Support Crosscut

New book kicks fans’ college football illusions away

The cover for the new book by Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry Credit: Courtesy of University of Nebraska Press

The book is called “Scoreboard, Baby” and subtitled “A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity.” It’s something of a misnomer in that the key word comes last.

Scoreboard, Baby (University of Nebraska Press, $19.95) is an exhaustive investigation of the University of Washington football program circa 2001, when the team won a Rose Bowl after finishing the 2000 regular season 10-1. Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry, investigative reporters of The Seattle Times, spent months documenting appalling player crimes and other transgressions, expanding on their award-winning 2008 Times series “Victory and Ruins.”

In the end, though, the key word is “complicity”: among players, coaches, attorneys, police, prosecutors, journalists, school administrators, teachers, family members, boosters and casual fans. The book describes how all in various ways became enablers, their eyes easily diverted from violent crimes and trained instead on that bright rectangle at the back of the stadium: on the all-important scoreboard, baby.

This is a very tough read, replete with explicit language when (frequently) appropriate. Armstrong and Perry describe in vivid detail sexual and gun violence and the lingering raw emotions among victims. Animal-abuse even is portrayed; the irony won’t escape many that it pertains to what some would call “dawgs.”

The book also is, or should be, a source of embarrassment for the millions here and elsewhere who delude themselves on game days into believing that the spectacle they observe on college football fields is nothing but a noble, pure, harmless diversion. The shame of it is that we (full disclosure: I’ve been a season-ticket-holder for several decades and routinely attend out-of-town games as well) should have known better all along.

The book follows the dubious fortunes of four former Husky players, two of them since deceased, another in prison and a fourth an incorrigible drunk driver believed by police investigators to have raped a UW student.

Virtually everyone comes out badly from this book. Even former Husky mentor Rick Neuheisel, who now runs the program at his alma mater, UCLA, is diminished by this report — impossible, many would believe, for a man who is widely despised in the Northwest.

But Neuheisel, for all his transgressions, is scarcely the only college coach to stretch rules and enable errant players. The authors give the identities of other big-time programs guilty in various ways then add: “Washington isn’t an aberration. It is an example.”

When asked why the book doesn’t get into many instances of wrongdoing at other schools, Armstrong answered via e-mail: “It took more than a year to do this kind of deep reporting on one program and one team. So, no, we did not consider doing the same thing with another program.”

“Deep reporting” is such that the documentation notes alone take up 42 pages.

The book’s publication date is Sept. 1, three days before the Huskies tee it up at BYU for the 2010 campaign. Many boosters, upon hearing about this book (or, less likely, perhaps, actually reading it), no doubt will blame the proverbial messenger.

This was the case during the early 1990s when (as is recalled in “Scoreboard, Baby”) many fans excoriated The Times for reporting in great detail about wrongdoing associated with the Husky-football program. Die-hard boosters again can be expected to express their enmity for a skeptical press, especially given that the 2010 team features what many hope will result in Heisman Trophy laurels for a star player and maybe even a bowl bid for the first time since 2002.

My advice would be to read this book without summoning an agenda. Then try to decide with good conscience what our priorities should be when we think about college football. Yes, the book functions as something of the ultimate tailgate-party buzz-kill. But to read it without being affected by its evidence of the human toll sports take for our amusement is at best delusional.

Much has been discussed and written about the myth of the purity of sport. Among the best of the genre is the high-school-football cautionary tale “Friday Night Lights,” by Buzz Bissinger, who calls “Scoreboard, Baby” “the most harrowing book I have ever read about college sports.”

My own naïve belief once upon a time was that one had to go back to, say, Little League to embrace the days when innocence and love of the game prevailed. Then I coached my son’s teams and frequently had to ask parents in the stands to refrain from berating umpires as though the World Series were on the line.

The notion of bragging rights about college sports has, of course, been with us for more than a century. During visits to Paris I invariably make time for a stop at Harry’s New York Bar, where pennants (including, displayed prominently, that of my own alma mater, Oregon — speaking of teams with frequent off-field problems) are prominently displayed. A beer or brandy can help summon the spirit of Hemingway during the 1920s, holding forth among cronies about Red Grange and other college-football immortals of the era.

The equivalent of Harry’s for Husky football is The Duchess Tavern in Ravenna, a mile north of the stadium. Bravado there on game days isn’t appreciably different from what I’ve observed in bars from here to Miami.

Perhaps under-emphasized by the authors of the new book is that there isn’t anything wrong with game-day spirit per se. If the game is about competition and winning, why wouldn’t a fan wear the colors and wish for victory?

Problems arise when people who should know better — in the assessment of this indictment, it was judges and prosecutors, most egregiously — let the value they place in a college-football program dictate unwarranted leniency.

Such leniency, documented with distressing frequency in this book, seems to steal its justification from the smug explanation Neuheisel once gave. He’d been apprised of complaints by an opposing coach after Mike Bellotti’s Oregon Ducks lost a bowl game to Neuheisel’s Colorado team.

“Scoreboard, baby,” Neuheisel said when pressed by a reporter for a reply to Bellotti.

Not only is it the perfect title for this expose. The rationalization should remind readers about what makes so many of us complicit in the ongoing excesses of this and other big-time sports.

Read more about:

Support Crosscut