New York Times on 27 December 1996

Colleges Protect Athletes, Not Students

by Jeff Benedict

Colleges Protect Athletes, Not Students

After James McIntyre, a starter on the New Mexico State football team, was charged with raping two students last summer, the head coach suspended him. But the athletic department decided to honor his scholarship pending trial. He was allowed to stay on campus, although he had previously been convicted of disorderly conduct after a skirmish with the campus police, and had been the subject of several sexual harassment complaints.

The case was hardly unusual. In 1995 alone, 220 student athletes were in court on charges from illegal gambling to manslaughter. Over the last two years, 112 college athletes have been charged with sexual assault or with abusing spouses and girlfriends; most victims were other students. A 1994 study of 10 Division I schools with powerhouse football and basketball teams found that while athletes composed just 3 percent of the male student population, they were responsible for 19 percent of the colleges’ sexual assaults and 35 percent of acts of domestic violence.

Yet these athletes almost never lose their scholarships until they are convicted. Not only do they remain a threat to other students, but because campuses are small places, victims must choose whether to leave school or to stay and likely run into their accused assailants.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association should step in and insure that victims no longer face this dilemma and that all students are safe from out-of-control athletes. The N.C.A.A. should require colleges to revoke the scholarship of any athlete formally charged with a violent crime. Some will say this is judging people guilty until proven innocent. So what? Scholarships are a privilege, not a right. If the legal system finds probable cause to charge a person, it should be sufficient reason to get him off campus.

True, some colleges have taken a tougher stance. Bobby Knight, Indiana University’s basketball coach, kicked a point guard off the team last season after the player was arrested for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend. After rape charges were dropped against five Brigham Young University football players in 1995, the university nonetheless dismissed them for violating the school’s conduct code.

But such action is the exception. In 1995 and 1996, the University of Nebraska won consecutive football championships with a starting lineup that included players charged with sexual assault, theft, assault and unlawfully firing a gun at an unoccupied vehicle. One reserve player had been indicted for attempted murder.

At Virginia Tech, which will play Nebraska in this year’s Orange Bowl, 18 football players have been arrested in the past year. Last week, two players were arrested for rape; one had been accused of another rape earlier this year, and the other had been arrested for assault.

The University of Cincinnati basketball team, which began this season ranked first in the nation, has repeatedly given scholarships to blue chip athletes with prior criminal problems. Art Long, on probation for selling marijuana when recruited, was convicted of assaulting a girlfriend while at Cincinnati. This season, a starting guard was arrested on charges of aggravated burglary.

Colleges often justify their recruitment policies by pointing to the increasing number of young men growing up in fatherless homes surrounded by crime. Coaches who choose not to suspend defendants frequently say that the team’s “structured” environment will help reform them. Such rationalizations are small comfort to the victims.

In addition to requiring colleges to revoke scholarships of athletes formally charged with violent crimes, the N.C.A.A. should insist that college administrations and disciplinary boards, not coaches or athletic directors, decide whether to reinstate the scholarships if charges are dropped or if players are found not guilty.

Left to their own devices, colleges can’t be counted on to protect students. James McIntyre was convicted of rape last month, and New Mexico State finally revoked his scholarship. Had the university belatedly found its conscience? Not likely. After a 1-10 season, the coach was dismissed; he is being replaced by an assistant coach from Nebraska.