Saturday, September 20, 2014

Review: The System (2013)

By Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian

Think of Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian as photographers.

For a couple of years, they went around the country taking snapshots of college football. Sometimes they saw something interesting, stopped for a moment, snapped the picture and moved on. At other times they lingered, looking at different ways to take the picture.

That, in essence, is what "The System" is all about.

Benedict has done variety of investigative articles for Sports Illustrated over the years, while Keteyian works for CBS News. In other words, they bring plenty of credibility to the table.

The best stories might be the ones explored in depth. Benedict and Keteyian jump around the country following the adventures of Mike Leach. He's the head coach who was forced to leave Texas Tech due to some, shall we say, controversy over his methods, but landed at Washington State. Even Leach's detractors would admit that the coach is good at what he does.

Brigham Young University also receives plenty of coverage here, spread over a few chapters. In particular, the story of Ezekiel Ansah is compelling. Ansah, from Ghana in Africa, tried out for football because he was cut from other sports despite some obvious athletic gifts. Ansah essentially started with "this is a football" and worked his way over the couple of years into the starting lineup ... and then some.

Even the biggest college football fans will admit that the relationship between athletics and education at the university level is an odd one. Most schools are forced to look at football as something of a loss leader, a way to introduce the university to the public while losing tons of money along the way. And it comes with baggage, lots of baggage.

There are hostesses, attractive female upperclassmen, hired by the athletic department to lure high school recruits to the program. It's often the hostesses who are the ones with ethical standards there. Boosters range from the wealthy to the ridiculously wealthy, the latter shown by T. Boone Pickens who has donated about $248 million (at last count) to help Oklahoma State's athletic fortunes. There are tutors for athletes who become involved in sexual scandals, a frightening injury rate that has more long-term implications than we realize, and under-the-table offers to recruits involving huge amounts of money and other benefits. Overseeing all of it is the NCAA, somewhat overwhelmed by its job of keeping everything clean but coming on like a lion when it has the chance.

The authors also point out some of the good parts. Alabama gets credit for putting on a first-class program without many incidents while winning. But it's tough to do that, or everyone would be doing it. The mixture of professionalism and fun that is mixed on ESPN's "Gameday" on Saturday mornings is nicely profiled here.

Benedict and Keteyian don't propose any answers here; they are just showing us the landscape. Most of it is quite interesting over the nearly 400 pages. Let's face it; it's difficult to make an NCAA investigation riveting. And they've done their homework, talking to a few hundred people along the way over two years.

"The System" gets credit for where we are in the sport. You probably won't follow college football in the same way that you did before reading it. And it's a great starting point for a discussion about where the entire enterprise should be going in the future.

Four stars

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