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ESPN's Outside The Lines details how Florida Gators, other college athletes avoid prosecution

Florida's among 10 schools put under the lens by ESPN's investigative unit — and leads them in both athletes named in criminal incidents and repeat offenders.

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

A new investigative report by ESPN's Outside The Lines of 10 major college football and men's basketball programs found that 80 Florida athletes — "about a quarter" of the athletes examined in that six-year span — were named in 119 "criminal incidents" at Florida from 2009 to 2014 — and that those athletes avoided prosecution for those crimes at double the rate of a "comparison set" of college-aged men in the same time period.

The OTL report is authored and bylined by Paula Lavigne, with contributions from ESPN producer Nicole Noren, ESPN senior writers Elizabeth Merrill and Mark Schlabach, and freelance reporter Anna Hensel, and begins with this passage:

As a University of Florida running back, Chris Rainey was named a suspect in five crimes in Gainesville. He faced charges once.

Rainey's experience as a star athlete accused of criminal activity -- stalking, fighting, injuring someone with fireworks -- but ending up with a mostly clean record is not uncommon: From 2009 to 2014, male basketball and football players at the University of Florida and Florida State University avoided criminal charges or prosecution on average two-thirds of the time when named as suspects in police documents, a result far exceeding that of non-athlete males in the same age range, an Outside the Lines investigation has found.

The always-colorful Rainey is also featured in the video segment of the piece.

"During his time at Florida, and a few years after, during visits to Gainesville, (Rainey) was suspected in eight criminal incidents," Lavigne says in the piece, "five of which occurred while he was a Gator." His infamous arrest on stalking charges for texting a girlfriend "Time to die, bitch!" — for which he received a deferred prosecution agreement and a month's suspension from Florida's football program — is obviously the most notable among them.

But in both the full report and a complementary report on Florida, Lavigne does not detail Rainey's alleged involvment in criminal incidents beyond mentioning him admitting responsibility in conjunction with a 2008 incident in which fireworks were shot at people.

In 2008, Moses Jenkins -- no relation to Janoris -- had a couple minor run-ins with police. He was cited for having a stolen parking decal, which was a common citation among athletes, and he was with a group of athletes whom police questioned about shooting fireworks at people, to which Florida running back Chris Rainey admitted responsibility.

Asked about whether Florida athletes felt they could get away with criminal acts, Rainey tells Lavigne, "Yeah, we did felt like the, the s-word" — meaning "the shit" — and laughs.

Lavigne also notes that Florida had the most repeat offenders in its sample:

Twenty-five Florida athletes had multiple run-ins with police, often without facing charges or any public airing of what they did. Several police reports gathered by Outside the Lines also revealed that Florida athletes, if not suspected of criminal activity themselves, often hung out with people who were known offenders.

And, in addition to rehashing two arrests of Janoris Jenkins, and an incident involving Aaron Hernandez punching a bouncer at The Swamp in 2007, and revealing the above-mentioned fireworks incident involving Moses Jenkins and Rainey, Lavigne writes about three other specific incidents that had never previously been made public, two related to Ronald Powell:

  • In one example that did not make Outside the Lines’ overall investigation, a Gainesville police officer stopped former Florida linebacker Ron Powell for a lane violation in 2014 -- just a few months after he had been drafted by the New Orleans Saints. The officer noted that the address on his driver’s license was a known drug house. A canine officer came to the scene and flagged a likely presence of narcotics in the car, and the investigating officer searched it, finding a white powdery substance on the driver’s seat that she tested on site.

    "You have cocaine in your car alright," the officer said on the video during the traffic stop. "There’s reasons why I asked the questions I asked. You can’t answers questions straight. There’s more in there, so I can easily charge you. But you’re not in handcuffs OK, so just chill out."

    The car was a rental, and the officer wrote in a police report that she did not believe the cocaine was Powell’s but was likely tied to a known drug offender who lived at the same address. She let Powell go with a verbal warning for the lane violation.

