When I told friends or family I was currently engrossed in a book about college football, the reaction I always received was: “Really?” Yeah, I’ll admit it; I’m less than even a casual college football fan. I’ll root for Yale over anyone else and I’ll support the University of Pittsburgh out of hometown pride, but I’d be hard-pressed to name a single player or coach. My ability to follow a sports team begins and ends with the Steelers.
And yet, I was utterly captivated by — and thoroughly enjoyed — “The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football,” by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian. In fact, I may have enjoyed it all the more because many of the stories that would have been familiar to college fans were completely new to me, and thus surprising. Benedict, an acclaimed and prolific investigative reporter, and Keteyian, chief investigative correspondent for CBS News, do an excellent job making the topic digestible even for someone like me.
College football is, according to the authors, “the biggest game in the United States, in terms of overall impact.” While the NBA or MLB or NFL may have higher salaries and better coverage on ESPN, they have fewer teams, which cover less area, than college football; the only television program more watched than the 2013 BCS College Football National Championship was the Super Bowl. College football “is everywhere.” It is a glorious, monstrous, nearly religious system that is as widespread geographically as it is in its fan base.
And, for all the excitement, college football exists within a highly flawed system. Sex, sin, scandal, and billions of shady dollars stuff its hidden underbelly.
With the rigor of professional journalists, Benedict and Keteyian demonstrate how student athletes are working full-time jobs in a system that does not pay them. College athletes are far more likely than non-athletes to commit crimes, including and especially sexual assault, but much of this misconduct is covered up by team “janitors” (highly paid fixers) or even the police. Injuries — especially head injuries — are everywhere and nearly inevitable. A staggeringly high percentage of players who never go pro also don’t graduate college, and a black player is far more likely than a white player not to receive a diploma. Top-tier high school recruits — 17-year-olds — are sometimes offered illegal recruitment packages in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they are frequently seduced by “hostesses” — leggy college girls who are explicitly directed to flirt (or more) with the boys in order to recruit them. Many teams have budgets over $100 million, and many coaches are the highest paid public employees in the state. Yet for all the money flooding the game, 90 percent of major athletic departments operate at a loss.
It’s crazy. And it’s also highly entertaining. The authors create a gripping narrative through a series of profiles — of coaches, players, recruits, NCAA investigators, agents, strippers and more. We meet Ricky Seals-Jones, the most sought-after recruit in the country, who is being stalked, bribed and threatened by big-name schools. We see Mike Leach, one of the most controversial and successful coaches in the game, who took a nothing team at Texas Tech, made it into a powerhouse, and then was forced to resign in disgrace. We learn about Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah, a Mormon from Africa who, after walking on to the BYU team (never having played the game) and starting for just a half a season, is catapulted into the NFL as the fifth overall pick in the 2013 draft. We hear the tales of donors who make Charles Johnson look tight-fisted and players who make Patrick Witt look like a choirboy. And the money, oh the money.
Benedict and Keteyian, who have both written for Sports Illustrated and numerous other publications covering athletics, make good use of their contacts, gaining unprecedented access to the 2012 season. At times hyperbolic, at times self-congratulatory, their coverage is nonetheless fresh and eye opening.
“The System” is ultimately more of an indictment than a celebration. It dwells more on the scandal than on the glory. Its authors do not, however, provide many concrete policy suggestions. The system of tutoring college athletes, recruiting college athletes, paying administrators and funding teams is a little scary, but, even after reading “The System,” I wouldn’t know where to begin trying to fix things. Hopefully, “The System” will serve to start a more productive conversation among a wider audience.