Review of The System, The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football

If you know me, you know that I follow professional sports quite a bit. However, you may also know that I have never cared for college sports. Yes, that may be blasphemy coming from a Texas Longhorn, but it’s true. I thought that the quality isn’t as good — after all, most college players don’t make it to the professional leagues. And I was ignorant of the magnitude of the culture surrounding it.

Against this backdrop, several friends recommended that I read The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football, an anecdote-filled dive into all things college football. As the title suggests, the book isn’t an unabashed paean to college football today.

The book is filled with stories surrounding the three words that make up any scandal: sex, money, drugs. Story after story portrays lawyers who make crimes go away, self described “janitors” who clean up the mess, and boosters who grease the wheels. One particular chapter told me more about UT football players and unlimited access to a strip club (but no underage alcohol, as even they have rules!) than I ever wanted to know.

Luckily, the book goes beyond these tabloid scandals. It makes a case for payments for college athletes. It breaks the myth that athletes are students first or that not paying student-athletes keeps the money out of an otherwise pure system. But no one believed those myths in the first place.

More significantly, the book convinced me that college football isn’t a complete waste of money and that supporting it isn’t necessarily an irrational choice for university presidents. A successful football program can raise a college’s national profile, increasing alumni donations, applications, and academic prestige. One arc follows T. Boone Pickens’s donations to Oklahoma State University. His support of the university’s football program (to the tune of over $200 million dollars) spearheaded $1 billion in donations in subsequent years by other alums, much of it to academics. The university raised only a fraction of that total before Pickens’s donations to the football program. Sure, most colleges lose money on their football programs, but the hope remains. Another arc breaks down Nick Saban’s work ethic and relationship with his players. It leaves no doubt on the positive impact he has made as a coach, not only by winning championships.

I finished the book a bigger fan of college football, and college sports in general, than when I started. I appreciate what a football program can do for a college. I appreciate the difference a coach can make in the lives of his athletes, and I am now much more excited for Coach Strong’s reign at UT. And I may appreciate my friends’ interest in college sports a little more. Will I ever love watching college sports more than I love watching the Texans, the Rockets, or even the lowly Astros? No. Well, probably yes concerning the Astros, but that’s besides the point. In the end, the book doesn’t attempt to reconcile the highs and lows, the glories and scandals, of college sports. It simply shines a light on what goes on; it doesn’t make a point. That allows me to freely end this post without having made a point.

I study CS/Econ and applications to socio-technical issues. Blog about books and technical issues. PhD Stanford, BS/BA UT Austin.

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