The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football is a bit like college football itself: complex and compelling, epic in ambition but with a reach that exceeds its grasp. Authors Jeff Benedict (Sports Illustrated) and Armen Keteyian (CBS News) have created a fast-moving but detailed true story that will be devoured by any college football fan, but the bigger the fan, the sicker they are likely to feel after reading all that the authors have uncovered.
The book takes a wide-angle approach, looking at numerous football powerhouses from BYU to Tennessee to Michigan to Alabama, going back at least a decade but emphasizing the 2012 season. Along the way, the authors examine the roles of the players, coaches, college presidents, athletic directors, boosters who pump money in legally and otherwise, and even the girls who are hired to flirt (at least) with recruits.
Its early chapters jump around the nation, revealing the unreal amounts of money at stake and the pressure that it puts on everyone from those “hostesses” — who may be pressured to go beyond flirting — to the college presidents who believe that for the few schools that win big, overpaying coaches and shelling out millions for football facilities while making cuts on the education side will have long-run benefits for their institutions.
The money is everywhere — as is a monstrous sense of anything-goes entitlement. As one “hostess” reports , “One recruit was coming into town, and one of the coaches actually asked me if I knew any girls that would ‘show him a good time.’ ” Two chapters later, an undergrad is being raped: the connections are not hard to draw.
While The System’s early chapters can feel too dizzyingly kaleidoscopic, gradually the authors flesh out a few key participants to hang their story on, including coaches like Washington State University’s inspiring, infuriating Mike Leach, who veers between a being a brilliant motivator and a bully whose actions border on the criminal. Leach seems incapable of admitting he’s wrong: after delivering obscenity-laced punishments to a concussed player, he ended up losing his job at Texas Tech because he would not apologize. By contrast, Bronco Mendenhall of Brigham Young University comes across as more genuinely caring — yet in a telling note, the authors point out that he faces criticism for focusing on the character and moral development of his players more than winning.
The System doesn’t fail to paint its dysfunctional portrait in the necessary shades of gray, and the authors are superb at humanizing figures like the college presidents struggling to maintain a balance and even longtime Ohio State booster Bobby DiGeronimo, who became a fall guy for the scandal-beset school. Along the way, the book underscores the fact that most scandals occur because the system is so badly broken, with players often penalized for minor infractions against the letter of the law while far greater wrongs go uninvestigated.
Unfortunately, the authors trap themselves by trying to create what the publicity material calls “a celebration of the power and pageantry of NCAA football” and a “groundbreaking critique of its excess.” Once you’ve read about the corrupting and corrosive effect of the exploding popularity of the sport — the bullying, the drug use, rape and assault and under-the-table payments proliferate — it is impossible to feel like there is anything left worth celebrating. (And that’s with only glancing attention to the brain trauma injuries and the Penn State sex scandals — each a topic that could fill its own book.)
The attempt to remain evenhanded means there are no prescriptions for change — the system may be catastrophically broken but the authors don’t go beyond pointing that out. Instead, the book ends with chapters gushing over ESPN’s hype-oriented GameDay coverage and Nick Saban’s title-filled reign at Alabama. These huzzahs ring especially hollow because television money is central to the problem (and not part of the chapter) and Saban comes across as cold-hearted in several early chapters as he refuses to meet with a student brutally assaulted by four of Saban’s players. The stories of crimes like these and, in many cases, the cover-ups, are the ones that linger long after the authors’ color commentary has wrapped up.