Falling Short: Compliance With NCAA Rules on Criminal Background Checks for Schools and Their Athletes

For many major universities in the United States, athletics programs — especially football — are major drivers of revenue and booster donations. As the importance of athletics has increased, and the spotlight on college players has grown brighter, so too has concern about the behavior of such student athletes. In recent years, high-profile stories and award-winning documentaries have covered the rampant problem of sexual abuse and violence surrounding college sports. Since then, new rules about background checks for schools and their athletes have come into force.

Or have they? A recent investigation by USA Today into 65 of the largest universities revealed some surprising shortcomings. The NCAA, the governing body for college sports, has a set of rules in place that ostensibly apply to all the more than one-thousand-member schools. These rules, intended to reduce the risks surrounding sports, may not be as effective as they could be due to lax compliance. 

How Are NCAA Schools Currently Vetting Athletes?

What background checks do schools do under this framework? According to the NCAA, member schools must do three things:

  • They must have a procedure about how to ask an athlete's prior schools about their disciplinary history.
  • They must take so-called ‘reasonable steps’ to verify if an athlete has a criminal or disciplinary history.
  • All athletes must disclose, once per year, if they transferred schools due to pending action or if they have convictions.

Notably, the NCAA rules say nothing about what schools should do with the information they receive. While some conferences have set strict guidelines barring athletes with particular histories, others have not. As a result, there is still the potential for high-risk players to slip through the cracks.

Poor policymaking and enforcement could contribute to that. Do all the colleges do background checks? Four of the 65 schools USA Today interviewed had no policy yet — despite the deadline for enforcement elapsing. Not even half of the 65 speak to an athlete's prior schools to ask about disciplinary history, and USA Today found that many schools don't ask more than the bare minimum.

Should Student Self-Disclosure Be Sufficient?

According to the newspaper's research, many schools accepted a student's annual disclosure at face value. As any employer knows, though, such individuals have many reasons to be untrue, especially in the increasingly lucrative world of college sports. Even schools have economic reasons to enforce a more relaxed policy. Some universities, though, did go above and beyond the NCAA rules—but not many.

The Need for Better Background Checks

The future of on-campus safety depends partly on enforcing school background check policies. Administrators should take a proactive role in ensuring that their athletics departments don't simply satisfy the letter of the NCAA rules but the spirit, too. Connecting with other schools, verifying disciplinary history, and routinely vetting athletes are all vital steps that could prevent future tragedies. Skirting the rules to secure athletic prowess should be as anathema to administrators as allowing plagiarism in the classroom. With that in mind, a better procedure for using criminal background checks for schools is very necessary.

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Michael Klazema

About Michael Klazema The author

Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based backgroundchecks.com with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments

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