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The uniquely scandalous nature of American college athletics

Unlike other countries, where clubs and junior leagues precede the pros, American colleges serve as feeders — and unholy ones at that.

The USC Trojans' Joe McKnight, second from the left, runs between Penn State Nittany Lions' Lydell Sargeant, left, Anthony Scirrotto, second from the right, and Navorro Bowman, right, during the second quarter at the 95th Rose Bowl Game in Pasadena, Calif., Jan. 1, 2009. McKnight is being investigated for his use of an automobile against the rules of the NCAA. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

BOSTON — It could only happen in America.

On Thursday night two undefeated teams, the University of Alabama and the University of Texas, from two of the most storied American college football programs will meet for the national championship.

The game is being contested at a time when public universities here are facing tuition hikes, scholarship shrinkage and wage freezes. Yet Texas football coach Mack Brown just got a pay hike to $5 million annually, tops in the nation's college football ranks, while Alabama's Nick Saban makes do on $4 million a year.

Though there is genuine outrage about this game, it has absolutely nothing to do with warped priorities or fiscal irresponsibility. Americans seem to reserve all their outrage for the fact that football's national title is decided by a computer-generated pairing rather than than, like in other collegiate sports, a playoff system featuring a larger field.

Rather their outrage should be aimed at the Faustian bargain struck by universities here. Unlike other countries, where elite athletes navigate a path to pro sports careers through professional club systems or junior leagues, American colleges willingly abandon their primary mission of education to serve as a feeder system for major pro leagues, most notably the National Football League and the National Basketball Association.

The inevitable result of this unsavory alliance is that schools, which can reap tremendous financial rewards from football or basketball success, create a culture of impunity for athletes that is, inevitably, ripe for scandal. In recent weeks, here are but a few of the shameful

  • The NCAA punctuated Bobby Bowden's retirement as football coach at Florida State by upholding sanctions against the school, including stripping the Seminoles of 14 victories. The actions stemmed from wholesale academic fraud involving more than 60 athletes, many of them football players.
  • A star on the University of Florida's defending national champions was arrested for driving under the influence. While it's hardly headline news, Florida football coach Urban Meyer is frequently cited as an exemplar of family and spiritual values on the playing field. So it is worth noting that his Gators have averaged almost five arrests a year during his tenure.
  • Because of recruiting violations involving current NBA star O.C. Mayo, the University of Southern California has forfeited all its wins from the 2007-08 basketball season and is returning monies from its NCAA tournament appearance. The school imposed a host of other penalties on itself, including a ban on post-season appearances this season. When a
    school gets tough on itself, it is an indication that its sins are quite serious and that desperate measures are required to preempt even tougher NCAA punishments.
  • USC's star running back was sidelined from the team's bowl game while the school investigated his use of an automobile, apparently given to his girlfriend by a USC booster who employs her. We have been waiting several years to find out who paid for Reggie Bush's plush digs when he was the star running back for the Trojans so don't expect USC to produce a hasty report.