Hold athletes accountable

February 23, 2003|By Lisa Simeone

DWAYNE GOODRICH has a problem with debris. The 24-year-old former Dallas Cowboy is accused of manslaughter in a recent hit-and-run accident.

Two men were trying to free a driver from a burning car when Mr. Goodrich, at 100 mph, according to witnesses, plowed into them. And promptly left. Apparently, Mr. Goodrich thought he'd hit not two human beings but "debris." He was released on $50,000 bond.

The pesky problem of evidence, however, in the form of blood and hair stuck on his windshield, may be Mr. Goodrich's undoing. Then again, athletes have more than a passing acquaintance with getting away with things.

In the only study that's ever been done of crime in the National Football League, researchers Jeff Benedict and Don Yaeger estimated the number of players charged with a serious crime - everything from homicides to assault to rape - to be 21 percent, or one in five.

These figures are from the 1996-97 season. They do not include juvenile records or dozens of arrests that, because of the researchers' deliberately conservative methodology, did not make it into the study. The figures and the stories behind them are in the book Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL.

The NFL, of course, disputes the findings. Yet the league already knows about its players' criminal records: It employs a team of private investigators to research all of them before they're drafted.

And rape, for example, is the most underreported crime in America, according to the Justice Department, and is notoriously difficult to prove. It raises questions about whether players get away with acts we'll never know about. But why focus on the NFL? In professional and collegiate sports, there's plenty of crime to go around.

Athletic recruiting parties on college campuses are prime territory for gang rapes and sexual assaults.

The University of Colorado has had two such cases in the past few years that became public, though with scant coverage outside Colorado. In the most recent case, Boulder police dragged their feet in the investigation, thus ensuring that the accused football players could participate in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl.

District Attorney Mary Keenan eventually couldn't press charges, both because so many party participants were drunk and because of witnesses' lack of cooperation.

Ms. Keenan told The New York Times in November that she had looked into recruiting parties and found them to be "an ugly football subculture. ... I don't think parents understand the ugliness that happens at these recruiting parties. If parents knew everything, I don't think they'd let their sons go."

But what's wrong with a little fun at parties? "This is college," CU coach Gary Barnett said. "Every college team in America faces the exact same scenarios every weekend. So, no, we're not going to change anything."

University of Georgia basketball players Tony Cole and Steve Thomas and football player Brandon Williams were charged in the rape of a female student in January 2002. All three were initially suspended from their teams but quickly reinstated.

After Mr. Williams was acquitted, charges against Mr. Cole and Mr. Thomas were dropped. Mr. Cole had already been kicked out of four other schools for brushes with the law, including charges of sexually assaulting a girl at the Community College of Rhode Island.

The Queens, N.Y., district attorney charged four athletes at Christ the King Regional High School in Queens with sexual misconduct and endangering the welfare of a child after allegations by a 15-year-old girl that they raped her at a house party.

And who can forget the 1989 Glen Ridge rape case in which several high school athletes - Our Guys, in author Bernard Lefkowitz's apt phrase - sexually assaulted a mentally retarded girl at a party and then calmly went about their lives in their New Jersey suburb, cosseted by their families and peers?

Iowa State University defensive back Benny Sapp was arrested last year on charges of resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and public intoxication after, according to the police, he allegedly pushed a woman's head into a window.

In September, the Minnesota Vikings' Randy Moss - who has a history of trouble - spent the night in jail after pushing a female traffic agent half a block with his car as she backpedaled with her hands on the hood, telling him to stop. He was charged with two misdemeanors and may be fined. But that didn't prevent him from playing with the team in a game against the Seattle Seahawks several days later.

Baltimore residents know how Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis' murder trial ended. He pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and agreed to testify against his co-defendants. That, of course, allowed him to continue playing football and collect his multimillion-dollar salary.

University of South Carolina football coach Lou Holtz said last year of athletes: "Sometimes it gets to the point that they think no matter what it's going to be all right."

It's not just O.J. who got away with years of beating his wife before she turned up mysteriously killed. Athletes wear the mantle of privilege in this society: Their fans are far more interested in their records of wins and losses than in their records of arrest.

The media is not much better. The prospect of - gasp! - gambling tainting NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue's "pure" sport has gotten more coverage than the endless list of crime.

Dwayne Goodrich will probably have a harder time of it. After all, there's no sex involved in his case, and the "debris" attached to his car has DNA in it. And the Cowboys released him from the team Thursday.

Lisa Simeone, a free-lancer writer, has hosted several programs for National Public Radio, including World of Opera and Weekend All Things Considered. She lives in Baltimore.

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