Posted: Wednesday March 2, 2011 7:32AM ; Updated: Wednesday March 2, 2011 10:18AM
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College Football and Crime

Story Highlights

A six-month SI/CBS News investigation ran criminal background checks on Top 25

Of 2,837 players, 7% had criminal records; 8.1% of scholarship players in trouble

Only two of Top 25 schools did background checks; none checked juvenile records

By Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian

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Pittsburgh's Jabaal Sheard allegedly threw a man through a glass door in a fight last September and later pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct.
Cliff Welch/Icon SMI
The Top 25
The number of players on each team in the study who were found to have police records
School Players charged SI preseason rank
1. Pittsburgh 22 16
2. Iowa 18 6
2. Arkansas 18 23
4. Boise State 16 3
4. Penn State 16 19
6. Virginia Tech 13 10
7. Wisconsin 9 11
7. Oklahoma 9 12
7. Florida State 9 25
10. Miami 8 15
11. Ohio State 7 2
11. Florida 7 7
11. Oregon 7 8
11. USC 7 17
15. Alabama 5 1
15. North Carolina 5 13
15. Cincinnati 5 18
15. Utah 5 22
19. Nebraska 4 9
19. Georgia Tech 4 14
19. Oregon State 4 20
22. LSU 3 21
23. Texas 2 4
24. Stanford 1 24
25. TCU 0 5

Few football programs had a more difficult season in 2010 than the University of Pittsburgh. Led by running back Dion Lewis, a Doak Walker candidate, the Panthers were the preseason pick to win the Big East and go to a BCS bowl. But things quickly began unraveling -- on and off the field.

In a span between mid-July and late September, four players were arrested for four separate, violent crimes.

First, senior defensive end Jabaal Sheard was charged with aggravated assault and resisting arrest after allegedly throwing a man through the glass door of an art gallery. Authorities told SI that even after an officer arrived on the scene, Sheard continued to punch the victim in the face as he lay on his back, bleeding. Sheard was suspended from the team. But after pleading guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct on Aug. 4, 2010, he was reinstated for the 2010 season.

In an interview last month, former Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, who resigned after his team finished a disappointing 8-5, defended Sheard, saying he was just trying to come to the aid of another player and break up a fight.

On Sept. 12, redshirt freshman running back Jason Douglas was charged with aggravated assault by vehicle while driving under the influence. According to court records, Douglas hit a male pedestrian, whom police found lying in the street, bleeding from open wounds to his head and throat. As Douglas was handcuffed he said: "Hey I play for Pitt football ... please don't arrest me." He was suspended from the team and has pleaded not guilty.

On Sept. 18, sophomore offensive lineman Keith Coleman was charged with aggravated assault and harassment. Police records indicate that in an incident on the street near the Pitt campus he beat up one man and body slammed another who attempted to intervene. One of the victims was treated for a broken shoulder. Coleman was suspended indefinitely. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges and is awaiting trial.

Finally on Sept. 22, police responded to a 911 call reporting that a man was choking a woman at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. Officers found Donna Turner bent over on a porch, crying and vomiting. She identified her attacker as Jeffrey Knox, a freshman defensive back at Pitt.

"Knox ... open handed slapped Turner in the head with such force that she was thrown to the ground," the police report states. "Knox then jumped on her, grabbed her by the throat, picked her up by her throat and slammed her head into the wall. He held her against the wall, continuing to choke her."

When two female witnesses tried pulling Knox off Turner, he allegedly threw punches at them and knocked them down. He then left the scene before authorities arrived. A day later, Knox was dismissed from the team after being charged with assault and reckless endangerment.

"The charges are garbage," Knox's attorney, Martin Scoratow, told SI. "They don't reflect the incident. There was something between the two of them. But it was like a teenage spat."

When asked about Knox, Wannstedt said, "He did things he never should have done and was dismissed from the team."

Knox will be formally arraigned on March 3 and could stand trial later in the spring.

Before this rash of arrests, Pitt had no procedure for screening football recruits for past trouble with the law. But after Knox's arrest Pitt's athletic department implemented a new policy requiring coaches to seek more detailed background information on potential recruits.

"This evaluation is not a legal criminal background check," the school said in a statement. "Rather, it is a checklist of questions that attempts to gain greater knowledge of the behavior and citizenship of an individual prospect from a variety of people."

