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The young man you've never met has just returned your call with unexpected promptness. Collect, from prison. Quick, what do you say? The best you can do is to blurt out, "So, Marcel, tell me: Is jail as bad as they make it seem in the movies?"
Marcel Brown takes his time answering. These days he has nothing but time. "Yeah, it is, sir," he says. "A little worse, maybe. Everyone here's a gang member."
"Here" is the Los Angeles County jail, where Brown, unable to make bail of $100,000, has been incarcerated since late April. Next week Brown is scheduled to appear in superior court on robbery and kidnapping charges.
"The other inmates want to know what gang I'm with," Brown continues. "But when I tell them I'm not a gang member, they think I'm on the other side. I can't win. I already got jumped a couple times."
Before he was issued his orange prison uniform, Brown's colors were the cardinal and gold of the University of Southern California. On April 23, three days after USC's final spring football scrimmage, in which Brown, 20, a redshirt freshman, played as a reserve cornerback, he was arrested at a bank in Torrance as he was allegedly trying to use a stolen bank card. Apprehended with Brown was his teammate Howard McCowan, 19, a redshirt freshman defensive back for the Trojans, and a third man, Garlyn Coleman, 19, a friend of Brown's from San Diego. The trio was also charged with committing another robbery earlier that evening, which led to additional charges of kidnapping. The kidnapping occurred when one of the robbery victims was allegedly forced into a car and driven around for a brief time while the suspects allegedly extracted from him his bank ATM number. After Brown's arrest, it was discovered that both he and Coleman were out on bail after having been charged with a robbery committed on March 2 in San Diego.
Trojan coach Larry Smith suspended Brown and McCowan indefinitely. "You can't condone felony crimes in your program," he says. "Those guys are gone."
Lately, Smith has come to appreciate the difference between felonies—what Brown and McCowan are charged with—and misdemeanors. In January starting quarterback Todd Marinovich, 21, was arrested and charged with possession of less than a half gram of cocaine—a misdemeanor. Marinovich, who was subsequently drafted by the Los Angeles Raiders, agreed to undergo drug counseling for one year, at the conclusion of which the charge against him will be dismissed.
Southern Cal players aren't the only ones who have recently been read the Miranda warnings. Since January, arrests of college football players have included five from Missouri, four from Georgia Tech, three from Syracuse and two from Purdue. Space considerations make it impossible to provide a complete list of the schools with a single player arrested.
While neither the NCAA nor any other official body compiles hard statistics on the number of college athletes who find themselves on the wrong side of the criminal justice system, coaches agree that off-duty football players are getting busted in record numbers. Here, in part, is why:
•From January to July, football players have a lot of free time. "During the season we keep them nailed down pretty good," says Pitt coach Paul Hackett. With mandatory breakfast, classes, lunch, meetings, practice, weight training, more meetings, dinner and study hall, says Hackett, "they barely have time to breathe." During the season, for instance, the Panthers' starting nosetackle, Derrick Hicks, 21, reserve linebacker Terrance Wheatley, 20, and reserve cornerback Ken Abrams, 20, would probably not have had the time or the energy to use a teammate's credit card, as they did on April 9 at an off-campus restaurant. Although restitution was made to the credit card company and neither the teammate nor the card issuer pressed charges, the three players were dismissed from the team.