Published March 2, 2011
By: George Dorhmann & Jeff Benedict
On March 31, 2010, 16-year-old Viliseni Fauonuku, his cousin Sam Langi and five other young men were in the garage of a house in West Jordan, a suburb of Salt Lake City. A man who rented the house called the garage a "smoke shop"; where he and his friends went to smoke cigarettes during Utah's frigid winter months. It was also a known hangout where local kids came and went.
Two of those present were, like Fauonuku, still in high school, and none was over 20 years old. Only one of the five young men knew Fauonuku, though others knew of him: He was a star defensive lineman on nearby Bingham High's football team. He had unmistakable long, black hair and a powerful physique—290 pounds on a 6-foot frame—that had gotten the attention of college recruiters.
As Fauonuku sat in a chair in the garage, his cousin talked with one young man, and police records reflect that at some point Langi inquired about buying some marijuana. According to those records Fauonuku later told authorities that this was the prearranged signal for him to act. Fauonuku stood up and from his waistband pulled a handgun that witnesses said looked like a 9-mm. He cocked the gun, pointed it at the men and demanded their wallets. Some were shaking as they handed over their billfolds and money.
Fauonuku and his cousin left moments later, but not before Fauonuku allegedly issued a warning to the young men he'd just robbed at gunpoint. "If I hear this on the news," Fauonuku said, according to one of the victims, "I'm going to come back and kill you."
The victims told police that they took Fauonuku at his word. They didn't immediately report the crime. The incident came to light two days later, after suspicious activity showed up on a debit card stolen in the robbery. Fauonuku was arrested and admitted during police questioning that he had been involved in the crime.
On Feb. 2, less than three months after Fauonuku pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree felony robbery, he signed a letter of intent to play football at the University of Utah.
That a school would have a player on its roster with a criminal record should surprise no one. Almost since the sport's inception college football programs have relied on players who have run afoul of the law. Pop Warner paid off the cops to keep players at the Carlisle (Pa.) Indian School out of jail. At Alabama, Bear Bryant used players well-known to police, and modern powerhouses—Oklahoma and Miami in the 1980s, Nebraska, Washington and Florida State in the 1990s, and, most recently, Florida—have had players who dealt drugs, assaulted women, thieved, drove drunk and more.
It is a visible black eye on the game. Yet even as criminal incidents involving players appear to have become more widespread in recent years, the scope of the problem has never been fully examined.
How much do schools really know about the prospects they recruit and reward with scholarships? How much do they know about the behavior of their players off the field?
To answer these questions and examine the risk-reward challenges of big-time recruiting, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and CBS News embarked on an unprecedented six-month investigation, conducting criminal background checks on all players—a total of 2,837—who were on the rosters of SI's 2010 preseason Top 25 as of last Sept. 1. Players' names, dates of birth and other vital information were run through courthouses, online databases, law-enforcement agencies and a variety of other sources (box, right). Every player was run through at least one database and most players went through several. In all, 7,030 record checks were performed.
The data alone don't convey the complexity of piecing together the full picture. There are no relevant national college-student crime statistics against which to compare the results. Privacy laws made juvenile records unavailable in most states and posed particular challenges to record-checking in California and Texas, two of three states (along with Florida) that produce the most college football players. Still, the study produced some striking revelations. Among them:
• Approximately 7% of the players (204)—one out of 14—had been in trouble with the law either before or after entering college. That number would have been higher if SI and CBS News had included dozens of players who between the end of the 2009 season and the start of the 2010 season had been kicked off their teams after being charged with crimes. If the study had looked at only scholarship players, the percentage with a record would have risen to 8.1% (172 of 2,125).
• Nearly 40% of the alleged incidents were serious offenses. Players had been charged with 56 violent crimes, including assault and battery (25 cases), domestic violence (6), aggravated assault (4), robbery (4) and sex offenses (3). There were 41 charges for property crimes, such as burglary, theft and larceny; and 105 for drug and alcohol offenses, including DUI and intent to distribute cocaine. In cases in which the outcome was known, players were guilty or paid some penalty in nearly 60% of the 277 total incidents.
• Twenty-two players on the Pittsburgh roster had a criminal record—the highest number in the study and nearly three times the rate of the overall sample. Of the scholarship players, 20 (23.5%) had criminal records. In a two-month span last season, four Pitt players were arrested for violent crimes, including aggravated assault and vehicular assault while under the influence (box, page 37).
• Of the 318 athletes SI/CBS News investigated who are from Florida, one of the very few states that allows access to juvenile records, 22 were found to have been arrested at least once before they turned 18. If that rate were extrapolated to the entire pool of players in the study, it would suggest that approximately eight scholarship players per team had been arrested at least once before they arrived on a college campus.
