College football has never been in better financial shape—or more scandal-plagued.
The sport generates billions in revenue every fall, but if recent history tells us anything, it’s that another appalling episode probably isn’t far off. In the past two years, Florida State University paid nearly $1 million to settle a suit brought by a former student who accused the school’s star quarterback of rape. Baylor University in Texas ousted administrators and its football coach after sexual assault allegations against three players, one of whom was sentenced to a long prison term. And three top Penn State officials were sent to jail for failing to do more to stop a longtime assistant coach from sexually abusing children.
And those are just the most infamous examples. Over the past few decades, there have been dozens of lesser-known academic and criminal crises at big-time football schools all over country (to say nothing of the sport’s increasingly well-documented brain-injury hazards).
Why has the college gridiron churned out so many awful sagas? And what might be done to prevent new ones?
The answer to the first question is simple: money. It’s been the root cause of numerous scandals, according to Mike McIntire’s Champions Way: Football, Florida, and the Lost Soul of College Sports.
The second question is much tougher. But in a recent interview, McIntire, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter with The New York Times, said stemming the flow of cash would be a good start. It’s a step the sport desperately needs to take. After all, if there’s less money at stake, college football officials and their enablers might be a little braver when it comes to rooting out corruption and criminality.
McIntire’s book focuses on Florida State—but not because its football program is singularly crooked. The school “is an example of the best of college sports and the worst of college sports,” he said. FSU has won three national football titles and has a huge, loyal fan following.
And yet, “it has all the scandals and makes the headlines that seem to go with that,” McIntire said. “I don’t think that Florida State is unique. In fact, that was sort of the impetus of the book. As much as Florida State serves as a good vehicle for telling this story, it’s still a larger story. It’s a story about bigtime college sports in general.”
McIntire has never been a sports reporter, and a few years ago, when he started looking into criminal cases involving FSU football players, he had what you might call a well-read novice’s understanding of the cash-rich nature of college sports.
“You kind of know that there’s a huge amount of money involved,” he said, “but when I started seeing some of the implications of that—for instance, there’s a booster organization at Florida State, the Seminole Boosters, that is a nonprofit private group that supports athletics there, and they have assets of a quarter of a billion dollars.”
Indeed, as of 2013 the Boosters had $264 million in assets. The group is “legally a charity,” McIntire writes, “registered as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization with the Internal Revenue Service to ‘promote the education, health, and physical welfare of the students of Florida State University.’” It also happens to be one of many such organizations that “are useful in ways that college presidents prefer not to talk about in polite company,” he adds. “The private money they oversee comes in handy for questionable tasks that the schools themselves can’t, or won’t, dirty themselves with.”
For example, in 2016 Florida State settled a lawsuit brought by a former student who had accused Jameis Winston, the university’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, of rape. By the time the matter was resolved, the school was looking at $1.7 million in legal fees. An insurance policy covered about a quarter of this amount. That left the school owing $1.3 million. At which point the Seminole Boosters stepped in and settled the bill.
Florida State isn’t alone in having super-rich sports backers. A group called “the Crimson Tide Foundation spent $3 million to buy the 8,759-square-foot home that Alabama football coach Nick Saban lives in,” McIntire writes. “Apparently, the $7 million salary paid to Saban—the highest-paid public employee in America—wasn’t incentive enough for him to stick around.” (With bonuses, Saban will earn $11 million this year.)
“It’s just a very strange setup,” McIntire said, “where you’ve got, for the most part, public universities… with some of the biggest high-profile teams, like Alabama and Florida State, and yet these athletic departments are essentially being run as private enterprises by boosters who can remain anonymous if they want to.
“When you add to that the money for television contracts, and the fact that booster groups are hiring local cops to provide security at games—there are all sorts of opportunities there for people to be co-opted.”
It’s not easy to compare big-time college football programs off the field. For instance, New America, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, annually ranks the top 25 teams by their academic performance; last year, Stanford, Clemson and Temple topped the list. But, as McIntire points out, “Without knowing what classes the players are taking, how serious their curriculum is, etc., these rankings could be meaningless.”
Champions Way—the title comes from a street near Florida State’s home field in Tallahassee—is rife with instances in which the football team’s financial and political clout appears to have intimidated not just educators but the local police as well.
Citing a source who taught at the university in the 2010s, McIntire writes that football players were “allowed to miss deadlines, turn in subpar or plagiarized work, and make up incompletes in ways that other students were not.” The leeway granted to players bred plenty of entitlement. McIntire tells of an FSU player who had a 57 average in one class but was allowed to turn in classwork after a due date. He submitted the work in an email, telling the professor, “My grade in the class should be a B now.”
FSU has tried to raise doubts about McIntire’s reporting. In a letter to alums this month, John Thrasher, the school’s president, said McIntire has a “lack of knowledge and understanding of both Florida State University and college football,” and had “cynically mischaracterized our athletics program.”
McIntire also chronicles a series of 2014 incidents in which police appeared to go easy on Florida State players accused of theft and criminal violence. In a representative example, he writes, one officer filed a report that read like “a letter of recommendation, saying [the player] ‘showed no signs of guilt,’” even though his story about a stolen motor scooter was, as McIntire puts it, “improbable.”
Often, McIntire said, college presidents are faced with problems that “require an objective viewpoint. What is the university president going to do if half his salary is being paid by the boosters and something serious comes up involving the athletic program that really deserves tough scrutiny?” At Florida State, nearly 50 percent of the president’s salary is covered by the Seminole Boosters and another FSU-related charity.
It’s perfectly reasonable, of course, to extend various tax exemptions to colleges. But “what’s happened is that these athletic programs, which are part and parcel of the universities, fall under this umbrella of tax-exemption,” McIntire said. “So you see this warped situation in which billions of dollars of television broadcast revenue, corporate sponsorships, booster donations—all this money is flowing through the athletic programs, completely tax free, only because the athletic programs are part of the university or college, which itself is tax-exempt.”
So what can be done about all of this? How about we “remove the tax-exempt status, for at least the upper tier of college sports,” McIntire said. “So when you’re talking about the Football Bowl Subdivision of Division I—128 teams—they bring in the bulk of this $8 billion or more a year that Division I (sports as a whole) brings in as revenue. Why not start by treating that as what it is, which is really an enormously successful commercial enterprise, and tax it accordingly?”
Meanwhile, he added, maybe it’s time “to treat the players like professional athletes, in some fashion. I can’t pretend to know what that might look like, but if you start paying the ones who are there really to pursue a career, not obtain an academic degree, then if nothing else, you’re removing some of the incentives for academic fraud, and maybe some of the incentive for financial crimes” that sometimes stem from the relationship between wealthy supporters and unpaid athletes.
“It’s obviously not a prescription that applies to everybody, and I think that athletes who want to obtain a college education should be allowed to do that. But it just doesn’t make any sense to me that the ones who are not there for that have to be forced to play along as if they are. That just gets them into trouble a lot of the time.”