At many of the nation’s top sports colleges, vetting athletes for past sexual misconduct and violent acts under a new NCAA policy boils down to one step: asking them.
The policy was the national college sports organization’s answer to a series of scandals in which coaches recruited athletes with histories of violence against women, some of whom were later accused of reoffending. Starting with the 2022-23 school year, the rule was intended to keep campuses safer.
But if an athlete answers “no” to a list of questions about criminal convictions and school disciplinary action, officials at many multi-sport powerhouses – the University of Alabama, Louisiana State University, Ohio State University and more – generally take their word for it.
“They absolutely don’t want to know,” said Brenda Tracy, a gang-rape survivor whose nonprofit, Set The Expectation, works to reduce sexual violence in sports by educating athletes and coaches. “It’s ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’”
Adopted three years ago by the NCAA’s highest governing body, the policy requires all 1,100 member schools to take “reasonable steps” to confirm whether new and continuing athletes have records of serious misconduct, including sexual assault, dating violence and assault causing serious bodily harm. Athletes must annually disclose any criminal convictions and school disciplinary actions, and schools must have written procedures for obtaining information from athletes’ previous schools.
The NCAA Board of Governors, however, left the details to each school. It declined to centralize the process, issue uniform standards or define “reasonable steps.” The result is a patchwork of protocols full of loopholes and gaps.
A USA TODAY analysis of vetting practices at 51 schools that compete in the NCAA’s “Power 5” conferences – the top echelon of college sports – found more than half rely on the honor system instead of checking records. While two dozen schools, including Michigan State University and the University of Texas at Austin, require each athlete’s previous institutions to sign a form attesting to their discipline history, 27 other schools verify it only if the athlete answers a question “yes.”
School officials say self-disclosure forms aren’t the only measure they take to vet recruits. For instance, coaches and support staff get to know them through phone calls and texts, reviewing their social media accounts and talking to their parents, coaches and teammates, said Ben Johnson, an Ohio State spokesperson.
“The Ohio State University Department of Athletics is confident in its protocols to learn if incoming, transferring student-athletes have had prior or pending disciplinary actions or criminal proceedings,” Johnson said.
Monica Watts, an Alabama spokesperson, said the disclosure form is “just one aspect of a thorough and multi-faceted review process” that includes conversations with anyone – from doctors to counselors and alumni – who can provide information about a prospective athlete’s character, conduct and issues of concern.
LSU is working on creating a separate conduct disclosure form that it will send to prospective transfer athletes’ former institutions, athletics spokesperson Cody Worsham said.
The pitfalls of depending on athletes and their supporters to report information that could damage their reputations and careers were on full display in May, when news emerged that two football players at the University of Arizona and the University of Wisconsin-Madison had settled a lawsuit filed against them by a young woman.
The woman said the players, Jayden de Laura and Kamo’i Latu, raped her in a Hawaii parking garage in October 2018 after leading their high school team to victory in the state championship. The woman was a minor at the time. The lawsuit said both athletes had pleaded guilty to sexual assault in the second degree; de Laura’s attorneys said later that the case was adjudicated in family court.
By the time the woman filed suit in Hawaii civil court, de Laura was the quarterback at Washington State University and Latu was a safety at the University of Utah. Both players announced soon after that they would transfer schools. De Laura in January 2022 said he would join Arizona. Latu committed to Wisconsin in May.
Yet the athletes apparently did not disclose the matter to their new coaches. In public statements issued after the news broke, both schools said they learned of the lawsuit – and the rape allegations – after football season started the following fall. Arizona’s and Wisconsin’s self-disclosure forms, which USA TODAY reviewed, ask about criminal convictions and school discipline but not lawsuits or juvenile delinquency proceedings.
Latu’s attorney, Michael Green, said in an email that his client “does not intend to comment on a case that has been closed for years.” Wisconsin spokesperson John Lucas noted that Latu, in his answer to the lawsuit, denied the woman’s claim that he pleaded guilty to sexual assault in the second degree. Because juvenile court records are sealed, the school could not independently verify, Lucas said.
“We have no definitive information indicating that there was a charge or conviction,” Lucas said.
Arizona did not make de Laura available for an interview and emails to his attorney went unreturned. In a statement to USA TODAY, Arizona athletics spokesman Matt Ensor said officials learned of the matter in September 2022 and determined it did not fall within the scope of its policies, so de Laura did not need to disclose it.
