YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Fretting With the Program

Recent incidents have highlighted a growing concern for coaches: keeping athletes out of trouble

September 14, 2004|David Wharton and Gary Klein | Times Staff Writers

Pete Carroll says he warns his football players about staying out of trouble. He talks about responsibility. He suspends them when they break team rules.

"It's just like being a dad or a mom," the USC coach said recently. "You just keep trying to find creative ways to make sense to guys."

Yet, in the last eight months, two of his stars have had brushes with the law. Offensive lineman Winston Justice pleaded no contest to exhibiting a replica gun during a dispute. Tailback Hershel Dennis was the focus of a sexual assault investigation, though law enforcement sources said last week there was insufficient evidence to bring charges.

These incidents -- taken along with the recent Colorado recruiting scandal and other misconduct by football players nationwide -- put a spotlight on what universities can and should be doing to control their athletes.

Many schools used to keep teams in exclusive dorms where it was easier to monitor them during off-hours. But a new consensus has formed among educators and experts: Treat athletes the same as other students. Don't put them under special watch. By the same token, don't excuse their misbehavior because they are campus celebrities.

"People, when they see these kinds of things happening, they want a quick fix," said Peter Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. "That, to me, is missing the point."

The concern stems from a series of incidents over the last year or so.

A Virginia Tech quarterback was convicted of serving alcohol to high school girls in his apartment. Two Ohio State football players were arrested on suspicion of robbery. A Florida International player was charged with attempted murder.

Locally, USC and UCLA made the crime blotter.

The list included USC quarterback Michael McDonald, a walk-on, arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence. At UCLA, linebacker Xavier Burgess was charged with threatening a parking attendant, cornerback Marcus Cassel was placed on probation for driving under the influence and former quarterback John Sciarra pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace.

"There's no room for screw-ups," USC quarterback Matt Leinart said. "So you've just got to be really safe and really careful what you do, who you meet, where you go and who you're with."

At the University of Central Florida, sports ethicist Richard Lapchick has tracked arrests at American universities for several years. Lapchick said he has seen an increase in campus crime, but no indication that athletes get in trouble more frequently than other students.

The difference, he said, is that when athletes run afoul of the law, it makes headlines.

No incident was more widely reported than the Colorado recruiting case, involving allegations that football players entertained high school prospects with alcohol and strippers.

The NCAA reacted quickly, enacting tighter controls on recruiting. But that was seen as a special circumstance, in part because it involved teenagers not part of the college system.

When it comes to everyday supervision, even the NCAA -- known for its regulatory nature -- has agreed with experts that athletes should be treated like other students.

"The point is that athletics will operate better when it is brought into the university, rather than treated as a separate unit," NCAA President Myles Brand wrote in an NCAA News commentary last month. "The athletics department must be seen and must behave as part of the university."

This reflects a change from years past, when universities often housed athletes in designated buildings. Athletic dorms made it easier for coaches -- at least, those so inclined -- to supervise their players.

Eddie Robinson, the legendary Grambling coach, used to walk into the athletic dorm at 6 a.m. ringing a cowbell to wake his team for class.

"That was a good example," Lapchick said. "But there are two sides to the story."

Keeping athletes under the same roof isn't the same as watching them 24 hours a day, as USC discovered with Dennis.

All the players were staying in an apartment complex near campus for summer training camp when the tailback brought a woman to a gathering in a room after bed check. It was not clear what role Dennis played in the alleged incident.

Some experts suspect that athletic dorms might even foster bad behavior.

"We treat [athletes] differently," Roby said, "they start thinking they are not held to the same standards."

In the late 1980s, the athletic dorm at Oklahoma abounded with tales of gunfire, sexual assault and other incidents. Quarterback Charles Thompson, who pleaded guilty to selling cocaine to an undercover agent, once described the hall as a "24-hour revolving door of girls, students and strangers."

The NCAA voted to eliminate athletic dorms in 1991 as part of a reform package meant to cut athletic spending and integrate athletes more fully into the student body.

Los Angeles Times Articles