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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.

  • 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.