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Two-Year Schools Run Into Troubles

Times Staff Writer

Mackey Davis and Eddie Scott played football on the margins of college competition, where there are no athletic scholarships and no sellout crowds, and there is no national spotlight.

The cornerbacks from two-year Reedley College near here made the big time, in terms of headlines, only when they were arrested last month on suspicion of sexually assaulting an 11-year-old girl.

The case has raised questions about whether lax enforcement of recruiting rules and a win-at-any-cost mind-set open the doors of some of California’s community colleges to trouble-bound athletes.

Some police officials say crimes allegedly committed by athletes have long been a problem at the schools -- one that escapes the media coverage and corrective actions that follow sports scandals at major four-year colleges.

“It’s a constant battle,” said Phil Mullendore, executive director of the California College and University Police Chiefs Assn. “Zealous coaches will attempt to get any athlete who will help his program, regardless of their background, and some of these athletes do not come from sterling backgrounds.”

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Over the last half-dozen years, athletes at California’s two-year colleges -- the nation’s largest higher-education system -- have been arrested on suspicion of murder, rape, felony assault and burglary, among other offenses.

Campuses that have seen athletes end up in handcuffs include Pasadena City College and the state’s reigning community college football champion, Grossmont College in El Cajon. At Pasadena City, a football player was arrested last year on suspicion of assault while on parole for manslaughter. This year, a football player at Foothill College in the Bay Area was charged with murder.

Willie Williams, a former Miami linebacker whose 11 arrests were revealed on the same day he signed a letter of intent with the Hurricanes in February 2004, has enrolled at West Los Angeles College and has been cleared to play this season, ESPN.com reported. He had been on probation after pleading no contest to charges stemming from incidents during a recruiting visit to the University of Florida.

Community college coaches note that criminal allegations against athletes remain uncommon -- no agency tallies them statewide -- and that most of the system’s 25,000 sports competitors are solid citizens.

But some experts say college athletes as a group break the law at a high rate. Research published in 1995 by the Journal of Sport and Social Issues found that male athletes at selected four-year colleges accounted for about 3% of students, but 19% of those accused of sexual assault.

A coauthor of the study, Jeff Benedict, who has since written several books on athletes and crime, said: “The situation is worse, in my judgment, than it was then. It’s worse in terms of the numbers of players having problems with lawlessness, and worse in terms of the severity of the offenses.”

Community college coaches acknowledge that recruitment flaws inevitably allow bad apples into locker rooms. They also say that a ban on athletic scholarships at California’s two-year colleges gives the schools less leverage over players. Scholarship athletes can lose thousands of dollars in education expenses if they engage in misconduct.

“We have no control,” said Dave Jordan, who recently retired as Grossmont’s head football coach. “It’s a different situation than it is at the four-year level, where they have scholarships and everybody’s watching.”

Grossmont won the California title last year, after using for part of the season three players who had been convicted in the felony beating of a San Diego State student.

Jordan came under fire for keeping the players on the team. He said he knew of their arrests but had been unaware of their convictions.

The Grossmont episode has inspired state legislation. The bill, AB 2165, which is on the governor’s desk, would disqualify from athletics at state and community colleges any violent felons who have yet to complete their sentences or probation.

“Playing sports is a privilege, not a right,” said Laurie Paredes, legislative director for the measure’s author, Assemblyman Jay La Suer (R-La Mesa).

Advocates for tighter regulation of college sports say more must be done to screen recruits for a history of arrests or misconduct in school.

In addition, they say community colleges should take special care in examining a prospective player’s character, because most athletes at the two-year level did not have the grades, physical gifts or temperament to qualify for a four-year school.

Katherine Redmond, president of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, said out-of-state recruits are even riskier because their personal backgrounds are less known to local coaches. “You’re asking for trouble,” she said.

Redmond founded the coalition after alleging she was raped by a University of Nebraska football player in the 1990s. She settled a lawsuit against the school.

John Cicuto, football coach at Glendale Community College, agrees that recruiting out-of-state athletes can be a gamble, so he rarely does so.

“You don’t know who they are,” Cicuto said. “Did he have a drug problem? Did he steal?”

Other California community colleges routinely attract athletes from afar because their competitive programs serve as gateways to four-year schools.

Recruiting at these colleges can resemble a Hollywood cattle call, with players drifting in from around the state and country for tryouts.

