The uniquely scandalous nature of American college athletics

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.
  • Four University of Tennessee basketball players were arrested on an assortment of gun, drug and alcohol charges. Coach Bruce Pearl called the incident "an embarrassment."
  • Tennessee should be quite familiar with embarrassments after reports that coeds were traveling — including out-of-state-trips — to high-school football games of potential recruits in an attempt to lure coveted players to Knoxville. The ladies' role seemed to fall somewhere between big sister and professional escort. One father complained publicly after, he said, one of these goodwill ambassadors kept rubbing her breasts against his son.
  • The University of Kentucky is heaping acclaim on its new basketball coach, John Calipari, following a school record unbeaten streak to start the season. Calipari has another singular distinction: his two previous college gigs, at Memphis and the University of Massachusetts, ended with the schools forfeiting Final Four appearances due to major improprieties on the teams, including academic fraud and payments to a player. (None were directly linked to the coach.)
  • Two highly successful football coaches, Mike Leach at Texas Tech and Mark Mangino at Kansas, parted company with their universities — Leach was fired, Mangino resigned — amid allegations of physical and verbal abuse of players.

The Alabama and Texas football teams weren't totally unscathed in 2009 — with arrests for domestic violence, DUI and robbery between them — but were spared any major scandals. That is unless you consider the academics of the UT football team to be one.

The Institute for Diversity & Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida produces an annual report monitoring graduation rates of bowl-bound teams. Here's what Mack Brown's $5 million annual salary delivers in the classroom. Of 67 NCAA bowl teams in the NCAA (UCLA's stats were not available at the time), only three have a lower graduation rate for football players than Texas' 49 percent — and only two have a worse graduation rate for black players than Texas' 37 percent. (Alabama does significantly better, a gentleman's C for its 67 and 63 percent graduation rates.)

Both Texas and Alabama will hasten to explain that their academic numbers have been improving, that the football programs are largely self-supporting and that the teams are instrumental in fostering alumni support for the university. Admittedly it is sometimes hard to parse all the numbers — but not the public interest.

While the public school and university systems in Texas and Alabama are cash-starved and in decline, the huge investment — both financial and emotional — in major sports programs sends an unmistakable message as to where priorities lie. Perhaps private universities have the right (and possibly even the money) to showcase sports; at state universities, like Texas and Alabama, the same choice is cynical, even reckless.

Tonight's game should be entertaining and garner strong ratings. But its bottom line is not the score or the championship trophy, but a lost sense of purpose in American higher education.