• Race appeared not to be a major factor in the results. In the overall sample 48% of the players were black and 44.5% were white. Sixty percent of the players with a criminal history were black and 38% were white.
• Not a single player from Texas Christian, the Rose Bowl champion, was found to have been arrested, debunking the long-held belief that for a nontraditional power to succeed it must take on players with checkered pasts. Likewise, Stanford, the Orange Bowl champion, had just one player who'd been in legal trouble (a minor charge that was later dismissed).
NCAA president Mark Emmert, when presented with the study's findings, said, "[It is] a set of facts that obviously should concern all of us... . Seven percent, that's way too high. I think two percent is too high. You certainly don't want a large number of people with criminal backgrounds involved in activities that represent the NCAA."
The number shouldn't be shocking given how little digging college coaches do into recruits' pasts before offering the players scholarships. Only two of the 25 schools in the SI/CBS News study, TCU and Oklahoma, perform any type of regular criminal background checks. Not one searches juvenile records.
That is the case even in Florida, a recruiting hotbed, where for $24 anyone can obtain a criminal-background record, one that includes many juvenile offenses, for anyone who has been arrested in that state. Despite the easy access, no school contacted by SI checks the records of the players it recruits from Florida, not even Miami, Florida State or Florida.
By failing to take this simple step, colleges can miss signs that a player might be high-risk. Take the case of Antwan Darling, who grew up in Miami and last fall was a freshman linebacker for Cincinnati. On March 22, 2010, 17-year-old Kimberly Lewis was home alone in Miami when she placed a frantic 911 call:
"He's at the back door ... he's trying to get in!"
Lewis was home sick from school when she heard two men trying to break into her family's house. Alone, she locked herself in a room and talked to a dispatcher on her cellphone.
"They're in the house! ... I hear them in the kitchen."
Police responded, and Darling, then 18, was arrested at gunpoint with one other man and charged with felony burglary. (Darling completed a pretrial intervention program and the charge was dropped.)
Records reveal that Darling had been arrested twice previously, once for a felony count of firing a weapon in 2006 and once for drug possession and resisting arrest in 2008. The 2006 case was dropped, and adjudication was withheld in the other.
When SI contacted Cincinnati for comment on Darling, who remains on the team, a football spokesman said he was unaware of the player's arrest in the burglary case. The athletic department then sent SI a statement from coach Butch Jones saying, "When recruiting a prospective student-athlete, we do our due diligence in exhausting all avenues looking into an individual's background."
Only one of the 25 schools in the SI/CBS News study (Virginia Tech) said that it performs criminal-background checks on all nonathletes. (Admissions questionnaires at more than half of the other universities ask applicants if they have ever been arrested.) The stakes can be higher for a school when recruiting athletes, however, especially football and basketball players, who are often among the most visible representatives of a university. By not spotting the warning signs evident in arrest records, a school can leave itself open to criminal acts that can damage the institution's reputation and prove costly. TCU, the University of Colorado and at least three other schools have in recent years all been sued by victims of crimes that were allegedly committed by scholarship athletes.
Despite those risks, and even though knowing about a recruit's criminal past might better equip a school to nurture him through the transition to college and help him stay out of further trouble, coaches interviewed for the SI/CBS News investigation offered numerous reasons why they don't check players' records. Some didn't know criminal records were available; others said they trusted their ability to get to the bottom of a recruit's past; many dismissed a police report as an inadequate measure of a teenager's character; one suggested that doing a background check would be a "breach of trust" between the coach and the recruit and his family. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, whose 2011 recruiting class included 22 prospects from in-state, said, "We have people in the community who know people. Everybody knows law enforcement people. We know people who are around guys."
That presupposes that those people who "know people" or are "around" players, such as high school coaches and counselors, never miss an arrest or citation.
Dave Peck, Fauonuku's coach at Bingham High, would be considered by some recruiters to be ideally positioned to assess Fauonuku's character. Yet Peck did not learn the full details of his star player's armed robbery incident until nearly six months after it happened, when SI showed him the arrest report. "I knew there was an incident," Peck said. "I honestly didn't know a whole lot that happened at that point."
Several college coaches told SI/CBS News that, from their perspective, ignorance is bliss when it comes to knowing a player's arrest record. "First, [finding out about arrests] could mean that you would lose some talented players. Your [athletic director] or admissions people might say, 'No, we can't take that kid after what he did,' " said one coach who was an assistant at one school in the study but asked to remain anonymous because he is now at another school. "Also, if a kid you do bring in with a record then gets in trouble again, it won't be looked at as his first mistake. Keeping him on the team would be viewed as giving him a third chance. That's a tough sell."