At Reedley, the two defendants originally came to the school from Florida. One of them was about to try out for the Fresno City College team, officials say. Six other football players under investigation in the alleged sexual assault -- Fresno police say more arrests are expected -- also were preparing to try out at Fresno City.

Generally, anyone who has a high school diploma or is at least 18 may attend a California community college.

In NCAA Division I and II sports, the top rungs for four-year colleges, teams recruit players nationwide, usually with a scholarship offer, and often after a coach has visited the athletes to get to know them and their families.

By contrast, most of California’s 110 community colleges are forbidden from making the first contact with would-be recruits outside the school’s region. The athletes must initiate the contact. (A handful of the colleges are exempt because their rural districts have few high schools.)

No California community college may grant athletes financial aid beyond what is available to all students.

But critics say California coaches regularly violate the first-contact rule, and some try to find ways around the financial aid barriers. They say this reflects the same fervor to win that prompts coaches to turn a blind eye to warning signs in an athlete’s behavior.

“It’s our experience that athletic departments operate outside the rules,” said Mullendore, a former chief of Pasadena City’s campus police.

He said a Pasadena City coach several years ago informed him of plans to recruit a prison inmate for the football team, which ultimately did not happen. The coach, Dennis Gossard, did not respond to interview requests. A college spokesman said Gossard denied trying to recruit any inmate or recent parolee.

Pasadena City’s athletic program has been hit with a series of controversies.

In 2000, three football players were arrested on suspicion of raping a woman in a house the college owned. The woman later declined to cooperate with prosecutors, police officials say.

Five Pasadena City football players were arrested in 2001 on suspicion of burglary in the alleged theft of clothing from an Arcadia store. One player was convicted of grand theft, and charges against three others were dropped. The fifth player fled and is still wanted, according to Arcadia police.

Last September, football player Lamar Reed was arrested on suspicion of choking a woman on campus. Campus Police Lt. Brad Young said Reed was turned over to the Department of Corrections after officers determined he was on parole for manslaughter.

Pasadena City’s dean of athletics, Skip Robinson, and college President James Kossler declined to be interviewed.

Jeanette Mann, a member of the elected board of trustees that oversees Pasadena City, said they are “very well aware that there have been problems” in the athletic department.

It is difficult to compare Pasadena City’s record to those of other colleges because no agency tracks reports of alleged misconduct by athletes and sports programs statewide. But there have been numerous incidents elsewhere.

In 2001, a former basketball player at College of the Sequoias in Visalia was convicted of rape, kidnapping and other charges.

Last year, an assistant football coach at Cerritos College in Norwalk was accused in a felony case of securing financial aid for players who were ineligible for it. He is awaiting trial.

Davis had intended to transfer to Fresno City College, and Scott was headed to a four-year school in Michigan, officials say.

Reedley and Fresno City have two of the most successful football programs in California, and each sends many players to four-year schools on scholarships. That reputation draws large numbers of out-of-state recruits.

Davis and Scott were staying at an apartment complex with the six players still under investigation in the alleged sexual assault.

The six had been steered to the apartments by football Coach Tony Caviglia, Fresno police say. Caviglia said he merely gave players an address and phone number for the apartments.

The police say the 11-year-old girl, who had run away from a foster home, was sexually assaulted in one of the apartments.

Since the arrests, Fresno City administrators have tried to distance the college from the defendants, who have pleaded not guilty, and the six other players. They point out that none of the athletes had enrolled at Fresno City, and that Reedley was the last college Davis and Scott had attended.

Reedley officials declined requests for interviews.

More than 50 of Reedley’s roughly 80 football players in 2005 came from outside California, even though it is not exempt from the recruiting limits.

Three of the four players in the Grossmont case were also from out of state, Jordan said

Neither of those schools is accused of recruiting violations, but the head of the Community College League of California’s Commission on Athletics said enforcing the rules is almost impossible.

Executive Director Carlyle Carter said the commission depends on school administrators and college districts to monitor recruitment and report violations. Only four have been reported since 2001.

“We’ve got to do something about the recruiting,” Carter said. “The first-contact rule is not an enforceable thing, it’s just not. You’re relying on people’s honor.”

But he also said that he knows of no studies that link out-of-state recruitment and troublesome athletes.

“I’m not sure we can correlate problems with kids coming from out of state,” he said.

In the same vein, Carter expressed doubts that offering scholarships would help keep athletes in line. He noted that many athletes on full scholarships, including those at colleges outside California, have wound up on the wrong side of the law.


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