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To draft or not draft: Vetting NFL prospects linked to sexual assault

Jameis Winston could be the highest-drafted player in NFL history to be publicly accused of rape; what does it mean?

Explore our coverage from Sex Crimes in Sports

At the 1996 NFL Draft Combine, Christian Peter walked into a private room, where top officials from the New England Patriots were waiting. It was time to talk about his rap sheet.

“The first question that was asked was, ‘You got yourself into a lot of problems at Nebraska. Do you want to tell us about it?’” Peter recalled. “I said, ‘Absolutely.’”

At 6-foot-3 and 304 pounds, the defensive tackle and his ruthless play had brought South Jersey swagger to the Huskers. He was the lunatic leader of the vaunted “Blackshirt” defense that led Nebraska to back-to-back national championships in 1994 and 1995. The Peter of those years is forever archived in his pump-up videos, where he raves and pants over headbanger metal, and screams that opposing fans looked at him and his Nebraska teammates as a bunch of “f---ing rapists” and “women beaters."

Peter's mentality was that if he showed up to play on Saturdays and the team won, then he could do whatever he wanted. His alcoholism, which he says stemmed from insecurities about his intelligence and how to act around women, grew with every win in the Huskers’ 25-0 run during the 1994 and 1995 seasons.

That attitude led to eight arrests, four convictions and allegations of assault from four different women between 1991 to 1995. Most notably, in 1993, he was charged with sexually assaulting a former Miss Nebraska. And in 1995, a former classmate, Kathy Redmond, accused him of rape, and went on to gain renown as a national advocate against violent athletes.

“I told them every single time I was arrested or accused of something. You name it, I told them,” he says. “All you had to do was open up a newspaper and you could find out all the things I did.”

Peter didn’t know if his “character concerns” would affect his draft prospects.

“If I were a general manager, I wouldn’t draft somebody like me,” he says.

The Patriots took Peter as the 149th overall pick that year, thinking they were stealing a front-line player toward the later stages of the draft. The defensive tackle says he was ecstatic about the chance to play for his boyhood idol Bill Parcells.

But that never happened. Once the Boston media got a hold of the news of Peter's pick, they gave the Patriots a hammering. Publicly, team officials claimed they were unaware of Peter's checkered past when they drafted him, conceding that they had only interviewed his coaches and agent, and not his alleged victims or their lawyers.

Christian Peter was as revered for his play on the field, as he was feared for his behavior off the field.
Jed Jacobsohn/Allsport

The situation hit its boiling point when Myra Kraft, the late wife of Patriots owner Bob Kraft, came out and condemned the pick, saying there was no place on the Patriots, or in the NFL, for a player who had been charged with sexual assault.

“When the media came out with the stories about me, [the Patriots] claimed they knew nothing about my past,” Peter says. “Meanwhile, they talked about what a great background program they had in place to evaluate players. I don’t know how I slipped through, especially with everything being so highly publicized.”

Within a week, Peter was released from the Patriots.

To this day, Peter doesn't know if the league, the Patriots or any other team ran a proper background check on him.  But his case forever changed the way franchises scout and vet athletes accused of sexual assault.

Today, the league employs more than 70 independent investigators and performs background checks on every prospect invited to the combine, almost 400 total, reported The New York Times. In addition to league-administered background checks, teams conduct their own checks, often hiring security firms, private investigators or FBI agents. This year, there is a particular emphasis on players with a history of violence, which would warrant an additional background check, according to the league’s updated player conduct policy.

“The Christian Peter situation was a benchmark,” a former longtime NFL official with direct knowledge of the Peter case told “America Tonight.” “People saw that around the league and it was a wake-up call that we have to do a better job of investigating these things.”

But in a post-Ray Rice world, generations of fans are questioning whether they can trust the current sports culture to properly investigate all allegations of sexual assault and domestic violence involving athletes — especially when these kinds of cases are notoriously difficult to investigate at all. 

Judging Jameis?

By most projections, Jameis Winston will be the first player taken in the 2015 NFL Draft later this month.

The battle over the Winston narrative – NCAA champion or coddled student-athlete; franchise quarterback or walking red flag – stretches from Tallahassee, Florida, home of the Seminoles, to Boulder, Colorado, home of the attorneys for Erica Kinsman, Winston’s former classmate who accused him of rape in December 2012.

Almost 20 years after the Peter pick raised the profile of sexual assault in football, Winston is set to become the highest-drafted player ever to be accused of or charged with sexual assault. He'll join a club of at least nine other NFL players, such as Mark Sanchez, Frostee Rucker and Abram Elam, who were selected in the last couple decades despite being accused of sexual assault in college. 

Jameis Winston impressed scouts at his workout during February's NFL Draft Combine.
Julio Cortez/AP

The local prosecutor said he didn't have the evidence to charge Winston and Florida State ruled that he didn't violate the university’s code of conduct. In February, Tampa Bay Coach Lovie Smith, whose team owns the first pick, said nothing they’ve learned so far would prevent the Bucs from making Winston the top pick. But the shoddy police investigation in Winston's case and appearance of a cover-up by Florida State administrators has left a black cloud over the quarterback.

“I would say our focus has always been helping the guys coming into the league be as successful as they can be,” says Anna Isaacson, the NFL’s vice president of social responsibility. “We’ve always looked into their backgrounds, have always done background checks and have always looked into a player’s past. This information helps us and these players be more successful when they come into the league.”

Since October 2014, she added, the NFL has educated close to 6,000 employees, and even players' family members, on sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse.

"We do feel responsibility to move these topics forward," she says. "We’re lucky in the NFL that we have a massive platform … I strongly believe we use that platform for good, and I think that’s what we’re doing in a situation like this."

But background checks of student-athletes can be hampered by the secrecy of the college adjudication process and the fact that student disciplinary records are protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

Given that, it's nearly impossible to confirm or dispel the suspicions that universities protect their star student-athletes against sexual assault allegations. Almost six in 10 Americans believe college athletes who commit sexual assault are not treated the same as other students, with 36 percent of those polled saying college athletes are treated less harshly and 22 percent saying they're treated more harshly, according to a recent HBO Real Sports/Marist poll.

Multiple interview requests made to the NFL Players Association regarding the process of vetting players who’ve been accused of or charged with sexual assault were not returned. 

The Christian Peter situation was a benchmark. People saw that around the league and it was a wakeup call that we have to do a better job of investigating these things.

Former longtime NFL official

Baine Kerr, one of the Title IX attorneys for Kinsman, Winston’s accuser, says that few accusers or their counsel, himself included, would want to pro-actively reach out to the NFL teams, for fear of potential legal reprecussions.  

But Kerr thinks that if there's a known allegation against a prospect, teams should ask him to sign a FERPA waiver so that they can access all the athlete's school files, such as disciplinary and incident records, dating back to high school.

“When vetting any potentially credible accusation of off-field misconduct, I’d expect NFL teams to learn both sides and not just listen to the player, agent and coach,” Kerr says. “Due diligence should include learning the facts from the accuser’s point of view.”

A former longtime FBI agent, who wished to remain anonymous, told “America Tonight” that investigators should independently check out any allegation, even if it was already investigated by the police or the university and resulted in no charges. In his 15 years of doing background checks for private and public companies, the agent said he did about six background checks for professional sports teams, mostly in the NBA. A couple of them, he says, have become all-star-caliber players.

“The bottom line is if you send an investigator to do something, you should pursue it and find out what it is and what happened,” says the former agent. “The investigator should tell you whether the athlete is guilty or not guilty. In my mind, the pro teams have to weigh that recommendation.”

He added that in his experience, unless a prospect had been convicted – not just accused – of rape or homicide, franchises largely ignored it.

Some critics say an indifference towards sexual assault has been part of a larger culture in the NFL where violently macho behavior isn't just tolerated, but encouraged. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Sports Economics found that NFL players who had been arrested and accused of crimes in college – but not charged  –  went on to have more success in the NFL than their counterparts with clean records.

But the former FBI agent believes this laissez-faire attitude has changed with the growing awareness around the treatment of women by athletes.

“Given what is going on now in sports, the NFL is in a very risky spot,” the former FBI agent says. “If investigators do come up with something like sexual assault and still decide to bring that player on despite all that, you just can’t do that now.” 

'I didn't do anything'

Tom Seeberg doesn’t closely follow the NFL. He barely remembered the 2014 NFL Draft was coming up when he got a call about a Notre Dame player, Prince Shembo. 

Prince Shembo in pursuit of a running back during a 2013 game at Notre Dame.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

His daughter Lizzy had accused Shembo of sexual assaulting her when she was a freshman at nearby St. Mary’s College in 2010. Ten days later, she committed suicide. Lizzy Seeberg was 19.

The St. Joseph County prosecutor’s office didn’t file charges, citing a lack of evidence and the likelihood that Lizzy Seeberg’s statements would be inadmissible in court due to her death. Notre Dame concluded no violation had taken place. But the teen's death sparked a Department of Education investigation into how Notre Dame handles alleged sexual assault cases, and exposed how university officials and local law enforcement did not react appropriately in Lizzy Seeberg’s case.

