CALIFORNIA, Pennsylvania — Early this year, a California University of Pennsylvania football player decided it was a private matter that he was in a New Year's Day crash that left a bicyclist in a coma and himself facing a felony charge. Police say he was driving at a high rate of speed after drinking and that he left the scene.
So for 10 months that included most of this fall's football season, Corey Ford told neither teammates nor the university about the Washington, D.C., crash, according to his attorney.
Under current practice at Cal U, his decision to say nothing was acceptable.
Whether that should change is a matter that may confront a task force and an external reviewer as they examine a football program that, even as it racked up wins on the field, has amassed a growing number of off-field troubles since 2012. The latest was the arrest of Mr. Ford and five other players on charges they severely beat a man on a street off campus on Oct. 30.
"This may be a question for the task force to review," Cal U spokeswoman Christine Kindl said when asked why athletes are not asked to self-report arrests.
No matter what Cal U decides, the prospect that Ford, 22, senior defensive back from Harrisburg, played without his school knowing about the crash already has fueled uncomfortable discussion among coaches in the State System of Higher Education, which is largely silent on how member schools including Cal U should address player transgressions.
Some frame the matter as a question of how well the program polices its players. Others say it goes deeper — to the notion of whether athletic programs like Cal U are as involved in the lives of their players as they should be.
'Pretty easy to find out'
B. David Ridpath, associate professor and Kahandas Nandola Professor of Sports Administration at Ohio University, says schools would be prudent to ask students to self-report. The schools should also do their own Internet searches on the players to learn about possible problems.
"It is pretty easy in this age of technology to find out," he said. "Schools would be extremely vulnerable ... for letting felons and violent criminals on campus or at the very least not informing people. Most athletic programs are capable of or even do cursory background checks.
"Schools have a duty to protect the population or find themselves in even deeper trouble," he said. "A simple Internet search and interview questions can eliminate most of this."
When an athlete transfers into a program from another college, a form required by the National Collegiate Athletic Association asks the school to disclose whether the athlete was disqualified or suspended from the institution for disciplinary reasons, Kindl said. The answer can give a glimpse into an athlete's past, enabling the school to then weigh whether the offense and the athlete's conduct afterward warrant giving the player another chance.
Once an athlete enters the program, a school presumably is far better able to monitor the individual's behavior, though not always so.
While many police departments notify nearby campuses when a student commits a crime, the chances of that happening diminish when a student gets into trouble many miles away from campus while on break.
"Unless I get a phone call from someone who read it in the newspaper, or someone on the team hears about it, we have no mechanism to know," said Kutztown University track and field coach Keith White, a collegiate coach for 36 years.
White is executive coach leader with the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, the system's faculty union. He said a discussion he had with fellow coaches last week turned to Cal U and to the realization that any one of them could face a similar situation.
Though the State System says it leaves the decision to what individual campuses and collegiate rules require, White said he long has made a practice of telling athletes on his teams that he wants them to be forthcoming, whether it involves an academic problem, a residence hall infraction or a criminal arrest.
"If something happens, we better know about it and we better know about it first," he said. "They are told that verbally. We don't want to be blindsided, get a call from our university president, a parent or something."
He said he believes most programs or coaches have a policy, even if unwritten, of asking the same of their players.
But in fact, actual practices may vary.
At Indiana University of Pennsylvania, for instance, spokeswoman Michelle Fryling stopped short of saying athletes are told to self-report arrests. Even so, she said, "We have that expectation, that our student athletes have the integrity to be honest with their coaches."
At Cal U, officials said they too hold their players to high standards but also said there are no rules requiring such disclosure, as is true with the general campus population.
"Our students are not required to self-report traffic accidents, even those resulting in criminal charges," Kindl said in a written response. "The same is true of arrests. If the university learns about such incidents, however, we do take action."
Those transgressions are dealt with, as they are with all students, through Cal U's student code of conduct and judicial process, she said.
Cal U has not commented on whether the crash would have rendered Mr. Ford ineligible to play. The school has said ascertaining what anyone on campus may have known about the crash will be part of the review.
Ford's lawyer, Phil DiLucente, has said his understanding is bicyclist Simon Pineda, 42, a District of Columbia resident, remains in a vegetative state following the New Year's Day crash. Ford is expected to enter a guilty plea in D.C on Dec. 2 to aggravated assault.
Ford is among those charged in Washington County in the Oct. 30 street assault in which Lewis Campbell III, 30, of West Chester sustained a brain injury. He since has been released from the hospital.
According to California Borough police, the victim was walking with his girlfriend outside an eatery around 2 a.m. when at least one of the players exchanged words with the woman. Campbell intervened, police said, and the players assaulted the victim, punching and stomping him in the face, chanting "Football strong" as they left.
Also arrested were James Williamson, 20, of Baltimore, a junior defensive back; Jonathan Jacoma Barlow, 21, of Pittsburgh, a sophomore defensive lineman; Rodney Dwight Gillin, 20, of West Lawn, Pennsylvania, a junior defensive back; D'Andre Jamal Dunkley, 19, of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, a redshirt freshman tight end; and Shelby Wilkerson, 20, of Washington County, officials said. All six were suspended from the university.
Cal U players trend high in criminal charges
The incident, which gained national attention, was the latest blemish on the football program and brought to 19 the number of current and former roster members criminally charged since 2012. The charges ranged from such nonviolent offenses as marijuana possession to more serious ones such as aggravated assault and a firearms charge.
An exact total of athlete arrests across the State System was not immediately available, but checks of player rosters at other system schools with strong football programs turned up significantly lower numbers than Cal U.
At first glance, the numbers seem high but without knowing more about the circumstances there and on other campuses, it's hard to draw conclusions, said Steve Murray, commissioner with the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.
Cal U is not the only Division II university to have accepted athletes who left other schools, including Division I campuses, for various reasons including the intensity of competition, personal and classroom issues or criminal arrests.
Division II schools provide "a lot of second chances" and rightly so, said Murray, who said it's important that programs be supportive.
What troubles him most about the Cal U situation is the prospect of someone being in Ford's situation for an extended period without anyone at the university knowing, he said.
Cal U canceled and forfeited its Nov. 1 game against Gannon University after the street assault. Interim University President Geraldine Jones later announced the season would resume but ordered a "top-to-bottom" external program review and a task force to be co-chaired by athletic director Karen Hjerpe and the university's acting provost Bruce Barnhart.
Hjerpe, who also is Cal U's NCAA compliance officer, did not respond to a message seeking comment. Neither did Barnhart, or head football coach Michael Kellar.
Athletes under NCAA rules are subject to drug testing. There have been vocal calls recently for schools to rely more heavily on periodic criminal background checks for athletes, but others express reluctance singling out a subset of campus for scrutiny beyond what any prospective student might be asked on an admission form.
Schools inclined to do the checks may be mindful of what they have invested in those athletes, said Bruce Ledewitz, a professor of law at Duquesne University.
"I hate to put it that way, but they have spent money on scholarships and they need them to succeed," he said.
Ledewitz could see no legal barrier to schools doing criminal background checks on athletes so long as they do not single out individuals based on race, gender or other protected classes of people.
White wondered what it would say about society if colleges uniformly resorted to criminal checks on teenagers who want to play sports. But he also lamented a shift in attitude over the years that he says makes it far less likely that an athlete today can be counted on to be upfront with a coach about getting into trouble.
"Relationship building — I think it's gotten away from us," he said.
On Saturday, Cal U played its first home game since its players' transgressions thrust the program into the spotlight. The Vulcans beat Lock Haven 45-31, bringing the team to an 8-3 record.
The game drew just 703 fans, making it the Vulcans' smallest home crowd in more than a decade. While there were no demonstrations or organized acts of protest, the team took to the field with little applause from the stands.
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com