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College Athletes and Crime: What Happens When Players Break the Law?

College athletes who commit crimes are subject to prosecution just like everyone else, but they often face additional sanctions by college administrators and athletic departments as well. Universities and other post-secondary schools typically publish codes of conduct for student athletes that address everything from academic standards and travel safety to sexual assault and other criminal behavior. A college athlete accused of a crime might be suspended from all sports-related activities during the investigation, while conviction of a serious crime may result in expulsion or revocation of financial aid in many schools.

The following article covers the basics of how schools handle criminal investigations and charges involving college athletes, including relevant sections from codes of conduct enforced by college athletic departments and real-life examples of student athletes involved in criminal matters.

Are College Athletes Unfairly Sheltered From Prosecution?

Crimes aren't always properly handled by law enforcement, regardless of where they occur or who they involve. However, an ESPN "Outside the Lines" investigation of crime statistics of 20 college campuses from 2009 to 2014 suggests that college athletes are much more likely to avoid prosecution for crimes than non-athletes. For example, the data shows that male football and basketball players at the University of Florida who were named as criminal suspects were either not prosecuted, had charges dropped, or never faced charges at all 56 percent of the time. A comparison group of college-age, male suspects was just 28 percent (or half) as likely to avoid charges or prosecution.

Is it preferential treatment? Not necessarily, according to the report, which cites contributing factors like access to high-profile attorneys, intimidation felt by alleged victims and witnesses who accuse high-profile athletes of crimes, involvement of athletic department officials in investigations, and other factors.

College Athletes, Crime, and School Policies: Overview

Most colleges and universities hold student athletes to a written code of ethics, which typically includes disciplinary procedures. While most of the listed violations are not criminal in nature, such as disrespecting your coach or failing a class, they often include administrative penalties for criminal arrests, charges, or convictions. Unlike under criminal law, schools are free to impose certain penalties even before the case has been adjudicated.

Schools vary in how they handle criminal matters, but most schools have an extrajudicial process for addressing an alleged (or admitted) violation of the code of ethics. This may consist of an elected board with a mixture of students and administrators that hear arguments from both sides and imposes sanctions. However, the school's athletic director often decides the fate of student athletes who are accused, charged, or convicted of a crime.

Crime and Codes of Conduct: Examples

Below is a sampling of post-secondary school policies regarding criminal charges or convictions of student-athletes:

  • Lewis-Clark State College - "In situations involving violations of City of Lewiston, State of Idaho, or Federal law, violence, or threats the police may be informed of the occurrence... Sanctions already imposed by civil or criminal process may be taken into account when any College sanction is imposed." (Student Handbook)
  • University of Iowa - Sanctions for a felony conviction or probation violation include suspension from participation in sports and the "revocation or modification of athletically-related financial aid" (Student-Athlete Code of Conduct)
  • William Jewell College - "It is the responsibility of the student-athlete upon being charged with a criminal offense to immediately notify his or her head coach and the Director of Athletics... A student-athlete charged with a felony crime of violence or serious drug offense will be referred to the College Judicial process, suspended immediately from playing and practice privileges, and dismissed permanently from his or her team if he or she is convicted..." (Student-Athlete Handbook)
  • University of Washington - "When a student-athlete has been arrested or charged with a violation of criminal law, the student-athlete will be placed on administrative suspension from all team activities pending further investigation. If the alleged criminal activity would constitute a misdemeanor offense, the head coach may lift the administrative suspension after obtaining the approval of the sport administrator. If the alleged criminal activity would constitute a felony, the administrative suspension may be lifted only upon authorization of the Director of Athletics." (Student-Athlete Handbook)
  • Lassen Community College - "If charged with a misdemeanor, a student-athlete will be automatically suspended from athletic participation by the Head Coach, pending the Assistant Director of Athletics’ investigation. Appropriate disciplinary action will be taken which may include such progressive discipline as mandated counseling sessions, ineligibility to practice, ineligibility to start in contests, sitting out contests, or continued suspension from the team." (Student Athlete Handbook)

College Athletes and Crime: Real-Life Examples

Unfortunately, there are countless examples of college athletes committing crimes or otherwise behaving badly. Often, those named as suspects (but not yet charged) are suspended from the team until the case has been resolved. Below, we'll take a look at two incidents involving student athletes that had very different outcomes:

De'Andre Johnson, Florida State University

In the summer of 2015, Florida State University quarterback and freshman De'Andre Johnson was released from the team just hours after a video of him punching a woman in the face was released. He was charged with misdemeanor battery for the incident, which occurred at an off-campus bar. Johnson turned himself in after the Tallahassee State Attorney's Office released the surveillance video, which is also when his coach first heard about it.

According to Florida State Intercollegiate Athletics Policies and Procedures, misdemeanor charges are handled by the head coach after review by the Athletic Director. If misdemeanor charges result in jail time, the athlete will be permitted to join the team after the sentence is served. But the policy also states that "indefinite suspensions can be instituted in any case where an individual’s actions represent the Florida State University and its Athletics program in a manner inconsistent with [the] code of conduct." Johnson's conduct, which was caught on tape, likely met this threshold.

Darrell Williams, Oklahoma State University

Former Oklahoma State University basketball player Darrell Williams was convicted of rape and sexual battery in 2012, but the conviction was overturned on appeal due to improper actions by jurors. According to sources interviewed by ESPN, head coach Travis Ford allegedly told Williams and other teammates to "get their stories straight" in an effort to protect the accused. Ford said he conducted his own investigation, but officers from the Stillwater Police Department claim the coach made every effort to block their efforts at locating Williams and other suspects. A spokesman from the department told reporters they are instructed not to contact school officials when criminal allegations involve athletes, precisely to avoid attempts at cover-ups.

Talking to a Lawyer

If you are a college athlete facing criminal charges or involved in an investigation, keep in mind that administrative sanctions (including suspension from the team) do not require a criminal conviction. Talk to a criminal defense attorney in your area if you require legal representation.

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