    It was not Powell’s first incident with police. His other happened in October 2012, when he started yelling at and threatening the owner of a local store who wouldn’t give him items for free in addition to others he had planned to purchase. According to the report, the owner, Gregory Cristell, "stated Powell thinks just because he plays football for UF that he should get free stuff." Police gave Powell a trespass warning and, even though the incident didn’t make news, police reported it directly to an athletic department administrator.

    "They get to the campus, and they feel like they can get away with stuff. They feel like they’re above the law," Cristell told Outside the Lines, adding that he really didn’t want to get Powell in trouble but he was afraid the altercation at the store would escalate. "These college athletes, in general, get away with way more stuff that happened that didn’t reach the papers."

    Cristell, a former Florida basketball player who lettered for the Gators in 1997 and 1998, owns a furniture business in Gainesville. The second result for his name on Google is a 2009 complaint about that business on a site called Ripoff Report, and a 2011 report on Cristell's warehouse being destroyed by a fire notes his "checkered business past," including "numerous" Better Business Bureau complaints.

  • In July 2010, (Moses) Jenkins and teammate Carl Moore were passengers in a car police stopped for having a dim tag light. A search of the vehicle uncovered a baggie of marijuana under Jenkins’ seat. The driver, Oscar Hernandez, told police the baggie was his and he was cited and received deferred prosecution.

    Hernandez was not an athlete, but his name would surface years later in connection to Aaron Hernandez, no family relation, the former New England Patriots star recently convicted in the murder of Odin Lloyd. Oscar Hernandez has been found guilty of having a role in delivering weapons to Aaron Hernandez and is facing federal charges of witness tampering, obstruction of justice and lying under oath, along with a history of other drug charges in Florida.

But the overarching finding of Lavigne's piece is this:

Overall, the Outside the Lines investigation found that what occurs between high-profile college athletes and law enforcement is not as simple as the commonly held perception that police and prosecutors simply show preferential treatment, though that does occur. Rather, the examination of more than 2,000 documents shows that athletes from the 10 schools mainly benefited from the confluence of factors that can be reality at major sports programs: the near-immediate access to high-profile attorneys, the intimidation that is felt by witnesses who accuse athletes, and the higher bar some criminal justice officials feel needs to be met in high-profile cases.

The report itself seems to be fairly good journalism, if perhaps an investigation in search of a conclusion more striking or shocking than the one it reaches, which could be translated as "College football and basketball players do dumb shit, and can avoid some of the consequences for such things because of a confluence of factors."

Among the factors Lavigne outlines? The chilling effect of the high profiles enjoyed by programs and players.

The high profiles of the athletic programs and athletes had a chilling effect on whether cases were even brought to police and how they were investigated. Numerous cases never resulted in charges because accusers and witnesses were afraid to detail wrongdoing, they feared harassment from fans and the media, or they were pressured to drop charges in the interest of the sports programs.

Lavigne made contact with such involved parties, and found more evidence of that chilling effect of harassment.

Outside the Lines found multiple examples of alleged victims and witnesses refusing to participate in criminal investigations -- including sexual assaults, fights and even theft -- because they were worried about publicity and fans harassing them. Others simply didn't want to get players in trouble.

Many of the alleged victims, mostly women, spoke to Outside the Lines on the condition their names not be revealed. They described fans who showed up at their workplaces to harass them; vulgar, sexual insults on the phone, in email and social media; and even death threats toward them and their relatives.

Lavigne also offers her own experience up as an example of the harassment that can attend even investigating misdeeds related to college athletics. When news broke of OTL's inquiry into Tallahassee police and Florida State in December 2014 — via the Tallahassee Police Department releasing a trove of documents as a press release on Christmas Eve, and including Lavigne's cell phone number and email address — she heard from fans.

When the Tallahassee Police Department took an unusual step of turning an ESPN public records request -- which contained the reporter's email address and cell phone number -- into a press release and posting it online on Christmas Eve, hundreds of Florida State fans responded to the reporter with harassing phone calls, emails, texts and social media posts, including many of a sexual and threatening nature. (Tallahassee police said the publication of the request followed departmental procedure, yet no other requests have been publicized in a similar fashion.)

