Inves­tiga­tive jour­nalist Jeff Bene­dict, MA’95, who’s penned four books on ath­letes and crime, recently co-​​wrote a 3,100-word exposé for Sports Illus­trated in which he uncov­ered the crim­inal records of the nation’s elite col­lege foot­ball players. We asked Bene­dict, who served as director of research for Northeastern’s Sport in Society center, to assess the rev­e­la­tory report, which found that seven per­cent of players on teams in the magazine’s 2010 pre­season Top 25 had been charged with or cited for a crime.

Why are so many col­lege foot­ball coaches and ath­letics direc­tors unaware of their players’ crim­inal records?

Almost all pro­grams do what I would con­sider ‘cur­sory looks’ at crim­inal his­to­ries. There are a couple of rea­sons. One is because many coaches don’t really want to know the nitty-​​gritty details. I also think there are some coaches in pro­grams who aren’t nec­es­sarily aware of how easy it is to do crim­inal back­ground checks. Finally, there is insti­tu­tional pres­sure not to dig too deep, in order to get the best players. It could be seen as a dis­ad­van­tage for a par­tic­ular school if a player knows which pro­grams do and don’t dig into his his­tory and then grav­i­tates toward schools that are less careful.

Why are so many of the crimes com­mitted by ath­letes vio­lent crimes against women, and how do they rou­tinely escape account­ability for their offenses?

Sex crimes against women are a direct out­growth of the lifestyle these players lead. I’ve looked at hun­dreds of cases and so often the cir­cum­stances involve alle­ga­tions of abuse. The problem arises when a player, who is accus­tomed to get­ting what he wants when he wants, encoun­ters a women who says ‘no.’ Ath­letes aren’t used to putting on the breaks.

There are a few rea­sons why players escape severe penal­ties. From the start, even col­lege ath­letes who have no money often end up with the best lawyer in town with help from alumni or boosters. Pro ath­letes spend and spend and spend and hire lawyers who in turn bring in media rela­tions firms and pri­vate investigators.

Police and pros­e­cu­tors are par­tic­u­larly hard on ath­letes, but there is a huge drop off between arrest and con­vic­tion rates. That’s because ath­letes often enjoy a great rep­u­ta­tion among jurors, espe­cially if the accuser is por­trayed as someone out to get money from the player.

What steps can insti­tu­tions take to clean up their ath­letics programs?

A uni­ver­sity should require crim­inal back­ground checks on col­lege ath­letes being recruited for schol­ar­ships. If a uni­ver­sity has no idea of a recruit’s his­tory of vio­lent crimes as a young adult, and he rapes a woman or severely beats a man on campus, that stu­dent can turn around and sue the school for negligence.

If a back­ground check finds that a player has a crim­inal record, there should be an impar­tial review of the ath­lete by an admin­is­trator at the school. Whether or not a recruit gets a break should not depend on the sole dis­cre­tion of the coach.

This does not mean that every player found to have a crim­inal record would be denied a schol­ar­ship. On the con­trary, it means that these sit­u­a­tions would be vetted more care­fully and everyone, including the player, would be made aware that the schol­ar­ship holder must abide by the rules of the community.