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From the Catbird Seat... College athletes and the law

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Community college athletes who get in trouble with the law - it's a sore subject in today's sports world, but unfortunately it's one that is becoming increasingly hard to avoid.

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The news this week of the arrest of a former Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College football player brings up the sore subject of athletes in trouble with the law.

Let's be clear. No one is suggesting that this is a long-term problem at FDLTCC. However, it does invite the question as to how a sport that traditionally has a very high degree of player turnover such as football polices itself, if you will.

It can get out of hand. In 2007, Hibbing Community College cancelled its 84-year-old football program after a string of high-profile player brushes with the law and an ongoing team grade-point average that was

not acceptable to school

officials.

Again, no one is suggesting FDLTCC is on that road. And new football coach and athletic director Keith Turner is determined to see that it stays that way.

"What we have in place is background checks on the young men we bring in," he said. "We talk to their high school coaches, people they have been involved with, pastors and teachers, and get information regarding players in and out of the area."

Turner says the school is very interested in finding the right character for student-athletes.

"It's across the board in all our sports," he said. "We want to know if these students are going to fit. They are getting an opportunity, and some of the students are getting a chance to refresh their academic skills while they play athletics."

Still, though, a stigma can be created - a stigma administrators all over the country are working to avoid.

"People make mistakes," Turner said. "The best thing you can do is manage through expectations. Our young men in our program receive our expectations in the mail before we start practice and parents are encouraged to attend our first meeting. The athletes on our campus know our expectations."

Turner also realizes that the road to accountability can be difficult.

"It's said that the youth of this day and age don't want discipline," he said. "But what it is, is that you have to toe that line every day. That is hard on the person doing it, and on the person asked to hold up those standards. If you can't do that you will get a result you don't want."

High-profile schools such as USC have learned the hard way about athletes making bad choices, but Turner notes that in the end, the athlete has to live with himself - or herself.

"Will it be perfect?" he asked. "You will have bumps in the road. Some will make mistakes, but you have to own up to it and be a man about it. And we may have young women who make mistakes too."

The key to long-term success, though, lies at least partly with the institution.

"You have to put up safeguards, and everything is not 100 percent," Turner said. "Some of those things will happen, but are you trying to make sure you deter it? Are you making sure you have things in place where you communicate with the athletes when expectations aren't met, or with the general student body?"

That raises another question: Are student athletes held to a different standard? Turner thinks so, and doesn't object.

"That's fair because you take that on as a student athlete and you know you are in a fish bowl," he said. "But along with that, let's make sure (discipline) is across the board. If you are a non-student athlete, when you enroll as a student, you are saying you will uphold the mission statement and what we stand for just like an athlete."

In the end, though, it's all about good choices - on the part of the institution as well as the individual.

"Who you hang with, who you communicate with, socialize with, that's who you are going to be targeted with," Turner said. "You want to be around people who have the same goals you have. We have a group of young men (in the football program) who in all fairness are still trying to find their way and we have to keep them on the right path, because you can veer."

Turner's program is determined to get it right from the start.

"We will have a relationship (with a student athlete) before we ever get them on campus," he said. "Parents are going to understand that this is what we do. We want communication."

Answering the toughest question of all, though, lies with the individual.

"Are you going to do the hardest thing, which is to do the right thing when nobody is looking?" Turner asked. "We want people to view our athletic programs just like others. We will have people who make mistakes - as every school does - but we will take action and not bury our head in the sand, to get people back on track. If we have 40 players, don't judge 39 by the actions of one."

That's fair. And as long as the college abides by its principles, the community shouldn't judge.

Jeff Papas covers area sports for the Pine Journal. Contact him c/o news@pinejournal.com.

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