Should Background Checks be Used in College Sports?

February 10, 2017

An investigation by Tulsa World revealed how performing background checks on prospective student-athletes can help campuses keep their students safe. After University of Oklahoma receiver Dede Westbrook was revealed as Heisman Trophy finalist, the local publication reported he had two family violence arrests in his past. In 2012, Westbrook allegedly assaulted the mother of his children, throwing her to the ground. During questioning regarding the incident, Westbrook admitted he became angry at the woman for refusing to let him enter the home. He also admitted to breaking and entering through the window. The following year, Westbrook was arrested again for crimes against the same woman, allegedly punching her in the face and biting her arm. He was recruited by OU during the 2014 fall semester.

Westbrook was never convicted, but his arrest record raised questions about whether college campuses are doing enough to screen student athletes before admittance.

Background checks on potential students

A later Tulsa World investigation found only two of the Big 12 schools - the University of Oklahoma and Texas Christian University - perform background checks on incoming student-athletes. Some universities depend on a level of transparency with these young adults, according to Joe Castiglione, athletic director for the University of Oklahoma.

"They're supposed to answer questions related to any type of disciplinary action that might have occurred in high school or junior college or another four-year institution," Castiglione told Tulsa World. "We ask them if they had any conflict with the law. [There are] specific questions about any type of allegation, finding, related to sexual harassment, sexual assault, domestic violence."

However, an ESPN report revealed the difficulties background checks impose when it comes to recruiting athletically talented students. As funding for athletic programs is often based in part on the team's performance, collages compete fiercely with each other to acquire the best talent. This forces recruiters and coaches to make a call as to whether a prospective student's talent is great enough to make up for any history of criminal activity. In addition, recruiters don't want to ask probing questions that could offend athletes and convince them to go to another school.

Unfortunately, by taking the alternative route, schools run the risk of their athletes assaulting other students, faculty or staff. Athletes might also commit a crime outside of school, tarnishing the college's reputation. 

Failing to perform background checks on incoming student-athletes paints a negative image of the school, especially as campus assaults are receiving more coverage. For instance, the Chicago Tribune recently reported that Northwestern University is investigating at least three anonymous reports of drugging and sexual assault at fraternity houses. Meanwhile, The Columbus Dispatch reported a former Ohio State University running back assaulted his then-girlfriend in 2016. 

If parents become aware that schools are not taking a student-athlete's criminal background into consideration, they might conclude the college isn't doing enough to protect its students. This latter concept is exceptionally important in both academics and the professional environment.

Orange Tree provides criminal background research and other screening services. Contact our sales team for help reviewing your candidates.

Topics: Background Screening