Wednesday, Mike Gundy stood at a podium inside Boone Pickens Stadium, discussing the 22 athletes he and his staff had added to the Oklahoma State football team on National Signing Day.
Not all of those players, though, had undergone a background check beyond character assessments OSU’s coaching staff performed during the recruiting process, said Brandon Meyer, OSU’s senior associate athletic director and legal counsel.
For those who haven’t been checked, the third-party service OSU recently contracted will conduct the checks before the student-athletes arrive on campus.
In December, the Tulsa World reported Oklahoma receiver Dede Westbrook was arrested twice on complaints of domestic violence before becoming a Sooner. OU said despite its use of a third-party service to conduct background checks, it was unaware of the arrests; the Tulsa World learned of them with a Google search of Decrick Deshawn Westbrook, Westbrook’s legal name.
In a news conference later in December, Gundy, asked about the Westbrook situation, said OSU’s compliance office handles the university’s background checks. He said it was fortunate OSU hasn’t dealt with a situation like OU’s, where an athlete’s past slipped through the cracks.
“They’ve taken that out of our hands,” Gundy said. “It hasn’t happened to us, fortunately. That’s why I think that it’s good that our compliance is responsible for it.”
However, Meyer and other members of the OSU athletic department emphasized in interviews with the O’Colly that coaches are a critical part of analyzing the character of prospective student-athletes.
Gavin Lang, associate athletic director of communications, clarified the background check process was the responsibility of both coaches, who speak with players’ families, previous coaches and people from their hometowns, and Meyer, who was responsible for searching prospective student-athletes in an online database.
“It’s not just the boots on the ground; it’s not just the online data,” Lang said. “You look at both.”
Within the past month, OSU finalized plans to conduct athletic background checks in all sports with Validity Screening Solutions, a third-party service based out of Kansas City, Missouri, that uses a team of trained researchers to perform background checks through official court records, Meyer said.
Kansas has used Validity on transfer athletes since 2005, the Tulsa World reported. Only 2 percent of collegiate athletic departments conduct third-party background checks on all incoming student-athletes, according to the Tulsa World, with OU and TCU being the only Big 12 programs to do so before OSU began using Validity.
Among the services OSU also considered was HireRight, Meyer said. OU started using HireRight in January, according to the Tulsa World, meaning it was not the company OU used when it recruited Westbrook.
During the summer, OSU began to use PublicData.com to perform background checks on prospective student-athletes for all of its athletic teams, Lang said. PublicData.com is a paid online service with information regarding criminal charges, civil cases, sex offenders and various forms of identification. OSU selected PublicData.com at the recommendation of another Big 12 school, Meyer said.
Not all prospective student-athletes had undergone the background check by National Signing Day, Meyer told the O’Colly. All of those who arrived on campus for the spring semester have been checked through PublicData.com, and those coming during the summer will undergo a check through Validity before getting to Stillwater, Meyer said.
“There’s a gap period in there towards the end of someone’s high school time or maybe junior college time that you still have to check,” Meyer said. “… Sometimes, the recruiting happens so quickly we know we won’t be able to run the full background check before signing day.”
Before this past summer, OSU relied exclusively on coaches to gather information on prospective student-athlete’s character. After beginning to use PublicData.com, OSU did not retroactively search athletes already on campus, said Meyer, who is in his second year with athletics after seven years as general counsel for the OSU Foundation.
“I think our coaches do a very good job of handling any issues that could occur on campus, and the university has a great system in place for misconduct issues on campus,” he said.
Baylor, another Big 12 university, has received national criticism regarding a widespread sexual assault scandal involving its football players. A recent Dallas Morning News report revealed a lawsuit from a female Baylor graduate claiming Baylor football players committed more than 50 acts of rape in a four-year stretch from 2011 to 2014. Several of the athletes involved, including All-Big 12 defensive lineman Shawn Oakman, had off-the-field issues before arriving at Baylor.
OSU’s addition of an official background check system was the result of the Big 12 Board of Directors’ February 2016 approving of rules regarding “serious misconduct.” The rules, partially resulting from the Baylor scandal, state, “Prospective student-athletes, including transfers, who have committed serious misconduct shall not be eligible for athletically related financial aid, practice or competition.”
