It just got harder to win an athletic scholarship to the University of Oklahoma. The university has announced that all prospective athletes must undergo a criminal background check before committing to the school. Besides discouraging criminality among high-school athletes, the move is meant to inform admissions decisions. "The check gives us additional insights to the character of a student athlete that you don't necessarily get from recommendations or from the family," says Gerald Gurney, Oklahoma's assistant athletic director.

Identifying recruits as criminals prevents public-relations nightmares like those faced by the University of Colorado and the University of Miami. After signing high-school football star Willie Williams last year, Miami learned that his criminal record--which included a probation violation, a burglary conviction and a misdemeanor battery rap--rivaled his athletic resume. In the aftermath of the negative publicity, Miami is now considering background checks, as is the University of North Carolina.

Although the NCAA has no official position regarding background searches, the organization's increasing academic standards have been a driving force behind stricter recruiting procedures. Most universities now question recruits about their personal history, which means that formalized background checks may soon become commonplace. According to Don Yaeger, who investigated criminality among NFL players in his book "Pros and Cons," schools like Oklahoma are raising the bar of accountability for all universities. "They're putting themselves in a position where they really have to back away from these kids," he says. "Ignorance will no longer be the plea."