Looking at the cover of The System, you see a striking image of college football – an enormous stadium filled with cheering crowds awaiting the contest to begin on that emerald green field. As you zoom in on that field, that crowd, that contest, the reality gets dirtier and dirtier, until it seems that field is the Astroturf covering the edge of an open grave. Benedict and Keteyian have climbed into that grave, and The System is the report they’ve sent back.
Football has long been the hallmark of college education in the United States. It is the rare institution of higher learning that doesn’t field a team. At the top of that pyramid, where iconic names like Notre Dame, Alabama, and Oregon reside, football is a big part of the college experience, and a successful program can seemingly make or break a school. And it shows in enrollments, donations, and construction.
Benedict and Keteyian seemingly had complete access to every aspect of the schools they covered. Meetings between coaches and players, athletic directors and boosters, students and inquisitors, victors and victims are recounted in incredible detail. And every detail seemed to come down to money.
The contrasts are staggering: a booster can give $185 million to support an entire program, but a player can be sanctioned for a $3.07 (yes, that’s three dollars and seven cents) accidental overpayment on a summer job. Coaches are routinely the highest paid state employees (even before the product endorsement deals and speaking engagements) when teachers, cops, and librarians are losing their jobs and pensions. T-shirts, jerseys, hats, and memorabilia bring millions in revenues, while student athletes supposedly earn nothing. An athlete accused of criminal activity can get legal advice from top-tier law firms, while their victims must rely on poorly paid prosecutors, and face threats and shaming for jeopardizing the program. And over it all is the mantle of the NCAA, which screams about teams offering cream cheese on bagels but misses the flagrant violations of their arcane regulations.
The authors present each chapter as a story in and of itself, but the overall narrative is connected by the story of Mike Leach, the coach who created the stellar program at Texas Tech, but was fired for his tactics in disciplining a weak player. After an extended absence from football, he was hired by Washington State University, where he once again laid the foundations of a successful program, but also underwent another abuse investigation, in which he was exonerated. From the coach recruitment process to the creation of a team, through the discovery and recruitment of players to the relationship with the school administration, readers see Leach in every aspect of his professional life. We even get a glimpse of the difficulties Leach’s wife Sharon faces as a coach’s wife.
Even for people who don’t care anything about football (and I count myself among their number), The System is a penetrating look at a dominant part of American culture. Whatever you feel about the game, you are sure to come away rethinking your position. There’s a lot that needs to be scrapped, some things that can be fixed, and some profound positives that deserve highlighting. Let’s hope real change can come from the discussion The System ought to start.
Check the WRL catalogue for The System