For many people, collegiate athletics contribute a huge portion of a college’s identity, even overshadowing the schools’ academic programs and research initiatives. College administrators see athletics as a way to reach out to possible donors, alumni, supporters, and prospective students. Little wonder that schools strive to field quality teams in order to win games, conference titles, bowl games, and national championships.
Striving to win can become, as Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis put it, “Just win, baby,” and that can sometimes lead to colleges accepting student-athletes solely as athletes. Occasionally a student-athlete with an inadequate academic resume or criminal history is still given a scholarship to a prestigious university just for the game.
Most recently, the University of Miami (Fla.) announced it would allow linebacker Willie Williams to enroll at the school despite his extensive criminal record. Williams, according to USA Today, has pled no contest to a felony charge resulting from setting off fire extinguishers at his hotel during a recruiting trip to the University of Florida. He also pled no contest to a misdemeanor charge of hugging a woman without consent. He has been arrested 11 times in five years.
In a letter to students and alumni, Donna Shalala, Miami president and former Clinton administration Health and Human Services Secretary, explained the school’s decision to allow Williams to enroll.
”This is hardly a perfect applicant to the [u]niversity,” Shalala said. “Oh, how we love perfection — perfect grades, perfect character, and perfect recommendations. Those are the easy ones! This young man is not perfect and has made some bad decisions — in friends, in behavior, etc. However, he is young, and his file reveals academic talent as well as the better-known athletic ability.”
While Miami is adding a player with a checkered past, other schools have cut ties with players or recruits that have recently been in trouble with the law. Earlier this year, UNC-Chapel Hill basketball coach Roy Williams withheld a scholarship offer to the state’s all-time leading scorer JamesOn Curry after he plead guilty to two felony counts of marijuana possession with the intent to sell or deliver. The school has a policy that makes student-athletes convicted of a felony immediately ineligible. Curry later signed with Oklahoma State.
In April, West Virginia University withheld a scholarship offer to running back Raymond Williams after the Ohio prep star was arrested in connection to the robbery and shooting death of a high school teammate. In May, Virginia Tech quarterback Marcus Vick was suspended from the team after he was convicted of three counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He also faces drug and reckless driving charges in a separate case.
In Willie Williams’ case, Miami officials said that he will be under strict review and considerations. But would a Willie Williams be given the chance to attend the University of Miami if he were a regular student wanting to study political science or communications? Chances are school officials would not be willing to risk the safety of the entire student body for such an individual. But if the individual with the long criminal record is a talented athlete in a revenue sport, it seems as though some schools are too often willing to take a risk.
Does Miami not know about the tragedies this spring at UNC-Wilmington? Christen Naujoks, 22, was killed by John Peck, 27, who failed to report a felony and misdemeanor conviction on his application. Peck later killed himself following a chase that led to the Great Smokey Mountains. Another student, Jessica Faulkner, 18, was allegedly killed by Curtis Dixon, who failed to report a 2000 misdemeanor larceny conviction.
The safety of the entire student body should be more important to a college than a berth to a BCS bowl game or a Final Four. Unfortunately, Miami’s decision and those like it suggests the health of the athletics department is more important than even the safety of students.
Shannon Blosser (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a staff writer for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Chapel Hill.