“The University immediately began a review of the matter and concluded that there is no indication that de Laura was ever criminally convicted or subject to discipline through a Title IX proceeding of sexual, interpersonal, or other acts of violence, stemming from the incident referenced in the civil complaint,” Ensor said in the statement.
Most schools’ forms do not ask questions that could offer a fuller picture of an athlete’s conduct background. USA TODAY reviewed blank versions of the conduct disclosure questionnaires used by 44 schools. Fewer than half asked about pending criminal cases. Only seven asked about juvenile delinquency cases. Six asked about arrests, and four asked about civil lawsuits.
The NCAA is supposed to penalize schools for failing to comply with the rules by banning them from hosting championship competitions for a year. But it, too, relies on the honor system: It requires school administrators to annually attest if they comply with the policy, and it trusts them if they say they are.
The NCAA declined to comment on USA TODAY’s findings, instead issuing a written statement.
“It is incredibly important and, indeed, the responsibility of each institution to comply with all policy components and to develop any necessary processes to ensure they successfully implement the policy and can attest to their compliance,” NCAA communications director Michelle Brutlag Hosick said in the statement.
The penalty for breaking rules is not significant enough to stop schools from violating it anyway, said Daisy Tackett, a former rower at the University of Kansas who sued her school in 2016 after she said a football player raped her in a campus dorm.
At the end of Kansas’ investigation of the case, Tackett received a letter from the school saying it had “effectively expelled” the player, who transferred soon after to Indiana State University. When a local newspaper brought her case to Indiana State officials’ attention, they dismissed the player – and claimed to have been unaware of it.
“I just don’t understand how this is still a problem,” Tackett said. “It’s a solution that says, ‘We don’t actually care about this.’”
High-profile incidents draw public outrage
The NCAA is notorious for relentlessly enforcing its more than 400-page rulebook that regulates many aspects of athletes’ lives, from grades to income, drug use to meals.
NCAA rules enforcers have weighed in on controversies such as whether players needed to reimburse their school for eating too much pasta at a banquet, whether a coach could sell an athlete a used mattress and whether a bagel should count as one of the three meals a school could provide an athlete each day. It ruled that bagels by themselves were permissible to serve as snacks, but bagels with cream cheese constituted a full meal.
When it comes to regulating sexual misconduct and violence, however, the NCAA takes a hands-off approach.
The NCAA’s rulebook outlines no specific penalties for athletes who engage in serious misconduct. Players regularly exploit its one meaningful penalty for those who transfer while suspended or after being expelled – a year of bench time – by enrolling at a junior college for a semester or transferring before the discipline takes effect.
Until last year, no NCAA-wide rules for screening athletes existed either. A handful of conferences and individual schools had adopted their own policies after high-profile incidents.
In 2015, Alabama head coach Nick Saban recruited Jonathan Taylor, a defensive lineman who had been dismissed by the University of Georgia less than a year earlier after his arrest for allegedly choking his girlfriend in a dorm room. Saban initially called Taylor “the kind of guy that deserved a second chance.”
Taylor was arrested again in a domestic violence case with a new girlfriend three months later. Saban dismissed him.
Public outrage about the case prompted the Southeastern Conference to adopt a first-of-its-kind serious misconduct policy requiring schools to conduct due diligence on recruits. It also barred its schools from accepting transfer athletes who have been criminally convicted or disciplined by a previous school for a range of serious offenses.
The Big 12 Conference, the Pac-12 Conference and a few others followed, adopting serious misconduct policies over the next few years. But athletes with records of sexual misconduct continued to slip through the cracks.
A USA TODAY investigation in December 2019 identified at least 33 athletes who had transferred to NCAA schools after being disciplined by a previous school or criminally convicted for a sexual offense. They included a San Diego State punter found responsible for raping a female student at the University of Kentucky and a Texas Tech University sprinter who helped the Red Raiders win the track and field national championship a year after Illinois State University disciplined him for sexual harassment.
When approached by reporters, many of the coaches who recruited those athletes told USA TODAY they were not aware of their athletes’ past offenses.
The Board of Governors announced the new association-wide vetting requirements four months later, in April 2020. They were supposed to take effect for the 2021-22 school year, but the board delayed them a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The policy outlines the baseline steps that schools must take to comply. Today, many don’t promise much more than that.
From the schools’ perspective, “Why do more?” asked Kristy McCray, an Otterbein University professor who researches sexual violence prevention in sports.
