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College athletes' criminal cases raise questions about screening recruits

FARGO -- Two area college football players have been charged with felonies for violent crimes in the past month.

This has some asking: Are colleges doing enough to screen the student-athletes they recruit to their campuses?

"You can't prevent it all," said Rick Hedberg, athletic director at Minot State University, where a football player -- who has since been kicked off the team -- was charged with attempted murder and assault last month following a scuffle with police. The charge was later amended to felony aggravated assault.

"We've tried to learn from our situation. ... You evaluate it every time," Hedberg said.

A Valley City State University football player, Cedric Chappell Jr., was charged with second-degree murder and attempted murder last week after a fatal shooting outside a club in Minneapolis.

"It is kind of a kick in the gut," said Valley City State President Steven Shirley. "It is certainly not the kind of attention that you want."

Shirley said he doesn't feel the recent incident is part of a greater trend of student misconduct in VCSU's athletic department. If that was the case, he said, it would warrant more concern.

"If there is a pattern within a program within an athletic program within a team, you are going to have some conversations with that coach about who they are recruiting," he said. "There is not a pattern here within Viking athletics."

A sampling of officials from area colleges agreed that a critical part of screening athletic recruits is personal relationships -- the ones coaches develop during the recruiting process.

Having a good rapport with a high school coach, or in some cases a junior college coach, is often invaluable in evaluating the character of potential incoming athletes.

"For me, that's why local recruiting is important," said Minnesota State University Moorhead head football coach Steve Laqua. "The farther away you get from the area, the less regular the relationships are with the coaches."

That isn't to say finding recruits outside a school's geographic region doesn't work. The University of Jamestown has had success in recruiting baseball players from Washington state, said school Athletic Director Lawrie Paulson. Developing that recruiting "pipeline" has been good for both sides.

"If they send you good kids and you do a good job with them, the high school coaches are trying to look out for their kids, too," Paulson said. "If you do a good job at both ends, those relationships can last and be very good for both sides."

Jesse Ili, the former Minot State player who was charged for his alleged role in a fight with police, is from West Covina, Calif., and played for NCAA Division I Fresno State last season. Hedberg said he's received some criticism for recruiting athletes from outside the area.

"Some people say, 'Shoot, it's always out-of-state kids. You shouldn't bring in kids from out of state,'" he said. "Our local kids screw up, too."

Shirley said he doesn't know of any colleges in North Dakota that do criminal background checks as part of athletic recruitment.

"If you start singling student-athletes for background checks, I think that would get into a pretty dicey situation pretty quickly," Shirley said.

If colleges chose to do criminal record searches on incoming recruits, especially high school athletes, serious criminal offenses may not appear, said Bruce Quick, an attorney at Vogel Law Firm in Fargo. It depends on an individual state's laws.

In North Dakota, for example, someone's criminal record before age 18 is not public, unless the person is transferred to adult court or it is a noncriminal traffic offense.

"You could do a criminal history check and a person could have a whole bunch of stuff in juvenile court and you would not find it," Quick said.

Jason Sobolik is the compliance coordinator at MSUM. He said the NCAA doesn't have any bylaws that legislate criminal activity.

"That is going to be based on each university's student code of conduct," Sobolik said.

Hedberg said Internet searches and social media platforms are other ways coaches can learn more about the background of an athletic recruit.

Laqua said he and his staff have worked hard to create "the right culture with the right kids." He realizes that effort doesn't guarantee a perfect success rate when it comes to player conduct.

"The reputation of your program, really in a lot of cases, relies on the decisions made by 18- to 23-year-old males," Laqua said. "In college, they have more freedom than they have ever had."