Football woes lead to policy change

By Lauren Kirschman

The Pitt football team will start more heavily vetting its potential recruits by increasing the… The Pitt football team will start more heavily vetting its potential recruits by increasing the intensity of its questioning. But Athletic Director Steve Pederson said yesterday that criminal background checks would be difficult to do, unless there’s a national discussion about the topic.

“There are a lot of things that go into that [background checks] that don’t make it as easy as one would think,” he said at a press conference yesterday. “There are a lot of places the records are sealed, where you don’t have access.”

Pederson’s comment came the same day Sports Illustrated/CBS News released the results of a six-month investigation looking into the criminal records of athletes on the 2010 preseason Top 25 college footballs teams.The results, revealed that Pitt had 22 players charged with a crime — more than any other team in the preseason rankings.

Pederson said that in October — before Pitt knew the investigation was going on — the school added more in-depth procedures for evaluating players before they arrived on campus. He added that the process is still dependent on coaches going to the schools and cities to learn what they can about the recruit.

“The hardest part in all that is that it’s very hard to predict human behavior,” he said. “Sometimes, people make mistakes. We’re doing the best we can while they’re here to help them grow into the kind of people that we know they want to be and what we want for them.”

Pederson said that conducting actual background checks is a conversation that would have to take place on the national level between conference commissioners and athletic directors.

“I think anytime you can do that and it would be fair and equitable to everybody, including the student athletes involved, we would certainly be in favor of having that discussion.”

The joint Sports Illustrated and CBS News investigation consisted of running background checks on all 2,837 players on the 25 preseason rosters. Of the 25 schools, only two conduct background checks independently and none of the schools looked at juvenile records.

According to the article, investigators used 31 courthouses, 25 law enforcement agencies and 17 states to check players’ names, dates of birth and other information. They also used online databases to find criminal records. Seven percent of the 2,837 players had criminal records.

Pederson said it’s been an unusual year for the football team, as the Panthers experienced a number of high-profile incidents in a short amount of time. Within a period of about three months this summer, four Pitt players were arrested for violent crimes.

“I think this is very atypical of the football program and the Athletic Department,” Pederson said. “Anything that reflects in a negative way on the University is very disappointing to us.”

In July, former defensive end Jabaal Sheard pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and was permitted to rejoin the team after originally facing charges of aggravated assault and resisting arrest.

Running back Jason Douglas was charged with aggravated assault by vehicle after allegedly striking a person with a car while driving under the influence. Keith Coleman, an offensive lineman, was charged with aggravated assault and disorderly conduct. Safety Jeff Knox was accused of disorderly conduct, simple assault and recklessly endangering another person.

Douglas, Coleman and Knox were all suspended from the team.

“We have had students that have made mistakes and when they’ve made mistakes they’ve paid a very high price in an awful lot of cases,” Pederson said.

On the same day the Sports Illustrated/CBS News article was released, former Pitt football player Fernando Diaz was arrested after a confrontation with the police.

Todd Graham, who was named the Pitt head football coach in January, said he knew about the situation involving the team’s recent problems with the law from day one.

“I was very, very aware of the situation and it’s not something we started talking about today,” Graham said. “We started talking about it the very first meeting.”

He said he’s going to emphasize acting in “the Pitt way.”

“[That means] character, intensity, discipline and accountability,” he said. “All we can do is press forward from here.”

He also said that he doesn’t expect the investigation to have an impact on recruiting.

“You need to reap what you sow,” he said. “I think kids will meet whatever expectation you set and we set very, very high standards. The point I made today is that the standard isn’t that you didn’t get arrested; our standard is much higher than that.”

Pederson said Pitt is focusing on educating and mentoring the student athletes in order to communicate that they have a responsibility to themselves, their families and the University to uphold a high standard.

“They take that seriously,” he said. “Certainly, they feel as bad as anybody.”