likely to stop recruiting troubled kids with talent, so Watkins has focused on how schools can better understand what they are getting. His most radical suggestion is one he doubts schools will follow.
"Have a recruit and their parents sign a waiver so you can access kids' juvenile records," he says. "That's the only way to really know what you are getting."
Administrators at several universities -- including Montana State -- have discussed using background checks to investigate a prospect's past. SI.com, however, found only one school that does it, and not to the extent Watkins advises.
Oklahoma's campus police have run a standard check since 2005 on kids who are offered a scholarship. But that type of check does not include access to events that occurred before the player turned 18. That level of probe could prove useful to schools like Montana State, which takes a lot of junior college transfers; many athletes are well over 18 when they arrive in Bozeman. But for universities that recruit mostly high school players, the usefulness of those checks is limited.
"Of course, we do academic reviews and we talk to people -- counselors, coaches, parents -- who can tell us about a person, and adding a law enforcement background check seemed a natural progression," says Larry Naifeh, Oklahoma's executive associate athletic director. "So far, coaches have reviewed it favorably. It sometimes gives them access to information other schools may not have."
If the check turns up any incidents, it doesn't automatically eliminate a recruit from consideration, Naifeh says. "We give that information to the coach and it is something he or she can discuss with a recruit's parents and investigate further."
Recruits don't even know they are being checked because Oklahoma doesn't need their permission to do so. What would happen if schools started asking recruits and their parents for access to juvenile records?
"I don't know, but I do no that no school is going to want to be the first to try it," says one Big 12 assistant coach. "Sure, it would be great to get access to juvenile records, but either every school has to agree to do it at once or no one will do it. If you are the only school asking parents to give up their kid's record you are going to be a disadvantage in recruiting."
Watkins' counterargument is a compelling one: "Would you rather lose a couple recruits or end up like Montana State?"