“We’ve all done something we don’t want to broadcast to the world,” said Jeff Benedict, as he wrapped up the first day of the Losing To Win Conference. Benedict’s contention was that coaches and university administrators must be aware of the potential risk they take when welcoming students with a criminal history into their campus community. However, Benedict asserted that it is equally important to separate the person from the criminal act when making decisions about a player’s potential on the field, in the classroom, and as part of a campus community.
Benedict is in a unique position to talk about the nuances of crimes conducted by college football players. He spent six months investigating every student-athlete (2,837 individuals) playing on a top 25 college football team for a Sports Illustrated/CBS News story about the failure of college football coaches to understand their players’ personal histories.
The sheer volume of data presented challenges during the investigation, as did privacy laws concerning police records of juvenile offenders. Despite the challenges, Benedict and a team of researchers were able to conduct at least one background check on each player. They also spoke with players accused of violent crimes, their families, their high school coaches, their college coaches, their victims, the police, and the prosecutors to fully understand both the risks and potential benefits of allowing questionable students onto campus. The court records and press reports only tell part of the story, said Benedict. “Without talking to people you don’t get the context, you can’t understand the families involved and their circumstances.”
During one memorable interaction, Benedict confronted a prosecutor who made a controversial decision to charge a promising high school football player, accused of a violent crime, as a juvenile rather than an adult. The prosecutor admitted that if the young man was convicted of a felony, his college scholarship offer would have been automatically rescinded. “Football mattered,” the prosecutor told Benedict. Speaking about the accused young man, the prosecutor said, “Without the scholarship, he won’t go to college. Without college, he will be back on the street. On the street he will end up back in jail as an adult.”
After diving deep into the case, Benedict found it easier to understand the prosecutor’s perspective. However, he told conference attendees, if the player is allowed into college and only taught to play football for the next four years than it will have been a waste of time.
Student-athletes that come to college from difficult circumstances, particularly those with a criminal history, need academic and social support to grow into contributing members of society. “With a safety net around the player, college becomes about more than winning the game,” Benedict said. “It can be good for the player, good for the school, good for the community.”
Many of these players will be the first in their family to attend college, said Benedict. “They get the opportunity because they can play football.” If they can get the skills and the mentoring to make a contribution to society then bringing them onto campus is a risk worth taking, Benedict asserted. -- -- Brett Eaton