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Why Colleges Should Run Background Checks on Student Athletes

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For college athletes, especially football players, getting in trouble with the law is nothing new, but many people may be surprised at just how common this is. One out of every fourteen players from the preseason Top 25 NCAA football teams in 2010 were found to have been charged with or cited for a crime according to the recently released results of a special investigation conducted by Sports Illustrated and CBS News.

A large number, nearly forty percent, of these charges were for serious offenses including assault and battery, domestic violence, robbery and sex offenses. In most cases the player had been found or pled guilty or faced some penalty as a result.

Despite this all being public information, in most cases the team coaches or their schools hadn't seen it because criminal background checks weren't done. In fact only two of the twenty-five schools routinely performed any kind of criminal background check.

Currently NCAA rules don't address this as a part of the recruiting process or for keeping an athlete in good standing. If a student athlete received a car from a team booster with a car dealership the NCAA rules address that, but if they steal a car from that same dealership they don't.

Given obvious pressures to win, and possibly look the other way, this has got to change. The NCAA or the regional conferences have got to mandate that background checks are run on all prospective athletes before they are granted admission and allowed to play each year.

Any individual institution that began running them on their own would simply be at too great a competitive disadvantage without a universal mandate. This will put all institutions on a level playing field -- certainly something that should be a key objective of the NCAA.

Nobody is suggesting that student athletes don't deserve second chances -- we all do. Someone who has or is genuinely turning their life around should be seriously considered. Someone, however, with an ongoing history of serious problems who remains a potential threat to those around them shouldn't be afforded a prestigious place on campus. Each program needs to be able to make informed decisions about this and will need criminal background information to accomplish that.

If the NCAA doesn't act, there is little doubt that other authorities will have to. The United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, for example, already held in 2007 that a sexual assault survivor could sue their university under Title IX's gender equity requirements for recruiting their alleged assailant to be a student athlete despite a known history of sexual violence. If something isn't done to stop the recruitment of players with a history of violence this type of court ruling will only become more common.

In the last 20 years we've come a long way in recognizing that our nation's college and university campuses aren't immune from the crimes that threaten our broader society, and have ensured that they are much better protected than before. Making sure we don't recruit dangerous felons to be student athletes is a common sense piece of the puzzle in protecting campus communities and is something that should be put in place as soon as possible.