The Good, Bad and Ugly in ‘The System’ of College Football

The System, Book review

“The System”, Publisher: Penguin Random House

“I don’t think I will be able to watch a game now without thinking about the scope and amount of physical carnage that’s required for college football to succeed at the level it does.” —
Jeff Benedict, co-author of “The System”

“If I had one absolute revelation [after writing the book], it was how the weight of these $100 million programs is on the backs of these kids and the pressure they are under every week to perform.”  — Armen Keyeyrian, co-author of “The System”

“The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football” is a page turner. I couldn’t put it down, yet I hate football.  “The System” delves into the good, bad and ugly of college football— except it’s short on good. Armen Keteyian, lead correspondent of CBS’ 60 minutes sports program and co-author of the book, describes his goal in writing the book with co-author Jeff Benedict, which was “to pull back the curtain” on an ever-consuming entity—college football (Araton, 2013).  Indeed, when getting a glimpse behind the curtain, it’s not pretty.

If you read “The System” and are a college football fan you’ll never view football the same way again, and if you’re not a fan like me, you’re guaranteed never to become one.  Though on the other hand, I did gain an appreciation for the sport, specifically the amount of work and dedication invested by many honest and dedicated individuals —coaches, athletic directors, administrators, and athletes. Also, before reading the book I viewed the student-athletes as the victims of a system that puts sports before academics, that carry the weight of a multi-million dollar industry on their backs.  Yet there appears to be a hierarchy of victims in this system of college football; at the bottom of the hierarchy is a group of individuals—usually young women, though young men and children are not excluded, that are recipients of college-athletes or coaches, unlawful behaviour of sexual misconduct, abuse, assault and even robbery. Behaviours that are ignored, covered-up or dismissed in an effort to protect the power-wielding, money-generating entity of college football.

Summary of Book
Each chapter of “The System” describes a different aspect of college football; shares the intricate and often disturbing methods that make college football the money generating behemoth it is. Highlights of the book:

  • Recruiting athletes; it’s not about the academics, but the size of the facilities, the promise of NFL exposure and the ‘public relations’ efforts of the recruiting hostesses (pp 21 – 38)
  • Mega-money generated by college football; millions in revenue from television networks, corporate sponsors, ticket sales, branded merchandise, alumni donations—yet the majority of schools’ programs lose money every year. According to NCAA figures, just 22 programs out of 120 schools with football programs turned a profit in 2011. The average debt of the  schools’ in the red was $11 million each (p 44)
  • Boosters; how they support athletes, the programs and schools (pp 146 – 161 and pp 55 – 57)
  • Investigators; NCAA’s efforts to police the schools (pp 196 – 214)
  • Coaches; how they are recruited and how they recruit and manage their teams (pp 295 – 304)
  • Tutors; the academic support system that uses tutors, usually female students to keep athletes in the game (pp 162 -182)

Closing thoughts
An eye-opening read for football fans, coaches, parents of athletes seeking football scholarships, and anyone interested in finding out what goes on behind the curtain of college football.  “The System” is well-written, thoroughly researched—though there were times I struggled to keep track of the names of the players and key actors. Overall, an important book that sheds light on college football’s triumph and successes, yet reveals the stark reality that there’s more scandal than glory, and far more losers than winners.

Further Reading:

Book Review of “Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports”

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“Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports” Jay M. Smith and Mary Willingham. Potomoc Books.

‘Cheated’— an apt title. By the end of the book the reader is exposed to how college athletes are cheated out of an education, and how faculty and staff cheat by covering-up, bending the rules, and participating in academic fraud to usher athletes (mostly football and basketball players) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) through the system with paper classes, passing grades for poor or non-existent work, and elaborate systems of course and schedule manipulation to keep athletes playing to win. Written by Jay Smith, professor of history at UNC, and former academic advisor Mary Willingham, both who exposed the academic deception and fraud at UNC. Both authors received the Robert Maynard Hutchins Award for integrity in the face of college sport corruption.

The book is eye opening, discouraging, and distressing. It describes how gifted athletes, typically football players, arrive on campus severely under-prepared academically, lacking the basic skills needed for college-level course work. The school, in this instance UNC, perpetuates the problem by steering athletes to easy majors, creating paper classes (which typically requires only a paper to be turned in at the end of the semester in order for the student to receive credit), providing tutors that help students navigate the system to get through by completing as little school work as possible, and other complex arrangements within departments where faculty and administrators are more concerned about ‘winning’ than athletes’ education.

You may have read about this story; it received significant media attention when Willingham, an  academic advisor at UNC (she has since left UNC), brought the situation to light. When the book was published in March of 2015 there was much backlash from numerous stakeholders, including UNC administrators and faculty, alumni, booster clubs and fans. Backlash was directed at the book itself, the ‘allegations’ (though validated as accurate by auditors), and the authors. Unfortunately harassment and badgering of the authors and their families continues still. The ongoing harassment forced Ms. Willingham to withdraw aspects of the social media campaign to promote the literacy program, PC Read, developed for academically under-prepared college-age students. You can read more on the book’s blog site, here.

Closing Thoughts
Few want to admit that college athletics have a dark side, and the ‘few’ make up many—school administrators, coaches, booster clubs with their (generous) alumni, and fans. Sadly, the story of UNC is a recurring one—playing out at colleges throughout the US; UNC does not stand alone.  “Cheated” is wake-up for academia, coaches, NCAA, parents and athletes. There’s much at stake for all involved, yet it’s a large group of student athletes who have the most lose; they are the biggest losers, ‘cheated’ out of a rigorous college education that sets them up for life, instead of failure.

Further Reading: