NORMAN — The University of Oklahoma was at the leading edge of college athletics when it instituted mandatory background checks on all prospective student-athletes beginning in the spring of 2005.
So how did current Sooner football player Dede Westbrook’s two arrests in 2012 and 2013 fall through the cracks when he was being recruited in 2014?
“We certainly have asked the same question ourselves,” OU athletic director Joe Castiglione told The Franchise.
OU outsources its background check services to an off-campus, independent firm.
The idea there, Castiglione said, is to maintain credibility and integrity in the research process without influencing any data-gathering.
But Westbrook’s two arrests for family violence — one charge was rejected by the Milam County (Texas) District Attorney, the other was dismissed when the alleged victim apparently declined to pursue formal charges — were not found in 2014 by the search firm (Castiglione declined to name the firm, which is retained by the university, not the athletic department).
But, Castiglione said, neither did those arrests turn up when OU’s human resources department this week input Westbrook’s personal information into the database of HireRight, an online background checking service the school uses to search online records for prospective employees.
But as explained in Sunday’s Tulsa World profile of Westbrook, the arrest records were easily found by typing his full name, Decrick Deshawn Westbrook, into an online search engine. They’re the top two results on Google, and actually were published in 2012 and 2013 in the Rockdale Reporter, a newspaper in Rockdale, Texas.
Consider that OU and many other universities recruit nationally — internationally, in some sports — which means adhering to various state and local laws. Smaller municipalities, for instance, might have different thresholds of information they are required to submit to a government data registry.
“Sometimes,” Castiglione said, “there are certain things that wouldn’t come up.”
OU is not required by law or by NCAA rule to perform background checks on prospective student-athletes, but the university and many others do it anyway. It’s a wise practice if for no other reason than to avoid liability issues.
OU’s athletic department was among the first to require potential recruits to agree to criminal background checks. Castiglione and his staff began discussing it in 2003, decided in fall 2004 to implement the new policy, and the football signing class of 2005 was the school’s first group of athletes to be so scrutinized.
“We’re not going to catch every single thing,” Castiglione told the St. Petersburg Times in March 2005, “… 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? Did you check?’ ”
That day has arrived, and although Westbrook — a Heisman Trophy finalist and OU’s first unanimous All-American since 2004 — hasn’t had legal problems at OU (he was arrested in Cameron on a similar charge last May, though that charge was dropped), Castiglione is slightly embarrassed that the earlier arrests went undetected.
“We think our diligence has been good. Really good,” he said. “Maybe it just has pointed to an imperfection.”
OU’s process for vetting prospective student-athletes is complex.
During the recruiting process, coaches identify players they want to recruit. As they establish relationships with the recruits and their families, those coaches and others gather personal information on the prospect (driver’s license number, Social Security number, date of birth, etc.) — in every sport, not just football — and then that information is submitted to the athletic department. The athletic department submits the data to the background checking firm. The firm investigates, then reports its findings — and any red flags — back to the athletic department. The athletic department then communicates that data back to the coach, and if the red flags are bad enough, the coach is prohibited from offering that prospective student-athlete a scholarship.
“Some are pretty clear cut, and we are able to make a quicker decision,” Castiglione said. “Some take additional information-gathering to try to know exactly what happened, exactly how it was processed, whether or not it included any kind of court hearing or judgment. And then we sit down with the coach and tell them what we’ve found.”
Within that process, however, are areas of gray as well as black-and-white.
Athletes charged with felonies, for example, are automatically excluded from consideration, although Castiglione said OU has declined scholarship offers for far less. Coaches are required to disclose everything they see or hear about a prospect throughout the recruiting process, though sometimes in talking to coaches, teachers, principals, counselors, family and friends, coaches aren’t always given all the information.
And sometimes a coach can start his or her own investigation, perhaps personally vouching for a recruit, then informally appeal to the athletic department to be allowed to offer a scholarship.
And then there’s due process, Constitutional rights and all that. America simply cannot operate on a presumption of guilt.
“We have to go on what the legal process or judicial process determines,” Castiglione said, “and then make our decisions.”
A shoplifting arrest, when a prospective student-athlete was 15 years old, has turned up. Another time, a prospect was falsely accused of a crime and was told his record would be expunged, but it wasn’t. He and his family required legal assistance to clear his name because of a simple court error, Castiglione said.
“It’s a wide range of things that can happen,” he said. “So, depending on what it is, we would have to determine whether or not we would admit someone.
“I don’t want to say it’s simple,” Castiglione said, “but it is straightforward.”
Had Westbrook’s arrest turned up in a routine check, it’s likely that more information would have been sought by the school and the football coaches. That probably means additional interviews with local authorities, coaches, family, the alleged victim, and so on. Ultimately, it’s conjecture to ask whether if what has been reported would have been enough to keep OU from offering a scholarship or not.
OU also does its own checks. That includes an anonymous email tip line administered by the school’s NCAA compliance department. And coaches are constantly monitoring prospects’ social media feeds to learn more about them on a personal level. And, of course, coaches ask everyone they can about a prospect — at least, they should.
“A coach could have been recruiting them for a period of time and think they know somebody,” Castiglione said, “and the information we’ve developed is mind-boggling to the coach, like, ‘How would that have not come up in talking with somebody that knows them well?’ There’s not been any kind of indication from anybody, nor the student-athlete. Everything seems to be really good.
“You just want to know as much as you can about a student-athlete before they’re admitted,” Castiglione said.
“We just do it to be proactive, so if there’s something out there that we should know, … you learn it a variety of different ways. You try and get what you can that’s available publicly.”
To that end, sealed court documents are off limits, Castiglione said.
Now more than a decade into the process, Castiglione has heard criticism over the years.
“Some people even thought it was an invasion of privacy,” he said. “Well, how can it be an invasion of privacy if it’s a public record?
“I just hate it, that we had something like this happen when we’ve been trying to do the right thing for a long, long time.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard on The Franchise Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. every weekday with co-host Lauren Rew and most mornings on The Franchise in Oklahoma City. Listen on fm107.9, am1270 on the 107.7 Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page.