Cleaning up athletes' behavior before they reach pros

February 18, 2000|By Larry Atkins

DURING THE past two months, two prominent NFL players, Ray Lewis and Rae Carruth, have been charged with murder. While it is unprecedented for an active professional athlete to be charged with murder, it is not uncommon for professional athletes to be accused of criminal behavior.

According to a recent book called "Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL," 21 percent of NFL players had been charged with serious crimes during their lives. Many NFL players have been charged this past season with crimes such as assault, burglary, and weapons and drug possession.

Our society puts athletes on a pedestal almost from the time that a kid displays athletic talent. Many, if not most, professional athletes have been idolized, coddled and given special treatment by junior high, high school and college coaches.

The only way professional sports can improve its image of having renegade athletes is to hope that coaches and athletic departments at the high school and college level clean up their acts and punish their student athletes when they seriously misbehave.

Controversies crop up regularly involving criminal behavior by college athletes. During the summer of 1997, six Florida State football players were arrested or criminally charged for incidents including marijuana possession, burglary and aggravated battery. A recent study of 30 colleges conducted by the University of Massachusetts discovered that male college athletes committed 19 percent of campus crimes -- though they made up only 3.3 percent of the campus population. Whether it's a bar-room brawl, an acquaintance rape, a gambling scandal, cheating on an entrance exam, or trying to climb through a Taco Bell drive-through window, publicized incidents like these make it hard to root for your old school.

One professor at a college that was rocked by several scandals involving its student-athletes tried to do something about it. In September 1997, Fresno State professor John Shields introduced a resolution that demanded a code of conduct for student-athletes. Mr. Shields' action was precipitated by a rash of negative incidents involving Fresno State basketball players -- the recruitment of Courtney Alexander, who left the University of Virginia after being suspended for physically assaulting his girlfriend; battery charges faced by two team members stemming from a fight with a student; and allegations that two team members were involved in point shaving.

Fresno State's Athletic Advisory Council eventually voted to approve the code of conduct, which included guidelines for student athletes' responsibilities in academics, good sportsmanship and good citizenship.

While Mr. Shields' efforts were noble, they don't address the core problem of student-athlete misconduct: institutional ambivalence. Schools like Duke, North Carolina, Penn State and Stanford manage to succeed on the court and the gridiron and graduate their student-athletes without recruiting kids with rap sheets the length of a Tolstoy novel. Temple basketball coach John Chaney takes plenty of academically at-risk students, but because of Mr. Chaney's tough standards and 5 a.m. practices, you don't hear too many cases of his players' arrests.

Xavier basketball coach Skip Prosser probably angered some alumni and boosters in 1995 when he disciplined and benched two key players for an NCAA tournament game against Georgetown after the players got into a fight at a nightclub. Mr. Prosser lost the game but gained respect -- his team won an NCAA tourney game in 1997, and it placed third in the NIT last year.

You don't need codes of conduct, just administrations, athletic departments and coaches capable of policing themselves. If a player is convicted of a serious crime, the school should revoke or at least suspend his or her scholarship.

The only effective means for realistic reform are college administrators and athletic directors who have the courage to stand up to alumni and boosters to resist the "do whatever it takes to win" mentality, who are willing to clean up their own houses, and who will provide an ethical climate and motivational support for balance in the class and on the field.

Larry Atkins is a lawyer and writer who lives in Philadelphia.

Pub Date: 2/18/00

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