College Athletes Insulated from Legal Consequence

College Athletes Insulated from Legal Consequence June 16, 2015

ESPN’s investigative news show Outside the Lines has a report on male college football and basketball players who are accused of criminal wrongdoing. Unsurprisingly, it found that athletes are much less likely to be charged or convicted for those actions than similarly situated non-athletes.

Last fall, to determine how often crimes involving college athletes are prosecuted and what factors influence them, Outside the Lines requested police reports involving all football and men’s basketball players on rosters from 2009 to 2014 from campus and city police departments covering 10 major programs: Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Michigan State, Missouri, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Oregon State, Texas A&M and Wisconsin. Some police departments withheld records citing state disclosure laws. (ESPN sued the University of Notre Dame and Michigan State University for not releasing material; both cases are pending on appeal.) And not all information was uniform among jurisdictions.

But available reports showed that Rainey’s alma mater, Florida, had the most athletes — 80 — named as suspects in more than 100 crimes at Florida. Yet the athletes either never faced charges, had charges against them dropped or were not prosecuted 56 percent of the time. When Outside the Lines examined a comparison set of cases involving college-age males in Gainesville, 28 percent of the crimes ended either without a record of charges being filed or by charges eventually being dropped.

Florida State had the second-highest number of athletes named in criminal allegations: 66 men’s basketball and football athletes. In 70 percent of those incidents, the athletes either never faced charges, had charges against them dropped or were not prosecuted. By comparison, cases ended up without being prosecuted 50 percent of the time among a sample of crimes involving college-age males in Tallahassee.

Overall, the Outside the Lines investigation found that what occurs between high-profile college athletes and law enforcement is not as simple as the commonly held perception that police and prosecutors simply show preferential treatment, though that does occur. Rather, the examination of more than 2,000 documents shows that athletes from the 10 schools mainly benefited from the confluence of factors that can be reality at major sports programs: the near-immediate access to high-profile attorneys, the intimidation that is felt by witnesses who accuse athletes, and the higher bar some criminal justice officials feel needs to be met in high-profile cases.

Other factors found from the examination of the 10 schools:

• Athletic department officials inserted themselves into investigations many times. Some tried to control when and where police talked with athletes, while others insisted on being present during player interviews, alerted defense attorneys, conducted their own investigations before contacting police, and even, in one case, handled potential crime-scene evidence. Some police officials were torn about proper procedure — unsure when to seek a coach’s or athletic director’s assistance when investigating crimes.

• Some athletic programs have, in effect, a team lawyer who showed up at a crime scene or jail or police department — sometimes even before an athlete requested legal counsel. The lawyers, sometimes called by athletic department officials, were often successful in giving athletes an edge in evading prosecution — from minor offenses to major crimes.

• The high profiles of the athletic programs and athletes had a chilling effect on whether cases were even brought to police and how they were investigated. Numerous cases never resulted in charges because accusers and witnesses were afraid to detail wrongdoing, they feared harassment from fans and the media, or they were pressured to drop charges in the interest of the sports programs.

None of this is at all surprising to me. Several years ago, as editor of the Michigan Messenger, I was involved in a story written by my then-reporter and good friend Todd Heywood about two Michigan State basketball players who were accused of raping a female student in the dorms. The police recommended that charges be filed. One of the two men accused told police voluntarily that the woman initially consented but then changed her mind and that he had stopped but the other player wouldn’t. The prosecutor refused to file charges. Our research showed that this particular prosecutor had an absolutely terrible record on prosecuting rape cases, only filing charges in a small percentage of cases, far less often than other prosecutors in the state.

When that story was published, the backlash was intense. Fans of the program — and I’m one of them — lost their minds over it, accused us of yellow journalism and generally raging — not over the fact that a girl was almost certainly raped but over the fact that we dared to report it. The tribalism in sports is at least as bad as the tribalism in religion or politics and people get incredibly invested emotionally in their teams.

Most amusing to me were the accusations that Todd and I were on a witch hunt against the MSU basketball team. Todd couldn’t possibly care any less about sports, so that accusation is absurd. And me? I’ve been a huge fan of MSU basketball from practically the day I was born less than a mile from the MSU campus. I still have the scrapbook I kept during MSU’s national championship season in 1979, when I was 11 years old. My parents had season tickets to the game and some of my fondest memories are of going to MSU basketball and football games as a kid.

But that didn’t override my commitment to honest investigative journalism. And it doesn’t override my intellectual honesty. If the evidence is there, it doesn’t matter to me a bit whether it makes my favorite team look bad. If it did, I would have been unworthy of being called a journalist. But far too many reporters get really close to the programs they cover because of that tribalism I mentioned above. And so do students, professors, alumni and local elected officials. And that atmosphere intimidates the hell out of witnesses and victims. That’s why so many charges against major athletes result in the victims deciding not to press charges, because they quite reasonably fear a major backlash from the communities.

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