Sports Illustrated on 08 September 2010

An alarming number of college athletes charged with serious crime

by Jeff Benedict

An alarming number of college athletes charged with serious crime

So far this year through August, 125 college and professional football and basketball players have been arrested on serious charges. By that I mean felonies or misdemeanors involving violence, weapons or substance abuse. That's pretty astounding. At this rate, the number will be up around 200 by year's end.

I started looking into this about a month ago, after seeing what seemed like daily stories about athletes in trouble with the law. With the help of my research assistant, Jeff Gasser, I looked up publicly reported arrests involving pro and college athletes between January 1, 2010 and August 31, 2010. I didn't count about 40 arrests I found involving football and basketball players charged with minor offenses. And I only found a handful of serious charges involving players from other sports such as baseball, hockey and boxing.

I've been investigating and writing about athletes and crime for more than 15 years. During that time I've written four books on the subject and looked at more than 1,000 incidents involving college and professional athletes. So it takes a lot to raise my eyebrows. To some degree, I think that's true of most sports fans. We've gotten pretty accustomed to reports of athletes getting in trouble with the law. But 125 cases involving basketball and football players in an eight-month span? That's more than one every other day. Seems to me like the problem is getting worse.

Seventy of the 125 players arrested so far this year play college football. What's interesting is the way these cases are handled by the coaches.

Oregon star running back LaMichael James wasn't in the lineup for the Ducks' season-opening 72-0 win over New Mexico. Last season James set a Pac-10-record by rushing for 1,546 yards as a freshman. But during this offseason James was charged with menacing, strangulation and assault after an altercation with his former girlfriend. In March he pled guilty to a single misdemeanor harassment charge and was sentenced to 10 days in jail, but didn't serve any time. Instead, James was permitted to wear an electronic surveillance device. Oregon coach Chip Kelly suspended James for one game.

Compare James's situation to that of Oregon State redshirt lineman Tyler Thomas. On Aug. 22 police in Corvallis, Ore., say they found Thomas naked and intoxicated in a stranger's home. When ordered down on the ground, Thomas reportedly went into a three-point stance and lunged at the officers, who fired stun guns to subdue him. Thomas was charged with criminal trespass, criminal mischief and resisting arrest. Although he has yet to be convicted of anything, he was dismissed from the team following his arrest.

So why did Thomas get the boot for an alcohol-induced arrest while James got a slap on the wrist for pleading guilty to harassing a woman? Look no further than the Facebook page "LaMichael James for Heisman." Clearly, better athletes get better outcomes, both in the criminal justice system and on college campuses.

Some other things jumped out at me when I reviewed the 125 cases. One is the seriousness and frequency of the cases involving student-athletes. For instance, during the last week of July alone, 10 college football and basketball players were implicated in incidents that involved serious threats to public safety. Here's a sampling:

  •  On July 31, police in Stillwater, Okla., responded to a bar fight, where they found former Oklahoma State lineman Stephen Denning bleeding profusely. His left orbital socket had been fractured when Oklahoma State lineman Anton Blatnik, according to witnesses, allegedly struck Denning in the face with a beer bottle. Despite his injuries, Denning tried to force his way through several officers to continue the fight with Blatnik. Officers deployed an Electronic Control Device to subdue Denning, who was charged with misdemeanor assault. Blatnick pled guilty to a misdemeanor and received probation and community service.
  •  On the same day in Huntington, WVa., a Papa John's pizza deliveryman was assaulted and robbed on the Marshall University campus. Marshall defensive tackle Michael Fleurizard was charged with felony robbery for allegedly throwing the deliveryman to the ground and kicking him in the face before holding the victim down while two other men robbed him of $290 in cash. Fleurizard was dismissed from the team.
  •  A few days earlier in Philadelphia, two Drexel University basketball players were charged with armed robbery. Jamie Harris, the team's starting point guard and leading scorer, and Kevin Phillip, a backup forward, surrendered to authorities a day after allegedly entering a woman's apartment and pointing handguns while searching for money. The charges are pending and Harris' lawyer says his client has been falsely accused.
  • A few cases like this a year is one thing, but 10 in one week is out of control.

It's particularly troubling to see more and more college athletes carrying guns. Twelve of the 16 weapons-related arrests I looked at involved student-athletes, such as Kansas football players Jamal Greene and Vernon Brooks, both of whom were charged with attempted aggravated robbery. Police say the two players entered a Lawrence apartment armed with a handgun and forced several people to the floor.

The only thing more disturbing than athletes carrying guns is athletes abusing women. It's debatable whether pro athletes are more prone than non-athletes to abuse women. But I led a national study in 1995 that examined the campus police records and internal judicial affairs records at 20 Division I institutions, most of which had top basketball or football programs. Among other things, we found that male student-athletes comprised 3.3 percent of the total male population, yet represented 19 percent of the perpetrators reported for sexual assault.

Things don't appear to have changed much since then. Women were the alleged victims in at least 22 of the 125 arrests involving basketball and football players so far this year. That's almost 20 percent. Most of these -- 14 -- involved domestic violence.

Of course what I've done here is not a scientific study. Nor do arrests equal convictions. No doubt some of the 125 cases against athletes that I have found so far this year will result in dropped charges. But let's not bury our heads in the sand here. If on average a football or basketball player is charged with a serious crime every other day, there's an undeniable problem. It starts with the type of players that some college coaches are willing to recruit. Until colleges and universities demand a higher standard, the problem will continue to get worse.

Missouri officials applied such a standard when they dismissed star running back Derrick Washington after he was charged with felony sexual assault in August (he was the fourth Tigers football player arrested in the month). Despite leading Missouri in rushing with 1,901 yards and 27 touchdowns over the past two seasons, Washington was permanently suspended under a University of Missouri policy that prohibits athletes charged with a felony from playing until the case is resolved. That's a policy that all schools should adopt.

Jeff Benedict is the bestselling author of sixteen non-fiction books, as well as a television and film producer. His latest book, The Dynasty, is the definitive inside story of the New England Patriots under Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. An instant New York Times bestseller, The Dynasty is the basis of a 10-part documentary series that is being produced by Imagine Documentaries in association with NFL Films for Apple TV+. Jeff is a writer and executive producer for the series. In 2018, Jeff co-wrote the #1 bestseller Tiger Woods and he was an executive producer on the HBO documentary “Tiger” that was based on the book and aired in 2021. The book is currently being developed into a scripted series, which Jeff is executive producing. Jeff is also the executive producer on a documentary based on his book Poisoned for Campfire Studios that will air on Netflix. In 2017, Jeff co-produced “Little Pink House,” a feature film starring Catherine Keener and Jeanne Tripplehorn that was based on his book of the same title. And in 2016, Jeff co-wrote with Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young his critically acclaimed, bestselling autobiography QB: My Life Behind the Spiral. Jeff was also a writer on the NFL Films documentary "A Football Life: Steve Young,” which was based on the book.

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