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:

Parents of Athletes: Stop the Insanity–It’s Time to Take Back Holidays!

Breaks from sports practice around holidays provide a rare opportunity for young athletes to recharge, rest and recover, but more importantly give families time to reconnect. Not so for many athletes participating at the club level in sports such as swimming, gymnastics, wrestling, diving, among others, where breaks are used for intense practices and training. This article outlines why it’s time to take holidays back; stop the insanity before it’s too late.

stop-sign-2It seems like just yesterday I was driving my daughter to swim practice during Christmas break—every day of Christmas break for 7 AM practices with only two days off—Christmas and New Year’s.  Practices were grueling (2 ½ hours) too according to my daughter.  She was 10 at the time, in a group of swimmers’ ages 9 through 12. The kids in the older groups swam more; some had double workouts of morning and evening practices. The club viewed breaks from school as a chance to get in intense training.  Unfortunately I, along with 99% of the parents, bought into the madness. Looking back, well over eight years ago now, I realize the insanity of it all. Swim clubs are notorious for driving the kids hard, 12 months of the year with little more than a two-week break at the end of the summer. Taking holidays during breaks was frowned upon, to the point that most kids were afraid to miss any practices.  Though our family’s experience with year-round training was exclusive to swimming, other club sports follow similar patterns e.g. gymnastics, diving, baseball, cheer leading, wrestling, among others. Most clubs state outright on their websites the training schedules take place over breaks—Christmas and summer. Some are explicit in describing the nature of the workouts, like this High School wrestling team:

“Practices during Christmas break are focused and intensive. Christmas holiday practices are not mandatory, but highly recommended to make a significant difference once season commences in January”.   — St. Mary’s Wrestling Team,  Titans Wrestling

It might as well read something like this, ‘Merry Christmas junior, you are going to practice intensely all Christmas break so you can kick butt in January. And if you even think about taking a day off, think again’.  Some teams are more subtle like this swim club, “a special schedule will be provided to members for the Christmas and New Year’s Holidays” — Malvern Swimming, PA. 

Why the Insanity?
There are really only a few reasons why there is such a phenomenon. The philosophical answer is the culture of youth sports with the emphasis on sports specialization as well as the focus on competitiveness (of which parents to some degree are responsible), creates a culture of intense pressure for clubs and coaches and thus athletes experience pressure to attend year-round practices and perform.

The practical answer comes down club revenue, and in some instances coaches’ salaries—hence it comes down to money.  Youth sports clubs are run like businesses whether for-profit or not, and the majority depend upon a 12-month revenue stream.  In some instances coaches are incentivized based upon how individual athletes, or the team performs. This is the case for some swim clubs, and there’s evidence this system exists in other youth sports, and college sports even more so (Cheer Professional, Duggan, Lopiano).

Specific to swimming, a coach can potentially earn a financial bonus (and prestige) on the backs of high-performing swimmers.  Swim clubs within USA Swimming also receive awards, Club Excellence Programs, that includes a criteria of high performing swimmers. This structure is not ideal. If we look at it one way, the child becomes similar to a commodity, like a stock, yet the performance of the stock depends upon its fitness and performance level of which coaches influence (Mullen, 2014). Ugh. Not to say that coaches are earning big bucks, most are not, but the incentives are in all the wrong places.

…And It Continues into College
This pressing, obsessive training behavior for young athletes continues into college—for kids that join a college team regardless of whether it’s a Division I, II or III team.

A good, albeit disturbing example of intense sports training over break is the swim team at UNCW (University of North Carolina Wilmington).  An excerpt from an article titled “UNCW’s holiday swim training is brutal, but necessary“:

Since the 1980s, UNCW coach David Allen has been running his teams through this gauntlet in preparation for the conference championships. 

During Christmas Training sessions, UNCW swimmers average between seven and nine miles in the water.  The team first trains from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., working mostly on endurance. After a meal and a few hours sleep, the group returns to the pool from 7:30-9:30 p.m. for power and speed training.

“As I tell the swimmers and those who’ve been with me now for a few years, during that time, I turn my sensitivity switch off. I’m a bulldog when it comes to training,” Allen said.

“I tell them, ‘We’re going to train. And, when you’re at home in preparation, you need to get yourself ready because when you come back here I don’t want any excuses. You get in the pool and you swim. And if you can’t, go home.’ That’s the approach we take.”

One  might wonder what the goal of this training is—perhaps to prepare for the Olympic Trials so swimmers might quality for the US Olympic team?  Nope. The coach’s goal is to win the coveted conference title:

 Allen notes his goal every year is to get the conference title. It’s the only meet that is guaranteed to give out a trophy – and that’s a prize he wants. (Riley, 2014)

It’s no wonder that results from a panel conducted with NCAA college athletes cited “time off during off-season” as their number one recommendation for reforming college sports (New, 2015).

Take it Back!
This behavior of intense sports practices for young athletes during breaks is none less than destructive. Not only does it rob kids of time with families, time to rest and recover but it can lead to psychological stress, injury and patterns of behaviors that undermine health and well-being.  Parents, it’s time to stop the insanity and take holiday time with your kids back!

Further Reading:


“Backspin” Takes the ‘Spin’ Out of What it Takes to Be a Scholarship-Athlete


“Backspin” book cover.