Last, and perhaps most significant, no program wants to be the first to run juvenile record checks because, the unnamed coach said, "If we started doing it, [other schools] would use it against us in recruiting."
Some college administrators and professors would prefer that athletes such as Fauonuku were never awarded a scholarship. Ban any kid with a criminal record from participating in intercollegiate athletics, they say. Coaches wholeheartedly disagree and for good reason: They know that not every kid—or every crime—is the same.
In November 2007, then 18-year-old Kevin Claxton, a linebacker at Boyd Anderson High in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., was arrested with four other individuals for robbing a home. Claxton's dream of playing in college seemed dashed after he was arrested and charged with second-degree felony burglary.
Claxton faced essentially the same criminal charge as Fauonuku, but Claxton's incident involved no guns, drugs or alleged threats of physical harm, and Claxton only drove the participants to and from the scene. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema weighed that information along with the fact that Claxton had never been in legal trouble before, came from a two-parent home and was praised by teachers and administrators at his school.
"We came to believe that this was one of those cases where an otherwise good kid made a mistake," Bielema says.
Wisconsin would not award Claxton a scholarship if he were convicted of a felony, a fact that Claxton's lawyer cited in a pretrial filing in Broward County court. To pursue felony charges against Claxton, the lawyer wrote, would deprive him of a chance to better himself. The court agreed and allowed Claxton to plead guilty but withheld entry of his plea, meaning that if Claxton met certain conditions, he would not have a felony conviction on his record. Claxton spent weekends and spring break of his senior year in jail and even had to get permission from the court to attend his graduation, but he received his scholarship.
"Since he's been here, he has maintained the [grade-point average] that the court required and has done everything we have asked of him," Bielema says. "He's been a great kid."
Another apparent success story is Kenbrell Thompkins, a junior wideout at Cincinnati who was arrested seven times between ages 15 and 18. His rap sheet included felony arrests for robbery and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. Some of those charges were later dropped.
Thompkins grew up in Liberty City, a neighborhood considered one of Miami's most violent. (Fisher, Florida State's coach, talks of kids from such areas as having to make "decisions day to day that are about survival.") In 2007, at age 19, Thompkins had an epiphany as he watched his younger brother, Kendal, earn a football scholarship to Miami. The elder Thompkins then decided to dedicate himself to football (he hadn't played much at Northwestern High) and ended up impressing coaches at a junior college in California, where he spent two trouble-free years and excelled on the field. Alabama, Tennessee, Cincinnati and several other schools offered him a scholarship.
Thompkins signed with Tennessee but jumped to Cincinnati after Vols coach Lane Kiffin bolted to USC. While forced to sit out a year under NCAA transfer rules, Thompkins was a model student last year at Cincinnati, earning a 3.9 GPA in his first academic term. "He has come a long way in a short time," Bearcats coach Jones told SI last year.
Players like Claxton and Thompkins, coaches say, are the reason a prohibition on scholarships for kids with criminal records would be unjust; it would lessen the sport's power to change lives.
"Usually these [incidents] have a story, how the young people get caught up in things," says UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel. "Certainly, people make mistakes, and most of us in the coaching industry understand that."
Not all gambles pay off. Before his senior year at Lincoln High in Des Moines, all-state running back Adam Robinson was arrested for third-degree burglary and later pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of misdemeanor trespassing. Iowa decided to take a chance on him. After redshirting in 2008, Robinson spent two productive years with the Hawkeyes but couldn't escape trouble.
In 2009 he pleaded guilty to underage purchase and possession of alcohol. In December, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz suspended Robinson for "failing to comply with team expectations and policy" and on Dec. 27 Robinson was charged with possession of marijuana. (He later pleaded guilty.) On Jan. 3, Ferentz dismissed Robinson from the team.
It was a difficult season for the Hawkeyes, who had the second-most players with legal trouble (18) of the schools in the SI/CBS News investigation. A few weeks before Robinson's marijuana case, senior Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Iowa's alltime leading receiver, was arrested on multiple drug charges including keeping a drug house. He later pleaded down to possession of marijuana.
An Iowa spokesman said the school would have no comment on the arrests of team members.
At first glance, it seems like an error or a statistical anomaly: TCU, the Rose Bowl champion and a top five team in each of the past two seasons, did not have a single player among the 204 in the SI/CBS News investigation who were found to have been in trouble with the law. Not one arrest for drunken driving or assault. Not even a citation for public intoxication or disturbing the peace.
