Utahns respond to SI, CBS News investigation of college football, crime

Published: Wednesday, March 2 2011 10:00 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — It's easy to say "no comment" when two national reporters show up at your office with questions about a star athlete who had a serious run-in with the law.

But football coach Dave Peck didn't think he had anything to hide, and when veteran journalists Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian left Bingham High School, they took with them a different side of the story.

The reporters came knowing that lineman Viliseni Fauonuku helped lead the Miners to a 13-0 season and the state 5A championship last fall. They knew he was being recruited by the University of Utah. And they also knew that Fauonuku had been charged with aggravated robbery for holding a gun in the faces of several teenagers while his cousin stole drugs and wallets.

For them, the teen star was a prime example of the issue they were examining: college football players recruited by colleges that usually fail to seek out, or choose to ignore, criminal backgrounds.

For six months, Benedict, Keteyian and a team of all-stars from Sports Illustrated and CBS News dug through criminal backgrounds of 2,837 athletes from the top 25 preseason college teams.

In their special report, "Criminal Records in College Football," published today in Sports Illustrated, on SI.com, CBS.com and on the "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric," the team reveals their findings that 7 percent of players, about 1 in 14, had a criminal history that ranged from drug possession to violent assault.

And Fauonuku is one of those players.

Peck told the Deseret News Thursday that initially he knew very little about Fauonuku's case, only discovering how serious it was months later, and even then with spotty details.

Instead, last spring and summer he was focused on "Seni" as a person, not a football player. And Seni was struggling, emotionally devastated after the death of his young nephew.

"I really like Seni, I think he's a great kid, and I know he made a huge mistake," Peck said. "I can't explain why, but he was in the lowest state he could be in. We just tried to be some adults in his life who tried to care about him."

Fauonuku was suspended for two games, and Peck knows some people accuse him and Bingham High School of trying to pull strings to keep Fauounku on the team, in school or to resolve his case. Peck immediately dismisses those. The coach never once talked with an officer, an attorney or a prosecutor. He was simply focused on his players and the increasing attention and demands of a winning team.

Fauonuku was sentenced in juvenile court in November to a lesser charge of robbery, put on probation and ordered to complete 125 hours of community service. After his probation ends, his charge will be reduced from a felony to a "delinquent act," according to CBSNews.com.

"We're just trying to make a difference with the kids we're with," Peck said. "Do we always make the best decisions? We probably don't, but none of us are out there trying to make bad decisions. We're doing it because we love what we do and we're trying to help kids. That's the bottom line."

"Everybody makes mistakes, we all make them," said Brad Bevan, Bingham High School's Athletic Director. "When you give up on a young man or woman because of something in their background … there goes your chance to influence them in a positive way. And that's what some of these coaches can do."

But the investigative report revealed that far too few of the coaches and colleges even know that there's something amiss in their players' backgrounds.

"Given what's available and what's at stake, (I was most surprised) at how little schools know, and how little they dig into the backgrounds of the kids they're bringing onto campus," said Keteyian, CBS News' chief investigative correspondent and former reporter for Sports Illustrated.