Lavigne writes extensively about Florida State associate athletic director Monk Bonasorte's involvement in running interference for FSU athletes, and his relationship with Jansen. This, and the very public examination of Tallahassee police's relationship with Florida State athletics in the wake of Erica Kinsman's allegation that Jameis Winston raped her in December 2012 and the disjointed investigation of that allegation, suggests to me that Lavigne may well have gone fishing for malfeasance at Florida State, specifically, and then broadened her scope to other schools.

That one of the schools she extended it to was Florida, where dozens of well-publicized run-ins with the law by Gators of the gridiron during Urban Meyer's tenure as Florida's head coach left a black mark on a program that prides itself on doing things the right way, is no surprise. And getting Rainey to say things on camera about his college years is a coup. Rainey has never been shy about saying dumb things that make headlines, and him rambling nonchalantly, if only semi-coherently, about his time in Gainesville certainly strengthens Lavigne's reporting.

But that reporting is not without its flaws and blind spots, either.

Lavigne and ESPN almost certainly have a significant archive — "more than 2,000 documents," recall — of incident reports, yet share only snippets of them. A fuller accounting of the incidents would, at minimum, paint a fuller picture of the kinds of crimes in which athletes are allegedly able to avoid prosecution. Without that, the distinction between — and definition of — individual "criminal incidents" is partially lost, and so is useful context. (It would also behoove ESPN to link Lavigne's explanation of the methodology used — an excellent resource to produce in conjunction with a piece like this, and one whose publication is a credit to ESPN — within the original piece.)

Lavigne also chases the thread of athletes getting access to excellent legal counsel at cheap rates far enough to get Tallahassee attorney Tim Jansen — as tied to FSU as Huntley Johnson, also mentioned in the report, is to Florida — to say on camera that he's never done pro bono work for an athlete, and to note that Michigan State's policy of providing free legal counsel to all students through its student legal services boosts the rate of avoiding prosecution for the "comparison set" of Michigan State students even higher than the one for the athletes mentioned.

While the obvious implication is that "near-immediate access to high-profile attorneys" helps athletes avoid consequences, though, Lavigne never elucidates why such access would be a bad thing, nor does she attempt to investigate whether the college-aged men in her "comparison set" are being adequately served by their own representation.

And that brings us to my most significant complaint: Lavigne's "comparison set" leaves much to be desired. A truly fair "comparison set" for college football and men's basketball athletes at major programs — Lavigne and ESPN investigated Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Michigan State, Missouri, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Oregon State, Texas A&M and Wisconsin — would not be between athletes and "college-aged men" accused of crimes, but between athletes and a cohort of college-aged men who are socioeconomically similar and accused of crimes.

For the populations of athletes at these schools and many others, that cohort would have to be disproportionately black — more than half of the players listed on Florida's 2014 football roster in the program's 2014 media guide were black — when compared to both the student population (black students comprised less than 10 percent of each Florida's last four entering fall freshman classes) and the local population (23 percent of Gainesville residents are black, according to the 2010 Census), and likely disproportionately poor.

Any investigation alleging special treatment for participants in college athletics, and especially into college football and men's basketball, is ultimately an investigation into one of the very few institutions in American society that has a history of helping racial minorities and lower-class citizens — though the track record of college athletics as an institution on such matters is still spotty, it should be noted. And any investigation into how players' alleged criminal acts get adjudicated risks casting expert legal advice for players as a negative simply because it is being provided to a population that might not otherwise get it.

There are, to be certain, troubling things about how the power of college athletic programs helps protect players within those programs, and Lavigne's thread about fear of reprisal having a chilling effect on victims and witnesses is a particularly strong one. Notably, the University of Florida police report on the sexual battery complaint filed last fall against Treon Harris includes a witness and friend of the woman who filed the complaint telling police someone yelled "Fuck (redacted), F her!" from a car shortly after the complaint was filed, and that "several football players had made comments about what they would say to (redacted) if they saw her."

Even a sweeping investigation like the one Lavigne conducted, though, can leave much to be desired. The story of "college athletes getting away with crimes" is not nearly so simple as that distillation of this report suggests it might be, and the yarn requires far more untangling than even several months of intensive investigation can effect.