The hotels in College Station were booked up months in advance. Tailgaters began camping out on Wednesday. By the time the game finally started, on a steamy Texas Saturday this September, there were 87,500 people in the stadium and thousands more in the streets, all eager for the rematch between Alabama and Texas A&M—the “game of the century,” at least for that week.
Just days earlier, Alabama coach Nick Saban had been forced to answer questions about a former player allegedly accepting thousands of dollars during his college career, which is strictly against the rules in the “amateur” system. Two weeks before that, A&M’s Heisman Trophy–winning quarterback Johnny Manziel had been benched for the first half of the team’s opener for selling autographs.
By game time, all of that was forgotten, as was the shameful number of concussions to student athletes, the academic fraud, the rash of criminal behaviour and countless other scandals that continue to swirl around U.S. college football. The Alabama–Texas A&M contest seemed to represent the essence of the game: the pageantry, the thrilling athleticism, the big personalities and the collective agreement to ignore the fundamental hypocrisies of the game.
American college football is big business. Unlike in Canada, where the country’s biggest universities play in front of sparse crowds and go years without winning a season, U.S. colleges outside of the Ivy League depend upon their sports teams to bring in new students, attract attention, and draw donations and revenue. Television deals are worth billions. When Alabama’s Auburn University won the 2010 national championship, their net football income was $37 million (all currency in U.S. dollars). The NFL’s Green Bay Packers earned only slightly more, $43 million. In many states, the highest-paid public official is a college football coach.
In The System (Doubleday), a fascinating in-depth examination of the world of college football, investigative reporters Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian delve in with obvious glee. The book, the result of a year of research with the help of four other reporters, reveals a complex system of big money and shaky ethics—an enormous industry awkwardly grafted onto the body of post-secondary education.
There are plenty of positive stories. The Ghanaian walk-on who had never played football and ended up being picked up in the first round of the NFL draft comes to mind. A whole chapter is filled with hyperbolic praise for ESPN’s College GameDay, “the gold standard of pregame shows.”
Mostly, however, The System offers a chapter-by-chapter tour of some of the more corrupt corners of the sport. The authors talk with a high-school phenom who was hounded for months and offered hundreds of thousands of dollars to sign with a college. They report on Ohio State’s “tattoo-gate” scandal, in which 20 players traded team memorabilia for free tattoos. After nearly 400 pages, as the authors catalogue all the wounded players, corrupt tutors and bribes, the individual scandals and outrages begin to seem inconsequential, like mere symptoms of a deeper sickness.
When college administrators talk about their football programs, they talk about sports being the “front door” of their school, the face they show the world. Build a winning football team, the thinking goes, and you will attract donors and students. In reality, some colleges end up with a multimillion-dollar front door while the rest of the house crumbles.. As tuition rates continue to rise and colleges suffer painful funding cuts, football Bowl Subdivision schools spend more than $91,000 per athlete. At times, it feels like an absurd arms race, with colleges and universities building bigger stadiums and more grandiose practice facilities, then feeling the pressure to fill those seats.
Dave Brandon, Michigan’s athletic director and former chairman and CEO of Domino’s Pizza, oversees an athletic department that estimated $130 million of revenue for the 2012–2013 fiscal year. Alabama coach Nick Saban earns more than $5 million a year. The only people who aren’t making money are the athletes.
In fact, U.S. college football is an industry whose entire business model is dependent on denying the fact that it is a business. In theory, college athletics are just another arm of post-secondary education. According to the myth of the “student athlete,” the highly trained athletes performing for mammoth, lucrative TV audiences are the same as the student field hockey players whose extracurricular athletic activities are just part of a balanced education. Only by hiding behind the concept of “amateurism” is it possible to run a humming industry without paying your workers.
In the end, only 2% of college football players are drafted by NFL teams. Most have received shoddy educations. And new information about long-term effects of head injuries is only now emerging. For their years in college, these players earn heaps of money for everyone but themselves. Next to this, the “scandal” of a few Ohio players trading their jerseys for some tattoos is absurdly picayune. As civil rights historian Taylor Branch wrote in a much-talked-about 2011 Atlantic article: “The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not.”
On that Saturday in September, the Alabama and Texas A&M game was an instant classic. The Alabama champions seemed to march down the field at will while A&M’s Johnny Manziel scrambled around, creating magic and chaos, coming just short of an electrifying comeback.
The game earned CBS its highest ratings for a regular-season college football game in 23 years. The event will be a good starting point when Alabama begins renegotiating its current $78.8-million rights deal to sell sponsorships, advertising and signage. Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin will have earned his new $3.1-million salary, signed after the success of Manziel and the rest of his players the year before. Meanwhile, the pundits will continue to talk about the shame Manziel brought to his team for allegedly selling his own signature, profiting off his notoriety. The big business of college football continues.