Backspin” is a highly entertaining memoir of basketball player Pete Strobl a scholarship athlete turned professional, playing for several European leagues between the years 2000 and 2008. Strobl’s passion for the sport and his gift for writing make the book a great read for all audiences, though the experiences Strobl shares about playing as a college athlete and his journey after college to pursue his dreams of the big leagues, provide valuable insight for aspiring college-scholarship athletes and their parents. “Backspin” begins with Strobl sharing his often amusing, experiences at a small-town college, Niagara University, on the east coast in New York State and a long way away from his home state California. The latter two-thirds of the book Strobl describes his turbulent career as a professional athlete playing for several teams within European Basketball leagues in countries that included France, Germany, Austria, Ireland and Switzerland over a period of nine seasons.

The ‘Backspins’
The ‘backspin’ segments within the chapters are brief snippets of Strobl’s life experiences pre-college days that give the reader insight into his tenacity and drive for not just the sport, but his approach to life. My favorite vignettes are the ones featuring Strobl and his dad, which reveal not only the deep influence of Strobl’s dad had on his character, but are touching, funny and real.

Three Helpful Lessons for Potential College Athletes and Parents
Between the pages the book holds helpful lessons for young athletes—either current college athletes or aspiring scholarship-athletes and their parents. It’s not a how-to book, but by reading of Strobl’s experiences coping with school, coaches, relationships and travel, the reader gets a glimpse into the challenges and opportunities of a college athlete. Three themes emerged from the book that may be of value for student-athletes and their families; summarized below.

1)  The Scholarship-athlete’s Multiple Roles
A scholarship-athlete’s college experience greatly differs from a traditional student’s experience, which Strobl highlights perhaps unintentionally in his book. Strobl writes of his experiences in college and his multiple roles and the challenges associated with each. The roles include: student, athlete, scholarship-athlete and teammate, but it’s the role scholarship-athlete that appeared to be most challenging which Strobl recounts as:

“Playing basketball at this level was practically a full-time job, and the value of my full scholarship wasn’t lost on me. I knew I’d have to deliver on the court if I expected to stay on campus, and that required me to work harder than I ever had in the past. If that wasn’t enough to keep me busy, I had a second full-time job—staying on track to earn a college degree.” (p. 33)

Strobl also gives the reader insight into the student’s role; he describes accounting for every minute of his day, which according to Strobl was “the key to survival” (p. 33). It’s evident that he worked hard, and was able to balance his multiple roles successfully; Pete finished with not only an under-graduate degree, but also a MBA. Impressive.

Not surprisingly in order to handle all his roles, sacrifices were made, typical of most college athletes that play for a varsity team. Strobl mentions the sacrifices that he made for his scholarship experience, primarily his social life and friendships, “Between hustling back and forth from the library, the gym, cafeteria and weight room, there wasn’t much time left for anything or anyone else” (p. 66).

Takeaway: Scholarships can provide tremendous opportunities for young athletes to study at a school they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to attend if it weren’t for their sport, or have been able to afford, not to mention the experiences that can lead to fulfilling careers. However, the key to leveraging these opportunities is for the athlete and families to weigh the pros and cons of a scholarship offer, consider all factors and potential outcomes. Frequently, the cons outweigh the pros, and student-athletes don’t realize it until well into their first year. Considerations student-athletes and parents may want to consider when evaluating athletic-scholarship options:

  • total cost of attending the school; the costs not covered by scholarship
  • risks associated with a sports scholarship (injury, performance, etc.)—consider what the outcomes might be if the scholarship was not renewed in the 2nd or 3rd year
  • fit between the athlete’s long-term career goals and what can be studied at the school, for example some programs require demanding workloads not compatible with pressures of a varsity athlete
  • academic sacrifices which may include study abroad or work-study programs, research opportunities or internships
  • value of the education associated with the school and program of study once the athlete is in the working world.

2) Leverage the Experiences Both Good and Bad
What makes the “Backspin” such an excellent read is the stories Strobl shares which are not only the highlights of his basketball career, but are of his disappointments, challenges and struggles.  His career in Europe playing for several leagues is not all glamour, but reflects hard work, with Strobl often working with a great deal of uncertainty. His job was not guaranteed for longer than a season or two, he was often in a country where he didn’t speak the language, even the same one as his coach and often had to move to another country with little more than a days notice. Yet Strobl descriptions are inspirational at the same time. Strobl appeared to make the best of every situation, for instance even when he was benched for most of a season in college (p. 47) or working for a team that was broke and wasn’t paying its athletes, he was able to turn those into positives.

Takeaway: Experiences playing as a college-athlete and beyond are filled with favorable and seemingly negative experiences, though even the negatives can be turned into circumstances for reflection that can lead to personal growth, and opportunity. This is takeaway is not a cliché when you read “Backspin”.

3)  Who’s looking Out For You?  You.
This may sound harsh, but a scholarship contract between an athlete and a school is akin to a business transaction. It’s helpful to keep in mind that coaches are paid by universities to manage and coach a team to achieve a certain level of performance, and are also under a contract. Strobl writes of many instances of very positive relationships with his coaches, and many of his coaches that provide instructive life lessons, yet there are times his experience reveal that coaches actions and decisions are not always made in best interest of the athletes.

Takeaway: Athletes need to put their needs first, and be smart about what is being offered by administrators and coaches. Getting the most value out of a scholarship opportunity is essential for the athlete and his or her family.

“Backspin” is an excellent read, and an especially informative read for any scholarship-athlete. I wanted to learn more about what Strobl did after his basketball career, which I discovered through his site, which is a basketball development program and organization which Strobl started with his wife, also a former basketball pro that played for several European leagues. Not surprising that Strobls’ hard work, extensive experience and talent all come together in his company, The Scoring factory.

Related Reading: