When I picked up THE SYSTEM: THE GLORY AND SCANDAL OF BIG-TIME COLLEGE FOOTBALL by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian off the shelf at my favorite bookstore I flashed back to the early 1970s when I was an academic tutor for the football program at a division one school. As I thumbed through the book’s pages it was a natural for me to purchase it as I wanted to explore how collegiate football had changed over the decades and see if the abuses I witnessed decades ago still existed. I am sorry to say many of the things discussed by the authors were similar to situations I had encountered. I worked for one of the top coaches in the collegiate game and I was responsible for tutoring football players in the “jock dorm” each night and I had double duty before midterm and semester exams. I was told on many occasions that “resources” were available to make sure players passed their courses. The purpose of this review is not to report on my experiences, but to see what Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian uncovered in their thorough and eye opening portrait of college football as the 2013 collegiate season commenced.
The book outlines many important issues that haunt college football. The authors cover well known scandals that have been reported in the last ten years. The “tattoo” problem at Ohio State under Jim Tressel in addition to other NCAA violations that led ultimately led to Tressel’s firing is explored in detail. The problems that enveloped Penn State because of the Jerry Sandusky situation is presented very clearly as to who was to blame for the university cover up of sexual abuse of youngsters put in Sandusky’s charge. Events at the University of Miami that highlighted the problem of boosters and their influence and impact on college football programs are dissected and what emerges is a widespread problem that existed throughout the country and was not endemic just too a few schools. Recruiting methods reflect a college game that at times is out of control. Offers of money, sex, cars and other amenities are very prevalent but are to be expected when universities are forced to hire coaches, many of which are fully aware of what boosters and others are offering recruits, to compete in what has become a multi-million dollar industry.
The discussion of violations in the tutoring program struck home for me. I remember the words of the head coach I worked for; “Steve, I have this here linebacker and he has to pass” and the coach reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a wad of game tickets for me to sell and he also told me to charge the Athletic Department whatever amount was necessary to make sure his boys passed their courses. The authors delineate the problems of the tutoring program at a number of institutions and for me some of the issues dealing with academic cheating that were present in the 1970s remain the same. The authors offer a great of evidence as it explored the number of criminal acts that college football players commit. Rape, drugs, violent acts are all part of the picture. In addition, when football players commit some of these acts in many cases universities do not cooperate and try to avoid responsibility when dealing with NCAA investigations. What concerns me is that universities became aware of criminal records of recruits before they enrolled, and then appear surprised when these same individuals committed the same types of acts in college.
To the authors credit not everything in the book is negative. Benedict and Keteyian focus some of their attention on individual portraits of young men, coaches, and universities that present uplifting stories. The discussion of the BYU program under coach Bronco Mendenhall gives one hope that not all college programs are unethical. The discussion centering on Towson University is also exemplary as are other examples that are provided.
The book not only deals with events related to campus life but it has a wonderful chapter on ESPN and its “Game Day” program. The reader is taken inside the recruitment of announcers and how telecasts are put together. The authors also explore the financial commitment that the networks have made as well as how profitable it has become for the networks in addition to universities as the football programs bring in millions of dollars each year. The sums involved are enormous which explains why the college game has become so cut throat. The book closes with a chapter dealing with Nick Saban and his Alabama football team. The chapter presents a positive spin on how Saban developed his coaching philosophy and how it is employed at Alabama.
Alabama and the other 119 division programs are part of the national spectacle of college football and a game that has allowed universities to use the success on the grid iron as a source of revenue to benefit both athletic and academic programs. Though the book does explore some wonderful stories of achievement and success on a personal level by those involved in the game, the authors note a great deal of caution as they close the book by summing up the issues that still plague college football, “One could almost forget the unremitting pressure, the scandals haunting the sport-the bidding wars for top recruits; the booster payoffs; the horrific injuries; the academic cheating; the rising tide of criminal acts; the brute fact that the young men who sacrificed on the field were interchangeable pieces who have received none of the billions of revenue the game generated.” (386) For those looking for an inside look at these issues as the NCAA battles to try and weed out certain individuals and practices, THE SYSTEM is the perfect book for you.