"We are not perfect," says TCU coach Gary Patterson. "In the past we have had kids who've made mistakes. But we have tried to recruit the type of high-character kid who gets here and buys into what we are doing and doesn't want to do anything to embarrass himself or the school."
TCU and Patterson have learned the risks of signing recruits who fall short of that standard. In 2002, a player was suspended from the school shortly before he was charged with murdering his girlfriend's 16-month-old daughter. In 2006, another player was accused of sexual assault. In 2007, a player was arrested for domestic violence.
Last fall a lawsuit was filed against TCU by a former student, who accused one football player and two basketball players of raping her in that same 2006 case. The suit, which accuses the school of not knowing about athletes' criminal records, is scheduled to go to trial in May.
Doing background searches on recruits is one reason why TCU has been able to keep its current football players out of trouble. "I always say that I only have to find 20 to 25 [recruits] each year who want to do it the right way," Patterson says. "Sure, there have been times I've bypassed a very talented player because we learned about something he did, but there are always other kids out there. They may need more time to develop, but we know they will buy into what we are doing."
Patterson has tried not to draw attention to TCU's background checks. "Some schools will use that against us in recruiting. I'm sure of it," he says. "But we think it is the best thing for the school because it puts your mind at rest. It lets you know that there is nothing out there about a kid that you could have found out that you didn't because you didn't look."
Patterson says he reviews recruits on a case-by-case basis along with a school committee that vets all prospective athletes. If a recruit comes along who they feel can overcome his criminal past and represent TCU properly, the university—and Patterson—will take the risk.
Says Patterson, "Every kid deserves a chance."
Does that include Viliseni Fauonuku?
Sitting in the living room of their West Jordan home in December, Fauonuku and his mother, Regena Newton, spoke passionately about why the events of that one evening last March should not prevent him from playing college football. Fauonuku's recollection of what happened that night differs somewhat from the statements of the victims, and even from the account attributed to him in the police report.
"When we first went in there, they all started smoking weed and I'm just sitting in the chair," Fauonuku says. "And then we were drinking and stuff... . And I'm just by myself. And so then they all started getting loud and then [my cousin Langi] has the weed in his hand. And he just stands up, like, 'We're leaving and we're taking this.' [They said], 'No, you owe us money for that.'
"[Langi] is like, 'You gotta do somethin' about this. We gotta get outta here.' ... So I stood up [and showed the gun]. I think that was probably one of the scariest things in my life. I couldn't keep my legs. I was shaking."
Asked why he took the young men's wallets if he was only using the gun to hasten his cousin's exit with the marijuana, Fauonuku says, "After that, like, I guess I just didn't really care. I was just, like, all right, if we're gonna take the weed, then we're gonna take everything." (Langi, who served 120 days in jail for the crime, could not be reached for comment.)
The gun that Fauonuku took into the garage was not a 9-mm, he says, but a pellet gun made to look like a real gun. Police never recovered the weapon, and Newton says that she likely threw it out after the incident.
"Yes, my son made a mistake. [But] when you look at the whole picture, not just the charge, he hasn't been a kid in trouble," Newton says. "I am proud of him for the way he stood up and took responsibility for what he did. He didn't try to run from it. He didn't try to lie about it. He was forthright and honest when he was asked about it. He realized right after he did it that he did something wrong."
At Utah, athletic department policy states that no felon can receive a scholarship. Fauonuku pleaded guilty to second-degree felony robbery that will likely be reduced to a third-degree felony at his final disposition hearing on March 3. In addition, because Fauonuku was a juvenile at the time of the incident, his crime will then be recorded as a "delinquent act" and not a felony. That reclassification may pave the way for him to play next season at Utah.
"I'm of the opinion that most of the time people deserve a second chance," Utes coach Kyle Whittingham says. "Every case has to be evaluated separately, but we believe if the court gives a kid a second chance, we give the kid a second chance."
Asked if the acceptance of Fauonuku's letter of intent was evidence that the school was comfortable admitting him, Whittingham said that signing Fauonuku "was an act of good faith pending the outcome of the situation."
If Fauonuku doesn't get admitted to Utah, he'll land somewhere; he says Oregon State, Boise State, Washington State and other schools were recruiting him as recently as December, and none of the recruiters indicated to him then that whatever he did in that garage in West Jordan last March would prevent him from playing college football. He says he just wants to get a scholarship and become the first person in his family to attend college. What school does he think he'll end up at?
"Well, basically, whoever will take me," he says. "Just doesn't matter as long as I'm playing ball."