Research crime, take safety precautions

Middle Tennessee's women's basketball team is still mourning the loss of Tina Stewart. AP Photo/Danny Johnston

When athletes go off to school, they have grand visions and dreams of what basketball, college and life in general holds for them. Going through the recruiting process, they studied their options, evaluated available resources, and pictured themselves on each campus in the mix as they tried to find just the right setting. What no recruit or her parents ever imagine is going away to school and finding themselves the victim of a crime.

Two weeks ago, Tina Stewart, a junior guard from Middle Tennessee State University, left practice, lifted weights, returned to her apartment and, before the evening was over, lost her life. The circumstances surrounding her death are tragic and will forever leave an ache in the hearts of family, teammates and friends that will never truly heal.

What happened to Stewart didn't occur because she was a college athlete. It certainly didn't happen because she chose to attend MTSU either. But there will be some coaches in the recruiting process who will try to utilize this heartbreaking situation for their own benefit. The use of another's misfortune and the exploitation of fear in the recruiting process is predatory and beneath any level of professional ethics. No individual taking such a self-serving approach deserves the title of "coach," let alone the opportunity to be entrusted with the welfare of young student athletes.

Fortunately, situations of the magnitude of Stewart's loss are few and very far between in the scope of college athletics. However, one reality that no recruit and her family can escape from is that criminal activity occurs on every campus. From the small, suburban, private church-based school to the massive, sprawling, public university and its metropolitan campus, "real life" permeates a university community. And crime comes with it.

It's way too easy to evaluate potential schools in the recruiting process from the academic, athletic and even social perspective, yet overlook the fact that a university campus and its environs are going to be home for four or five years. The safety of a university's students, both on and off campus, is a consideration that shouldn't be taken lightly. At the same time, there's no need to become paranoid and obsessive while looking for an ultra-secure environment that simply doesn't exist.

Regardless of what decision a prospect makes and how much stock she and her family put into the safety surrounding a university and its campus, her ultimate security will be dictated by the personal decisions that she makes. All the research into a campus and its safeguards become meaningless if an individual is careless in her approach to her own well being. Awareness of your surroundings, where you park, whether you lock doors, the choices on where and with whom you socialize, as well as what behavior you tolerate or participate in are just good old-fashioned common sense and go a long way in preventing crime.

What you can do is research and evaluate the statistics, settings and resources that reflect a university's commitment to its students' safety. Being an athlete doesn't make an individual any less susceptible to vandalism, robbery, car theft, sexual assault or other violent behavior. Every school has statistics available on crime and it's worth the effort to seek them out directly from admissions or campus police. With so many students living off campus for a large part of their college career, it's also wise to look at the information available on criminal activity in the local community. Be sure when asking for statistics that you ask for all reported crimes, not just the ones that were resolved or in which arrests were made.

The United States Department of Education offers a website (http://ope.ed.gov/security/index.aspx) for researching statistics on specific universities and it's wise to take a look at the schools you're considering. This is one area where there's no such thing as too much information. While I wouldn't eliminate any school on the basis of these kinds of statistics, I certainly would utilize them, if necessary, to formulate some questions to ask the coaching staff and players.

As with so many other aspects of the recruiting process, your best resource will be the current athletes on the roster. Ask them how secure they feel about their own safety and about any incidents they're aware of that may have occurred involving other athletes and students. Keep in mind they chose that particular university themselves and don't ever forget that they're actively involved in your recruitment. If you know other students at that specific school get their thoughts on campus safety and what concerns they or their parents might have.

When you're on a campus visit, make time to take a walk around campus at night. See if you're comfortable or whether you're constantly looking over your shoulder. Check out the lighting around campus and how secure it makes you feel. Look for the availability, number and location of security phones. Ask about safety escort services and their accessibility for students living both on and off campus.

Take a good look at the campus itself and see if it's self-contained or whether it blends in with the surrounding community. Both settings have their advantages and disadvantages from a security standpoint; it's more a question of your comfort level. The same goes for living on or off campus. It's important to consider both options from a safety point-of-view as well as a desire for independence and wanting your own place. Dorms may seem more secure but they're not without their issues and off-campus student housing offers up its own set of concerns.

While we're on the topic of living arrangements, roommates can be a key component to the safety of you and your belongings. In a dorm room, apartment or house, roommate choices can have just as big an impact on the situations you find yourself in. Whether or not you have a team member for a roommate is a separate issue, but having someone you know and trust can be a comfort and provide peace of mind that they won't put you at risk unnecessarily.

Not a campus in America is without some kind of crime. It's hard to imagine any school not absolutely committed to the safety and welfare of its students, but not every setting is going to be the right choice. Just as you consider the factors that will make a program home for you as a student and as a player, make sure it's also home for you on a personal level. Tina Stewart's death was not the result of any facet of her recruiting process and it had absolutely nothing to do with her choice of school. It is, however, a reminder that concerns for safety and security are just as important in choosing a school as they are in our everyday lives. Choose carefully.

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Mark Lewis is the national recruiting coordinator for ESPN HoopGurlz. Twice ranked as one of the top 25 assistant coaches in the game by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, he has more than 20 years of college coaching experience at Memphis State, Cincinnati, Arizona State, Western Kentucky and, most recently, Washington State. He can be reached at mark@hoopgurlz.com.