It's a good first step, but doesn't go far enough. An unprecedented six-month investigation by Sports Illustrated and CBS News found that Pittsburgh had more players in trouble with the law (22) than any other school among SI's 2010 preseason Top 25. The joint investigation involved conducting criminal background checks on every player -- 2,837 in all -- on the preseason rosters of those 25 teams. Players' names, dates of birth and other vital information were checked at 31 courthouses and through 25 law enforcement agencies in 17 states. Players were also checked through one or more online databases that track criminal records. In all, 7,030 individual record checks were performed.

Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg and athletic director Steve Pederson declined requests for comment, but the school issued another statement, which said, "We have publicly acknowledged the unacceptable number of off-the-field incidents involving members of our football program during the past season. We have addressed these with the appropriate sanctions and spoke out against such behavior."

*****

Pitt was far from the only school with players who had criminal records. The results of the investigation include some striking revelations. Among them:

• Seven percent of the players in the preseason Top 25 -- 204 in all (1 of every 14) -- had been charged with or cited for a crime, including dozens of players with multiple arrests.

• Of the 277 incidents uncovered, nearly 40 percent involved serious offenses, including 56 violent crimes such as assault and battery (25 cases), domestic violence (6), aggravated assault (4), robbery (4) and sex offenses (3). In addition there were 41 charges for property crimes, including burglary and theft and larceny.

• There were more than 105 drug and alcohol offenses, including DUI, drug possession and intent to distribute cocaine.

• Race was not a major factor. In the overall sample, 48 percent of the players were black and 44.5 percent were white. Sixty percent of the players with a criminal history were black and 38 percent were white.

• In cases in which the outcome was known, players were guilty or paid some penalty in nearly 60 percent of the 277 total incidents.

Players who would have been on last year's rosters but had been charged and expelled from their teams before Sept. 1 -- and there were dozens -- were not counted in our sample. Nor did SI and CBS News have access to juvenile arrest records for roughly 80 percent of the players in the study.

"[It is] a set of facts that obviously should concern all of us," said new NCAA president Mark Emmert, when presented with these findings. "Seven percent, that's way too high. I think two percent is too high. You certainly don't want a large number of people with criminal backgrounds involved in activities that represent the NCAA."

Added Richard Lapchick, founder of the Center for Sport in Society and president and CEO of the National Consortium for Academics and Sports at the University of Central Florida: "This sounds an alarm bell that some new policies are going to have to be developed on individual campuses or at the national level to take a closer look at who we're recruiting to our campuses. I think it's almost incumbent on all those universities who play at this level to do criminal background checks on the people they're recruiting. Not only for the nature of the football program itself, but for public safety on campus."

Explaining crime in college football
Source: SI
After releasing an in-depth investigation uncovering the criminal records of top college football players, SI.com's Andy Staples and BJ Schecter explain the reporting behind the project and how it began.

*****

The number of players with criminal histories turned up by the SI/CBS News investigation reinforces a pervasive assumption that college coaches are willing to recruit players with questionable pasts to win. More surprising, however, is just how little digging college coaches do into players' backgrounds before offering them a scholarship.

Among the 25 schools in the investigation, only two -- TCU and Oklahoma -- perform any type of regular criminal background searches on recruits. But even TCU and Oklahoma don't look at juvenile records. No school does, even though football and basketball players are among the most high-profile representatives of a university. (Of the 25 schools, only Virginia Tech did any type of background checks on admitted students, and admissions questionnaires at more than half the other universities ask applicants if they have ever been arrested.)

Yet it wouldn't take much for schools to access this information. Take Florida, for example. The Sunshine State is not only one of the nation's largest football hotbeds, it also has the nation's most open public records law. Through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, anyone can check a person's complete criminal history -- including many juvenile arrests -- for $24.

Using this service, SI and CBS News checked all 318 Florida-based players in our sample. Thirty-one players (9.5%) had a criminal record. Twenty-two of those players had a juvenile record. Their juvenile offenses included felonies such as armed robbery, assault, domestic violence and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.

Despite the easy access to this information, not a single school contacted by SI uses the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to check the criminal backgrounds of the players recruited from the state of Florida -- not even Florida, Florida State and Miami.

By failing to take this simple step, schools may miss players who may be high risk. One example is Antwan Darling, a Miami native and now a freshman linebacker at Cincinnati.

 
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