Criminal Background Checks Remain a Rarity Despite Issues In College Sports

By Cody Stavenhagen Tulsa World

Way back in 2006, not long after the University of Oklahoma became one of the country’s first athletic departments to institute formal background checks for prospective student-athletes, OU athletic director Joe Castiglione was quoted in the Marquette Sports Law Review.

“We didn’t do this to set the tone or call attention to this part of the process,” Castiglione said. “It’s due diligence, and we think it helps us create a better profile on the prospective student-athletes (we are) bringing in. We’re not going to catch every single thing … but if we don’t do this, someday someone else is going to walk in to my office and say, ‘Did you know about this?

Oddly enough, a decade later, Castiglione’s hypothetical scenario came to life.A Tulsa World report in December revealed two domestic violence allegations in wide receiver Dede Westbrook’s past. OU said it had been previously unaware of these arrests despite a slew of other issues involving football players Joe Mixon, Frank Shannon and Dorial Green-Beckham around the time of Westbrook’s recruitment from junior college.

Only a few schools nationwide run detailed background checks on every prospective athlete, but Westbrook’s arrest history — which the World discovered after running a Google search for Westbrook’s full name — was not uncovered.

Castiglione and OU President David Boren also said coaches involved in the recruiting process are required to report any potential issues, even if only rumors. Administrators said coaches were not aware of Westbrook’s situation.“We don’t have an answer why it didn’t show up,” Castiglione said. “It should have.”

In a voluntary sitdown with the Tulsa World editorial board Tuesday, Castiglione and Boren spoke on several topics relative to OU and issues across college sports. In that nearly two-hour session, Castiglione said if OU had known about Westbrook’s arrests at the time — or had another student-athlete with a similar profile today — it would not have admitted him. “Under today’s process, he would not be (admitted),” Castiglione said.

The comment was not meant as an indictment of Westbrook, who was never convicted and had a mostly clean record after coming to OU, but rather as a statement to OU’s standards.

Boren and Castiglione noted OU has broadened and strengthened its background checks since their 2005 institution, and particularly since the numerous issues OU encountered in 2014.

During the Tulsa World meeting, Boren said OU has changed its procedures since the Westbrook revelation. When asked if the changes were a result of the revelation, Boren said, “Certainly. Yes.”

Castiglione later clarified that OU began preparing to expand the capabilities of its athletic background searches in the summer of 2016 — not as a result of the Westbrook story — and said OU’s planned switch from a previous provider to its current HireRight system became operational in January. No changes, Castiglione said, came as a result of the Westbrook situation.

Despite the potential flaws and changes in OU’s system, the university is in fact a national leader in due diligence. A recent study led by Northern Kentucky professor Stephanie Hughes shows only about 2 percent of college athletic departments run formal background checks on incoming athletes.

But as conferences institute legislation and public awareness over sexual assault and domestic violence continues to grow, other questions come about for schools across the country: What is due diligence? How much is enough? How can schools be more accountable? “We have not yet found a perfect system,” Castiglione said.

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