“If the NCAA wanted everybody to take all of those steps, they would have written a very clear policy telling everyone to take those steps. They didn’t,” McCray said. “Nothing in the NCAA guidance tells you you have to do more than the bare minimum.”
‘They get to say: We were lied to. We did our job.’
When the NCAA board adopted the new rules, it provided no model for schools to follow.
The board directed each school to adopt its own vetting procedures and create its own disclosure forms. It also declined to review any school’s policy to ensure it was up to par. As a result, the thoroughness with which athletes are backgrounded today depends heavily on which school is recruiting them.
Iowa State University’s vetting process “may” include requesting files from previous institutions and police departments and interviewing people, but only if the athlete discloses an incident first.
Arizona State University’s policy says officials will “take reasonable steps” to confirm athletes’ discipline history without specifying what the steps are. Christopher Fiscus, a school spokesperson, said officials contact athletes’ friends, family members and former coaches or administrators and send verification forms to transfer athletes’ previous schools, though these steps are not written down.
At the University of Colorado, reasonable steps must include only one of the following: speaking with an athlete’s parents, coach or guidance counselor; paying for a third-party background check; or doing a “cursory” search on the internet or social media.
The University of Michigan, the University of Missouri and Iowa State audit a sample of self-disclosure forms in which athletes answered “no” to every question, verifying the information with their former schools. Missouri spokesperson Ryan Koslen said the school also conducts background checks on all transfer athletes but did not say what that entails.
Michigan spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald said officials are confident that their approach complies with NCAA rules, and they “recognize that other institutions may have different procedures.”
“When it comes to admissions and many other matters, it’s important to note that student athletes go through the same process used for all other students,” Fitzgerald said in an emailed statement. “Student athletes also are subject to all other policies and procedures that apply to students generally.”
Iowa State’s approach enables it to capture the most serious offenders, said senior associate athletic director Shamaree Brown, who said the school does more due diligence than some of its peers.
“We’re able to get a pretty good picture of our student-athletes that we’re recruiting,” Brown said. “Is there a possibility that something could slip through the cracks? Yeah.”
44 schools provided blank copies of their athlete disclosure forms to USA TODAY.
Fewer than half the schools' forms ask the athlete if they have pending criminal charges for serious misconduct.
Seven schools ask athletes a question about juvenile delinquency proceedings.
Six schools ask if the athlete has been arrested.
Six schools ask if the athlete has been investigated by police.
Four schools ask about civil lawsuits.
The NCAA requirements are not the only safeguard. Many schools ask questions about criminal history or prior school discipline on their admissions applications. Additionally, when athletes transfer, the school they leave must indicate in the online NCAA transfer portal whether the athlete is under disciplinary suspension.
But when it comes to transfer students, federal law allows – and NCAA policy requires – schools to share more complete discipline information about athletes with each other. So advocates question why more schools don’t request it.
The NCAA should take an active role in the vetting process, said Cody McDavis, an attorney and former college basketball player who advocates against sexual violence in sport. He and Tracy pushed the NCAA board to adopt uniform rules when they sat on its Commission to Combat Sexual Violence from 2016 through 2018.
That athletic departments put the onus on athletes to self-disclose misconduct instead of verifying it themselves, McDavis said, shows they are more interested in “checking a box” than learning the truth about whom they are inviting to their campuses.
“It’s a game of culpability,” he said. “They get to say, ‘We were lied to. We did our job. We asked the questions. The student-athlete lied to us, and so we don’t have culpability – the athlete does.’”
Several Power 5 schools appear to be out of compliance with the NCAA’s minimum requirements, USA TODAY’s analysis found.
Four schools said they have no written vetting procedures, even though they were supposed to be following such procedures all year. The University of California, Berkeley, the University of Mississippi and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill all said their procedures were not complete. The University of Southern California said it follows a process that isn’t written down.
Wisconsin has a written policy, but it says nothing about steps officials will take to vet incoming recruits. The policy, enacted in 2019 – a year before the new requirements were adopted – outlines only how the school will respond if a current athlete is charged with a crime, arrested or disciplined for a student conduct violation.
Still, Wisconsin plans to attest that it complied with the NCAA policy come the November deadline, senior associate athletic director Katie Smith told USA TODAY.
Smith declined to say whether the college would adjust its protocols or ask more all-encompassing disclosure questions in light of the situation with Latu, one of the players sued for sexual assault in Hawaii. Wisconsin's athletic department is “constantly evaluating” its practices, Smith said. She said it would help, however, if the NCAA would step in.