“I’ve never asked anyone to believe Lizzy’s story,” Seeberg says. “I can’t prove Lizzy’s story, but nobody can. That’s the point. It’s not if he’s responsible or if he did or didn’t do it. One of the reasons we don’t know is because it was an intentionally superficial investigation.”

Shembo's name floated around Internet message boards and regularly registered in Google searches relating to the Seeberg case. But because Shembo was never charged with a crime, he went unnamed in official statements. His first public acknowledgement of the case was at last year’s combine.

“I’m innocent. I didn’t do anything,” Shembo told ESPN in February 2014, saying that Notre Dame and Coach Brian Kelly advised him not to talk about Seeberg or the accusation while he was still in school. “…I’m the one who ended it and pretty much told the girl that we should stop, that we shouldn’t be doing this and that’s what happened.”

Shembo, who estimated that he talked to about 26 of the league’s 32 teams last year, later told Blue and Gold Illustrated: “I just tell [NFL team executives] the truth. I have nothing to hide.”

Tom Seeberg says he was struck by the ineloquence and lack of humility in addressing his daughter’s accusation and death. But he was less surprised that Shembo would go on to play at the next level.

I’m innocent. I didn’t do anything ... I’m the one who ended it and pretty much told the girl that we should stop, that we shouldn’t be doing this and that’s what happened.

Prince Shembo

“It was just a complete non-surprise that he would play for someone,” Seeberg says.

After Shembo went to the Falcons in the fourth round, Thomas Dimitroff, the team’s general manager, showed conviction and confidence that the franchise had done its due diligence in vetting Shembo and Seeberg’s accusation.

“We used the NFL investigation as well as our own investigators through their processes, without going into the detail of how we acquire that information,” Dimitroff told ESPN in May 2014. “We’re very confident about what we acquired.”

The Falcons and Shembo’s agent did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. 

Lizzy Seeberg, far left, with her siblings and father, Tom, second to the right, in August 2010.
courtesy: The Seeberg Family

With all a franchise's resources, teams know what kind of person they're getting, says Joe Bommarito, a former West Coast scout for the New York Jets for 12 years. He said he graded prospects on both their on- and off-the-field behavior, and that any character concerns popped up on their radar almost immediately.

He says he's known general managers and head coaches who have both accepted and rejected players with checkered pasts.

“Players that have been accused but not charged of crimes are looked at through the same process,” says Bommarito, who is now coaching in Italy. “Is it one incident where the player made a mistake and feels remorse since that time…or has he continued to cross the line?”

But Seeberg believes the investigators discounted his daughter's testimony simply because they could. It’s an element of his daughter’s case that he says runs parallel to the Winston case.

“You can look at the Ray Rice situation. As long as a video is not going to be out there, we are not going to talk about this,” he says. “That’s the interesting thing about society today: If it isn’t in a video, it didn’t happen.”

Making a change

The 1996 season would have been Peter’s rookie year in the NFL. Instead, he took a year away from the game – and it saved his life.

Shortly after the Patriots released him, Peter met with the New York Giants. The Giants had done their homework on Peter, telling him that the situation that unfolded in New England “would have definitely happened in New York and even worse,” Peter recalls. 

Once Christian Peter entered rehab and therapy to address his alcoholism, he says it changed his life.
NFL Photos/AP

Over the next year, he attended daily counseling and checked himself into rehab. He then enrolled in outpatient therapy and was a fixture at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Driving it all was a chance to play for the Giants. He did just that, playing for six seasons with the Giants, Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears.

Today, Peter is 42 years old, married, a father of three, and runs an insurance company back in his home state of New Jersey. He says he's remorseful about sexually assaulting Natalie Kuijvenhoven, the former Miss Nebraska.

But he remains firm that Redmond, the founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, falsely accused him of rape in 1995. Redmond said the towering defensive lineman sexually assaulted her in his room, and then came to her room the next day and sexually assaulted her again while two of his friends served as lookouts. Peter says they had consensual sex and that he rudely ignored her afterwards.

“What made it more difficult for me was that I’ve got that sexual assault charge, which I did do,” says Peter, who was one of several retired players to meet with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in October to talk about sexual assault and domestic violence issues in the league. “People thought, ‘He sexually assaulted this one girl, so he probably raped this other one.’”

Peter has made a lot of mistakes in his life and hurt a lot of people. He also knows what awaits players like Winston and Shembo.

“That accusation is going to follow them [online] for the rest of their lives, whether they did it or didn’t do it,” he says.

Peter has just one piece of advice for athletes entering the pros with a sexual assault allegation in the past: “Just be honest. Eventually, it’s all going to come out.”

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