Schools are allowed to create their own definitions for “serious misconduct” as long as they include acts of sexual assault, domestic violence and “other similar crimes of moral turpitude.” Meyer said OSU’s definition includes rape, sexual violence, sexual misconduct, dating violence and more.
Members of OSU’s athletic department were already having internal discussions about adding a background check system, Meyer said, but decided to adopt a system after the rule’s implementation.
The department was initially unsure whether the use of a service would be worth it, given the limited information it would have available about juvenile and international athletes, Meyer said.
Although most court records are open to the public, data about juveniles accused of or charged with a crime generally are not.
“We thought that it really was not going to be that beneficial,” Meyer said. “… If there is something that occurred as a juvenile, we may not receive that information or even receive notice of it. That’s just an issue that all universities have to deal with.”
While OSU used PublicData.com, coaches presented Meyer with the prospective athletes they thought might need to be looked into. Meyer entered an athlete’s name or birthday into the system and then tried to confirm he was looking for the right person. For an athlete with a unique name, the process could take two minutes, but for athletes with more common names, it could take up to 20 minutes, Meyer said.
If Meyer were to find something that doesn’t violate the Big 12 rule but caused concern regardless, he would present that information to OSU Athletic Director Mike Holder and the coach of the team recruiting the athlete. Holder and the coach would discuss whether they wish to continue recruiting the athlete.
If they determine they do, Holder would appoint a committee of people outside of the athletic department with the approval of President Burns Hargis’ office, Meyer said. The committee would determine whether the athlete was permitted to play at OSU.
A committee has not needed to be formed yet, Meyer said, adding it’s “not very often” he finds something worthy of bringing to Holder and the coach’s attention.
“I will be surprised to find something, anything that fits in the definition of ‘serious misconduct’ any year,” Meyer said.
Unlike PublicData.com, Validity is not limited to information available only online and can get access to international records. Validity also offers social security verification, which isn’t available on PublicData.com, Meyer said.
“We think it worked well, but we always want to improve the process if we can,” Meyer said.
Even with the switch to Validity, Meyer said OSU will continue to use PublicData.com in certain cases, as it has a much quicker turnaround time than Validity. Regardless, there remains an expectation for coaches to do their share of research into the athlete they’re recruiting.
“We are confident in our coaches’ ability to do the first level of diligence,” Meyer said. “Our coaches have done a great job to this point, which is one of the reasons you don’t see a lot of issues around here. We’re continuing to rely upon their first round of diligence, and then we will do the background checks in addition to that.”
Neither Meyer nor Kevin Klintworth, OSU’s senior associate athletic director of communications, were interested in making a statement regarding the Westbrook situation. When asked whether it had an impact on OSU’s decision to switch to a third-party system, Meyer said, “Not at all.”
“Probably wouldn’t be a good idea for us to go down that road, another school’s kid,” Klintworth said.
In December, Gundy said having someone outside the football team conduct background checks allows “everything within reason” to be checked. Meyer said using Validity will have a similar effect.
“It’s what they do for a living,” Meyer said. “I’m not a background-searching expert.”
With Validity, Meyer’s responsibilities regarding background checks will be altered, but he will still be involved in the process. The athletics staff will gather the athlete’s name, birthday, social security number and a consent form, sending that information to Validity. After performing the background check, Validity will send their findings to Meyer, among others.
The OSU athletic department is “constantly evaluating” its background check process, Lang said, but the industry itself is constantly changing.
“It’s like so many things in athletics: It’s new,” Klintworth said. “It’s still evolving. It’ll probably be different three years from now than what it is now. I think that’s probably safe to say.”
For the current class of OSU recruits, Gundy and his staff focused on recruiting “cerebral” players, he said repeatedly Wednesday. They wanted to gather as much information on them as possible, he said; they didn’t want something slipping through the cracks.
“We tried to be as detailed and as in-depth this year as ever in information about players,” Gundy said. “Background checks, that's kind of the new fad, try to reach as deep as possible into that, and that's not fool-proof. Sometimes you don't get all that information.”