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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 more sanctions from college administrators and athletic departments. Universities and other post-secondary schools have codes of conduct for student-athletes. These codes address everything from academic standards to travel safety. They also address sexual assault and other criminal behavior.

The following article covers:

  • The basics of how schools handle criminal investigations
  • Criminal charges involving college athletes
  • Codes of conduct enforced by college athletic departments
  • Amateurism and NCAA rules about athlete compensation
  • Name-image-likeness (NIL) laws

A college athlete accused of a crime might be suspended from sports-related activities. A conviction of a serious crime might have more serious consequences. For example, a student-athlete may face expulsion or revocation of their scholarship.

Student-Athletes and the Law

The world of college sports often seems glamorous. But it's important to remember that student-athletes are subject to many different rules. Changes to National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules and state laws may offer new opportunities for student-athletes. Yet, they do not absolve students from their responsibilities. It also does not relieve them of the potential legal consequences of their actions.

As college sports continue to evolve, student-athletes, boosters, coaches, and other interested parties should stay informed. This will help ensure compliance with all NCAA, state, and federal laws and maintain eligibility. It also helps to safeguard the integrity of college sports.

Colleges and the NCAA play a role in this process. But student-athletes should remember it is their duty to do the right thing. Whether in college football, other sports, or everyday life, making smart choices is a big part of what you learn in college.

Are College Athletes Unfairly Sheltered From Prosecution?

Questions about legal protections arise at the intersection of education and college sports. Some critics argue that athletes enjoy a sheltered status, particularly at Division I schools. They argue that this creates an uneven playing field when it comes to potential legal issues.

ESPN's 2015 "Outside the Lines" investigation released crime statistics of 20 college campuses from 2009 to 2014. This study suggests that college athletes are much more likely to avoid prosecution for crimes than non-athletes.

For instance, consider the male football players and basketball players at the University of Florida. The data showed that more than half of the time, criminally accused players did not go to court, had their charges dropped, or didn't even get charged at all. But when other college-aged men were suspected of similar activities, only 28 percent were able to avoid charges or going to court.

Is it preferential treatment? Not necessarily, according to the report. The report cites contributing factors like access to high-profile attorneys. It also discusses intimidation of alleged victims and witnesses. This is especially true when the case involves a high-profile athlete. The report also addresses the involvement of athletic department officials in investigations.

College Athletes, Crime, and School Policies: Overview

Schools, particularly in NCAA Division I, are known for having strict eligibility rules. These often extend to off-the-field behavior. Any infractions can lead to penalties like suspension or removal from the team. High school athletes looking to enter the college sports arena should understand these rules. They should also consider how violating these rules could impact their future careers.

Despite these regulations, some athletes become involved in criminal activities. When this happens, they may face dual consequences. First, they can face legal ramifications in the legal system. They can also face consequences under their school's disciplinary procedures.

Most colleges and universities hold student-athletes to a written code of ethics. These codes of conduct typically include disciplinary procedures. Most of the listed violations are not criminal in nature. Examples might be disrespecting your coach or failing a class. However, they also include administrative penalties for criminal arrests, charges, or convictions. Unlike criminal law, schools are free to impose penalties before adjudicating the case.

Different schools handle criminal issues in their own ways. But most schools have a special process to deal with code of ethics violations. This process might include a group of people, made up of students and school leaders, who listen to both sides of the argument. They work together to impose sanctions. But when the case involves a student-athlete, the process may be different. Instead, the school's sports director usually makes the final decision.

Crime and Codes of Conduct: Examples

Schools generally have codes of conduct that athletes must adhere to. These are often stricter than the standard student codes. This is particularly true when the athlete's actions could affect the school's reputation or NCAA standing.

Here is a few examples of school policies on criminal charges or convictions of student-athletes:

  • University of Iowa — Sanctions for a felony conviction or probation violation include suspension from participation in sports. It also includes 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)

Offenses that break these codes can range from academic dishonesty to severe crimes. Examples of these crimes can include assault or theft. The penalties imposed by the schools often depend on the severity of the crime. It also might depend on the athlete's previous record and history of crime.

College Athletes and Crime: Real-Life Examples

Unfortunately, there are countless examples of college athletes committing crimes. These instances bring into sharp focus the implications of student-athletes breaking the law. It also highlights the potential consequences they face. This can include loss of eligibility, expulsion, and legal protection.

Those named as suspects (but not yet charged) are often suspended from the team. This usually lasts until the case has been resolved. Below, we'll take a look at a few incidents of real-life examples:

De'Andre Johnson, Florida State University

In the summer of 2015, De'Andre Johnson, a new quarterback for Florida State University, was kicked off of the team only hours after a video came out that showed him hitting a woman in the face. The incident took place at a bar off campus. Johnson turned himself in after the Tallahassee State Attorney's Office released the video. This was also the first time his coach heard about it. He was charged with misdemeanor battery.

Once the video came out, FSU's football team released Johnson. The rules of FSU's sports program give the head coach authority to handle these charges. But, the Athletic Director has a chance to review it first. If someone gets jail time for a misdemeanor, they can come back to the team once they've served their time. But, the rules also say that a player can be suspended for as long as necessary if they don't act the right way and break the code of conduct. How Johnson acted, documented by video, was bad enough to warrant this.

