Some college administrators and professors would prefer that athletes such as Fauonuku were never awarded a scholarship. Ban any kid with a criminal record from participating in intercollegiate athletics, they say. Coaches wholeheartedly disagree and for good reason: They know that not every kid—or every crime—is the same.
In November 2007, then 18-year-old Kevin Claxton, a linebacker at Boyd Anderson High in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., was arrested with four other individuals for robbing a home. Claxton's dream of playing in college seemed dashed after he was arrested and charged with second-degree felony burglary.
Claxton faced essentially the same criminal charge as Fauonuku, but Claxton's incident involved no guns, drugs or alleged threats of physical harm, and Claxton only drove the participants to and from the scene. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema weighed that information along with the fact that Claxton had never been in legal trouble before, came from a two-parent home and was praised by teachers and administrators at his school.
"We came to believe that this was one of those cases where an otherwise good kid made a mistake," Bielema says.
Wisconsin would not award Claxton a scholarship if he were convicted of a felony, a fact that Claxton's lawyer cited in a pretrial filing in Broward County court. To pursue felony charges against Claxton, the lawyer wrote, would deprive him of a chance to better himself. The court agreed and allowed Claxton to plead guilty but withheld entry of his plea, meaning that if Claxton met certain conditions, he would not have a felony conviction on his record. Claxton spent weekends and spring break of his senior year in jail and even had to get permission from the court to attend his graduation, but he received his scholarship.
"Since he's been here, he has maintained the [grade-point average] that the court required and has done everything we have asked of him," Bielema says. "He's been a great kid."
Another apparent success story is Kenbrell Thompkins, a junior wideout at Cincinnati who was arrested seven times between ages 15 and 18. His rap sheet included felony arrests for robbery and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. Some of those charges were later dropped.
Thompkins grew up in Liberty City, a neighborhood considered one of Miami's most violent. (Fisher, Florida State's coach, talks of kids from such areas as having to make "decisions day to day that are about survival.") In 2007, at age 19, Thompkins had an epiphany as he watched his younger brother, Kendal, earn a football scholarship to Miami. The elder Thompkins then decided to dedicate himself to football (he hadn't played much at Northwestern High) and ended up impressing coaches at a junior college in California, where he spent two trouble-free years and excelled on the field. Alabama, Tennessee, Cincinnati and several other schools offered him a scholarship.
Thompkins signed with Tennessee but jumped to Cincinnati after Vols coach Lane Kiffin bolted to USC. While forced to sit out a year under NCAA transfer rules, Thompkins was a model student last year at Cincinnati, earning a 3.9 GPA in his first academic term. "He has come a long way in a short time," Bearcats coach Jones told SI last year.
Players like Claxton and Thompkins, coaches say, are the reason a prohibition on scholarships for kids with criminal records would be unjust; it would lessen the sport's power to change lives.