For instance, Smith said the NCAA could provide schools a uniform list of questions to ask. Or it could facilitate the disclosure and verification processes through the NCAA’s Eligibility Center, which would make it easier for schools to share information.
“For an issue of such great importance and magnitude,” she said, “I think it would be helpful to have a standardized approach throughout the country.”
Going beyond trust to verify
Tracy and other advocates have been pushing NCAA leaders to adopt a uniform serious misconduct policy for years.
In 2018, tired of waiting for the NCAA to act, Tracy developed her own policy with the help of legal experts. Dubbed the “Tracy Rule,” it builds on the Southeastern Conference and Big Sky Conference policies but is more exhaustive and ironclad. She has urged school leaders who have hired her for prevention education training to adopt it.
Tracy thought lots of schools would contact her about the rule after the new NCAA requirements came out. To date, she said, only two – the University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of Virginia’s College at Wise – have adopted it. Neither competes in the Power 5.
The vetting procedures Power 5 schools adopted instead “feel like a direct reflection of how each institution truly feels about these issues,” Tracy said.
“To see just the minimum amount of effort that has been put into these – almost like no thought at all – is really frustrating,” she said.
The Tracy Rule goes well beyond the minimum NCAA requirements.
Under the rule, athletes must annually complete a detailed questionnaire about convictions, school disciplinary action, juvenile proceedings, lawsuits and any other law enforcement investigations in which they were a suspect. The questionnaire covers a wide range of offenses, from sexual exploitation to hate crimes and manslaughter.
For transfer athletes, the rule requires the Title IX coordinator at each of their previous schools to sign a form attesting to whether the athlete was a respondent in a case handled by their office and whether the athlete was found at fault.
By default, athletes who have been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor, found delinquent in a juvenile proceeding, or disciplined by a college or athletic department for serious misconduct are disqualified from competing under the rule, though they can request a waiver.
If a review panel consisting of the Title IX coordinator and other campus officials determines the athlete should receive a waiver, the panel details its rationale in a report to the president and athletic director, who can approve or deny it. If the panel decides a waiver is unwarranted, its decision is final.
In the four years since Texas at San Antonio adopted the rule, a handful of athletes have disclosed serious misconduct, the college’s athletic director Lisa Campos said. The review panel met just once to review an athlete’s waiver request, Campos said, and it did so out of an abundance of caution. The panel granted the waiver.
The rule has acted as a deterrent of sorts, Campos said. When athletes refuse to complete the questionnaire or undergo the vetting process, coaches stop recruiting them.
“It seems to be working the way we intended it to,” Campos said.
Texas at San Antonio officials have not caught an athlete lying on the questionnaire, Campos said. Although the vetting process can be time-consuming, particularly in an era when transfers happen at lightning speed through the NCAA’s online transfer portal, she said taking the extra step of verifying athletes’ responses is crucial.
“We hope that we’re recruiting student athletes that we can trust,” Campos said, “but for them to also know that we are going to verify from another school your background, I think that shows the seriousness of what we are trying to do.”
For Virginia’s College at Wise, the 2022-23 school year – its first year with the rule in effect – went fairly seamlessly, athletic director Kendall Rainey said. Coaches embraced the rule, she said, and athletes and their parents thanked the school for doing its due diligence.
“It’s a really valuable part of our policies here, our culture here, and our means of meeting the new NCAA requirements, but it’s more than just the policy,” Rainey said. “It’s about the interactions, and the human aspect of the whole thing and the whole experience.”
Two athletes disclosed conduct on the questionnaire, Rainey said. In one case, she said, officials determined it did not fit the definition for serious misconduct. The other athlete signed with another school before the review panel convened.
Two athletes declined to complete the questionnaire, Rainey said, so the school did not recruit them.
Rainey recommended the Tracy Rule to other schools, encouraging them not to feel overwhelmed at the prospect. Other NCAA rules around social media use are harder to enforce, she said.
Template procedures and questionnaire forms provided by Tracy’s nonprofit made the process simple, said Tabitha Smith, the school’s Title IX coordinator.
“I think you have to look inward into your heart and your values of your institution,” Smith said. “It seems like a no-brainer.”
Kenny Jacoby is an investigative reporter for USA TODAY covering Title IX and campus sexual misconduct. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @kennyjacoby. Savannah Kuchar is a USA TODAY Washington Watchdog Fellow. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @savannahkuchar