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Do schools ignore off-campus incidents?

Athletes seem to receive stiffer punishments for on-campus transgressions than those that occur away from school.

By EMILY NIPPS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 16, 2002

Bloomingdale junior Carl Elkins walked off the football field Nov. 2, the last game of the season, and looked at two sheriff's deputies in the crowd.

One of them was watching him, and Elkins smiled "real big."

"For me to have a big game like that, I had to smile," Elkins said. "They can't hold me down."

A week earlier, the 16-year-old was arrested in the Bulls locker room, just before he was supposed to board the team bus. Police accused him of robbing a Hungry Howies pizza delivery woman at gunpoint.

But now Elkins was back on the field against Brandon. Court officials had cleared him to play, though he was wearing a court-ordered tracking device on his ankle.

Bloomingdale coach David Bankston notified the game officials of the ankle bracelet before the game. They told him to tape and cushion the device to prevent injury.

Elkins had one of his best performances, scoring a touchdown on a punt return to help his team to its only win.

Hillsborough sheriff's Lt. Rod Reder was not at the game, but couldn't believe the irony. Reder's son plays junior varsity football for Gaither and was disciplined last season for "dropping his pants" on the team bus.

"You know, mooning," Reder said. "It's been around for 200 years."

His son and some teammates were suspended for the next game.

"The coaches didn't come back and change their minds and let them play," Reder said. "They didn't commit a crime, but they learned a lesson and they won't do it again.

"And then here's a guy (charged with) armed robbery, stealing from someone who's trying to make an honest living," Reder said, "and he's still allowed to play?"

* * *

In one case, an athlete is accused but not convicted of a crime committed off-campus. In the other, the incident is at a school event. Records show the two types of situations often are treated much differently.

In January, two Land O'Lakes soccer players were charged with misdemeanor criminal mischief in connection with a vandalism incident. The day of the arrest, the players returned to help defeat Hudson 1-0, even though the coach knew of the arrests.

A month earlier, Central soccer player Lindsey Butler was suspended from games for two weeks after she took a heat-of-the-moment swing and miss at a player during a game.

The red card prompted a meeting with the principal and talk of school suspension, but because Butler was a straight-A student with no prior problems, she suffered only the missed games.

"We take our (game) ejections very seriously at Central," coach Hank Deslaurier said. "I've seen kids do worse than that, and nothing is done."

In October, not long before Elkins' arrest, River Ridge swimmer Kevin Rumble was charged with felony burglary of a residence and battery after police said he and some friends crashed a party and started a fight.

Rumble, a two-time state champion who declined to comment for this article, continued to compete, finishing third in the 100-yard breaststroke and fifth in the 200-yard individual medley in the state meet five weeks after the incident.

Around the same time, Land O'Lakes lineman and captain Matt Embry was sidelined for using an obscenity during a Nov. 2 football game. His punishment was a six-week suspension from playing, later reduced to four.

"I said words which I regret, but I think the penalty should have been a lot less severe," Embry said.

He never had heard of Rumble until reading a newspaper editorial that compared the two situations.

"I couldn't handle that, the fact that they took me out and not him," Embry said. "I was a little upset. My parents always taught me that punishment should fit the crime."

Some think athletes charged with an off-campus crime don't belong on the playing field representing their school.

"These kids should definitely not be playing sports," said Citrus County School Board member Carol Snyder. "I think sports are a privilege, not a right."

The Florida High School Activities Association has rules and corresponding punishments for offenses ranging from bad grades to using steroids to fighting during a game. If the offense happens off-campus, however, the punishment varies from player to player and school to school.

"We have a bylaw that states, basically, that it's none of the FHSAA's business," FHSAA director of communications Jack Watford said.

Because the bylaws are drawn up by the FHSAA board of directors, that could be changed with enough votes. But Watford says the interest hasn't been there.

"Every time something like this (Elkins' incident) happens, we get a call from the media. It causes a stir, and people want to know, "How could this happen?'

"Then nothing happens. I guess nobody's ever felt strongly enough about it to make a proposal to change it."

* * *

Because there is no policy at the state or county level, the burden of punishing athletes usually falls to individual schools.

Though few cases make headlines, principals, athletic directors and coaches often face difficult decisions.

Hillsborough County assistant school superintendent Randy Poindexter said that on any given night, about 50 county students are arrested, and as many as 100 on Fridays and Saturdays.

Each student's situation is evaluated, Poindexter said.

"This is America, and the law states that you are innocent until proven guilty," Poindexter said. "Just because you are arrested doesn't necessarily mean you are guilty.

"There is a due process for students," he said. "We take every incident and determine if something needs to be done."

The decision process can be as unique as the coach involved.

In Elkins' case, which he said is continuing, Bankston said he checked with Hillsborough County athletic director Vernon Korhn, Elkins' judge, and "the whole nine yards."

"Nobody said no," Bankston said. "If it turns out the kid's not guilty, who am I to say he can't play?"

After Rumble's arrest, River Ridge principal Tammy Rabon reviewed discipline policies with swimming coach Athena Graham, and made sure Rumble's punishment was consistent with past athletes who had been charged with crimes.

"It's a sticky wicket," Rabon said.

"I don't want felons representing the school as athletes. I think at the time, though, we decided that if he was charged but not yet guilty, he can still compete."

Rumble pleaded guilty in February and was put on probation and ordered to do community service.

One of the more well-known stories in Pasco County is that of former Pasco High quarterback Issac Johnson.

In 1992, Johnson led the Pirates to a state championship the same day he was bailed out of jail.

He had been arrested the night before on an outstanding warrant, stemming from the July armed robbery of a pizza delivery man. Johnson had served a year of house arrest after pleading no contest in 1991 to charges that he broke into his girlfriend's house and beat her.

Then-Pasco coach Perry Brown, who now coaches at Dunellon, said he and his principal found the FHSAA had no policy regarding off-campus arrests and allowed Johnson to play.

Johnson later received weekend jail time, probation and a suspended sentence. He was offered a scholarship to Florida A&M.

Within months, Johnson had violated his probation and was sentenced to seven years in prison.

* * *

Some think the decision doesn't belong in the hands of the coach, who may be conflicted with a win or loss at stake.

Dr. Richard Lapchick, who directs the Sports Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida, says coaches grapple with a player's best interest versus the team's best interest. They sometimes struggle with their own best interest.

"It shouldn't be up to the coach," Lapchick said. "It should be someone in the high school administration, disassociated from athletics. The coach has too much to risk."

Others familiar with athletics and coaches' policies think the decision is better left to those close to the athlete's situation.

"Certainly (a blanket policy) would play out a lot cleaner," said Kit Broadbelt, Pasco County's director of curriculum, who spent seven years as county athletic director.

"The problem you run into is each scenario is different. The worst thing we feel we can do is, let's say a kid gets arrested and a coach suspends him from the team immediately. Then if he's found innocent, you have his parents upset that you've taken away his right to play sports."

Broadbelt defended coaches and their ability to make the right call.

"Although wins are good to have, I honestly can't think of a situation where the coach was trying to circumvent the rule."

Citrus County's Snyder, however, said the danger of leaving it up to coaches is that it could lead to inequities on the playing field.

"There needs to be some kind of standards set by the state," Snyder said. "If you leave it to local control, it will vary from region to region, and that's not fair to the students. Everyone has to play by the same rules."

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