Has Penn State's on-field progress led to off-field problems?

Jack Britt got an unexpected lesson in law while earning his criminal justice degree from Penn State University.

A fight involving several Penn State football players in April 2007 left Britt bruised, bewildered and critical of a judicial system he says allows players to escape serious punishment.

Yet prosecutors and police officers insist that wearing a blue and white jersey on the field does not score points in the courtroom.

"It doesn't change the way cases are handled in this office," said Michael Madeira, district attorney in Centre County, the home of Penn State's main campus in State College.

Since 2002, 46 Penn State football players have faced 163 criminal charges, according to an ESPN analysis of Pennsylvania court records and reports. Twenty-seven players have been convicted of or have pleaded guilty to a combined 45 counts.

Most recently, former wide receiver Chris Bell pleaded guilty July 22 to making terroristic threats for an April incident in which he pulled a knife on a teammate in a university dining hall.

These criminal charges coincide with concerns from a former player, a recruiting analyst, local media and others that Penn State has pursued recruits who are good athletes but might have questionable character issues, in order to improve performance. The team under head coach Joe Paterno faced an unprecedented four out of five losing seasons from 2000 to 2004.

Paterno says the allegations about recruiting are simply not true.

"We tried to get kids that were good, solid kids," the coach said. "We may have made a mistake or two, but there was no deliberate attempt."

Penn State president Graham Spanier said he believes Paterno and the university have taken appropriate disciplinary action against players involved in crimes. In trying to prevent such incidents, Spanier said he and other university officials meet with freshman student athletes at the start of each year and "talk about what expectations are."

"We read the riot act, so to speak, and we hope for the best," he said.

Crimes involving football players don't represent the overall character of the school's nearly 800 student athletes, he said, but the numbers still trouble him.

"It might often be the case that there is an initial overreaction, as evidenced by the dismissal of so many charges, but never mind that, it's still the case that many of those charges have stuck," the president said. "... However you count them, the numbers are too high, and we lament that fact."

Penn State's certainly isn't the only football team with athletes running afoul of the law.

Since January, players from Florida State University, the University of Iowa, the University of Georgia and the University of Colorado have been arrested and charged with a variety of crimes, including possession of illegal drugs, assault, sexual assault and robbery.

Penn State student body president Gavin Keirans said the tally of football player crimes represents a few extreme incidents, "but really, there's a plethora of small cases -- that are typical of any university -- that get thrown into the mix and are magnified."

Fans and students pay more attention to student athletes and rightfully hold them to a higher standard, Keirans said. "The student athlete is supposed to be a model for the university." And many are, he said. "In some cases, they do have a few minor indiscretions."

One of the more extreme incidents was the April 2007 melee at the apartment, in which Britt was injured. Originally, six players faced nine felonies and 18 lesser charges. The courts dismissed counts against four players and allowed the remaining two to plead guilty to misdemeanor offenses.

Two other students also faced charges. The courts dismissed a harassment charge against one student after he completed community service and found another student guilty of criminal mischief after he missed his hearing.

According to court documents and witness statements, here's how the incident played out: Britt and two friends got into an argument with Penn State safety Anthony Scirrotto and his girlfriend on the street. That confrontation ended with Britt and his friends walking to a party at a nearby apartment and Scirrotto calling his teammate Lydell Sargeant. Scirrotto said about 15 guys then showed up.

The football players found the apartment and, according to Britt and other witness reports, rushed in and started punching and beating partygoers.

As for who started the fight in the apartment, "that's something no one will ever know," said Ronald McGlaughlin, a private criminal defense attorney who represented three of the players, Jerome Hayes, Justin King and Scirrotto. Charges against King and Hayes were dropped, and Scirrotto pleaded guilty to trespassing. Scirrotto insisted he never hit anyone in the apartment.

McGlaughlin said there simply wasn't enough evidence to prove otherwise, including allegations that Scirrotto conspired to gather his teammates to ambush the apartment.

But Britt, who was not charged in the incident, still insists the defendants got off easy simply because they're football players. He says he has friends who have received harsher punishments for less serious crimes such as underage drinking.

"If you're not a football player, you don't matter," he said.

The case also angers Britt's father, Sgt. William Britt, a 30-year law enforcement veteran who supervises detectives in the Philadelphia Police Department's homicide division.

Sgt. Britt said prosecutors should have charged the players with more serious offenses, such as aggravated assault, which can be a first-degree felony.

"Someone gets his face smashed in and there's blood everywhere and someone gets knocked unconscious, and that's not aggravated assault?" he said. "It was a disgrace. In any criminal case, you charge them with everything you can because you know [the charges] are going to be knocked down. If you start at the bottom, you have no where to go."

Just a few months later, another fight involving football players resulted in a dispute over whether the suspects were appropriately charged.

Witnesses said that during an Oct. 7, 2007, fraternity party, 15 players attacked a visiting fraternity member. Only three players were charged in connection with the fight; two pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and one to assault.

During one court appearance, a district judge noted the lack of charges and conflicting statements. Judge Carmine Prestia ended up dismissing the most serious aggravated assault charges against two players because he said the assistant district attorney did not prove his case.

"I'm absolutely certain somebody beat the crap out of that young man, but the evidence was not presented," he said. "... It seems to me there were other people involved. I don't know why they weren't charged. It's up to the police to search for evidence."

Anthony De Boef, a private defense attorney in State College, wound up representing player Chris Baker, who was facing charges for both the April and October fights. Baker faced three felony counts but ended up pleading guilty to three misdemeanor charges and received two years' probation.

"He was not an instigator either time," De Boef said. "He just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time." Others should have been charged but weren't, he added.

Madeira, the district attorney, said prosecutors found it difficult to gather evidence from reluctant witnesses in both the April and October incidents. Players aren't willing to point fingers at each another, and victims and other witnesses realize that if they do testify against a student athlete, "that does not make you a popular person at Penn State University or at any university," he said.

Police officers face the same problem. State College Police Chief Thomas King said people are reluctant to talk and those who do give statements can turn shy as the case unfolds.

"State College is a small community, and Penn State intercollegiate athletics has a large fan base both locally and nationally," he said. "The inordinate media attention to these cases can cause reluctance on the part of some victims and/or witnesses from getting involved."

Sgt. Britt said he understands how difficult it can be to get witnesses to talk.

But he also said prosecutors could have threatened to file charges against all the players who showed up at the apartment for conspiring to commit a crime.

"That was the hammer that the DA's office had, and they chose not to do it," he said. "The people who didn't take part in the beatings, who just entered the building, would have been tripping over themselves to cooperate so their futures weren't ruined."

Spanier, the university president, said the school encourages students to cooperate with law enforcement and offers assistance to victims with counseling, medical services and opportunities to file complaints.

If the courts dismiss a case for lack of evidence and university officials are confident an athlete did something wrong, the school or coach still can reprimand and discipline that student, he said.

Some players have been temporarily or permanently expelled for their actions. Former Penn State wide receiver Maurice Humphrey was expelled in 2003. He was convicted of misdemeanor assault after an altercation with his ex-girlfriend and another man. Baker, Scirrotto, Hayes and Sargeant were expelled for a summer semester after their role in the April 2007 fight.

That certainly didn't satisfy the Britts, as hundreds of dollars in Jack Britt's overdue medical bills pile up at their home. Sgt. Britt said he feels Penn State turned its back on his son and his friends who were injured.

"You can remind them that 'We are Penn State' means all the students, not just the football team," he said. "My son's tuition is what enables them to send those punks on a free ride."

Paula Lavigne is a reporter in the Enterprise Unit. Her work appears on "Outside The Lines."