Johnson later reached a plea deal. He agreed to do community service, pay a fine, and attend an anger management class. He was kicked off of the FSU football team. This ultimately meant he lost his chance to play for a big-time Division I school. His case highlighted the problems student-athletes can face if they break the law. It also highlights the potential ramifications on their athletic career.

Ma'lik Richmond, Youngstown State University

Ma'lik Richmond of Ohio was a promising football prospect. However, as a teenager, he was convicted of rape. He spent ten months in a juvenile detention center. Following his release, he returned to his former high school and continued to play football. 

After starting college at two different schools, he transferred to Youngstown State University and joined their football program. But his presence on the team caused led to a significant backlash in the community and a petition by students for him to be taken off the team.

As a result, Richmond was not allowed to play during the 2017 season. He later sued the university and was reinstated. A judge eventually removed him from Ohio's juvenile sex offender list, as state law allowed. But his football career never recovered.

Sam Ukwuachu, Baylor University

In 2015, Sam Ukwuachu, a former football player at Baylor, was convicted of sexually assaulting a fellow student. The incident took place in 2013, but Ukwuachu was not indicted until 2014. The university faced backlash for letting him join the team despite knowing about the former incident.

He was convicted. Ukwuachu was sentenced to six months in jail and ten years of probation. He successfully appealed, but his conviction was eventually reinstated. This case led to major changes at Baylor University, including the dismissal of the head football coach, Art Briles, and the resignation of the university chancellor, Ken Starr. It also led to a widespread examination of how the school handled allegations of sexual assault.

Breana Harmon, University of North Texas

In 2016, Breana Harmon, a former student and cheerleader at the University of North Texas, reported that three men kidnapped and raped her. The police launched a comprehensive investigation. Yet, inconsistencies began to appear in Harmon's account of the assault. Later, she admitted she fabricated the story.

Harmon was originally charged with two counts of tampering with physical evidence. She was also charged with a misdemeanor crime of making a false report to a police officer. Later, her charges were increased to felonies. In 2018, Harmon pled guilty to these charges. She was sentenced to several years of deferred probation. She was also ordered to pay thousands of dollars in restitution.

This case underscores that female student-athletes can also face severe legal consequences. These cases can have significant impacts on their personal life and athletic career. It is also a reminder that false reporting can have serious repercussions. It can undermine efforts to address genuine cases of assault and violence.

Title IX Violations and Student-Athletes

In 1972, the U.S. Senate passed a law called Title IX. This law ensures that students are treated equally in school programs, including sports. Ultimately, this law promotes gender equality. This law also addresses what happens when students, including athletes, break the law.

The NCAA's Campus Sexual Violence Policy requires colleges and universities to gather information about every student athlete's history. They use questionnaires to find out whether an athlete has been accused of sexual harassment or assault.

Student-athletes must disclose any formal or informal campus or criminal proceedings against them related to sexual violence. This includes proceedings currently underway. The schools create their own questionnaires to find out this information, so some might ask for more information than others. The NCAA encourages schools to designate a person in their athletics department to answer questions about this policy.

If a student-athlete is accused of sexual harassment or assault, the NCAA can apply its own bylaws to supplement legal proceedings. On top of that, victims (or plaintiffs) can take schools to court. They can file a lawsuit if they feel the school failed to address their Title IX complaints well.

Changes in Athlete Compensation and the NIL Law

Student-athletes used to face disciplinary action from the NCAA for receiving financial compensation. But, new changes in the law and an important decision from the U.S. Supreme Court have shaken up the NCAA's old ideas.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh authored the Supreme Court Decision in NCAA v. Alston (2021). In short, the court held that the NCAA must follow antitrust laws. This allowed athletes to make money from their Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL).

The NCAA has always been strict about amateurism. This concept means that student-athletes are not professionals by law. So, they can't get paid or given special deals apart from things related to their education. An example may be a scholarship. New amendments to laws are changing this.

California has been a frontrunner in the evolving landscape of student-athlete rights. In 2019, California passed the “Fair Pay to Play Act." They became the first state to challenge the NCAA's stance on amateurism. This law allows student-athletes to profit from their NIL. It permits them to sign endorsement deals and earn profits from merchandise sales. This significant shift in law does not affect athletes' scholarships. But it enables them to explore new financial opportunities. They can do this without fear of losing their NCAA eligibility.

Pennsylvania has also been proactive in advancing the rights of student-athletes. Like California, Pennsylvania historically followed NCAA rules. But, Pennsylvania lawmakers passed a law in 2020 that mirrors California's Fair Pay to Play Act. It allows student-athletes to profit from their NIL. This has opened new avenues for financial compensation for student-athletes.

The NCAA's new NIL policy allows student-athletes to receive compensation for endorsements. They can also make money from their social media following and internships. This fundamentally altered the pay-for-play landscape. Yet, this policy does not shield athletes from criminal prosecution. It also does not shield student-athletes from school disciplinary action.

Getting Legal Help as a College Athlete

Athletes who get into legal trouble often need legal help. They need help from lawyers who know much about sports law and intercollegiate athletics. These professionals understand NCAA rules and can give really important support. Getting legal help can also protect athletes' rights. They can help with issues like collective bargaining. Or, they can help with lawsuits against the NCAA or their respective colleges.

If you are a college athlete facing criminal charges or you have criminal charges, get legal help. Remember that administrative sanctions do not need criminal convictions. This can include suspension from athletic programs or athletic participation. It can also mean the revocation of education-related benefits.

Talk to a criminal defense attorney in your area if you require legal representation.

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