In a few days, the pomp and circumstance of the College Football Playoff National Championship will descend upon us. There will be puffy feature packages about everything the two teams “overcame,” that might or might not include the hundreds of thousands of people killed by COVID-19. There will be fans in the stadium, albeit at a “reduced capacity.” There will be a winner, and a loser, and in the end the powers that be will descend on the field, crown a champion, and congratulate everyone for a season well done. They’ll tell you it’s a testament to the power of college football, that it can overcome anything.
Missing from this year’s narrative will be what’s happening in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, home of last year’s national champion LSU Tigers. The Tigers chose to impose a bowl ban on themselves this season in anticipation of an NCAA investigation into payments made by a booster to the family of a football player. Another factor, surely, was that this season has been awful for the Tigers, as they slunk to a record of 5-5. When they announced the ban, the Tigers already were looking like less-than-contenders. But the self-removal from the college football narrative helped them with more than just avoiding a losing season, it also helped keep a lot of national press attention away from the sexual-assault scandal ripping through the campus.
The scandal began with not with LSU directly but with the NFL’s Washington Football Team. In August, Washington running back Derrius Guice, who played for LSU in college, was arrested and charged by law enforcement with one count of strangulation and three counts of assault and battery in connection to domestic violence. Guice was released by the team hours later. Later that month, two former LSU students told USA Today that in 2016, while Guice was on the Tigers, he raped them and university officials knew about it but never conducted any formal investigations. In November, USA Today published another story, outlining how this practice wasn’t isolated to Guice. Students would report that they had been raped, and the university would either fail to do investigations or fail to pursue them to victims’ satisfaction.
Since then, there have been damning details about a special system for adjudicating accusations of violence by football players, and a powerful LSU booster’s name has popped up in police reports—first reported by the Advocate, one person told LSU police that his teammates could not find out he was talking to the police and he “was very adamant that his name stayed out of this report because he feared team ramifications and repercussions from Jim Bernhard.” (Bernhard made his billions helping found the Shaw Group and is a member of LSU’s business college’s Hall of Distinction.)
USA Today has had to go to court to force the university to fully release police reports. LSU even retained a law firm to investigate what happened for the sake of “accountability.” This might, in some ways, be starting to sound very familiar to anyone who follows big-time college sports, which is horrifying and also true.
Every college football sexual-assault scandal is different and also the same. A special system is set up to handle reports of misconduct involving athletes, even though that goes against federal policies. Universities will find whatever excuse they can to not release information that makes them look bad. The boosters are the most powerful people on campus, and they will get whatever they want, often without having to even say it, because everyone on a college campus knows how power works. I can type these sentences about LSU, the same way I could and did type them about Baylor, about Florida State, about Tennessee. The story stays the same, and the end-results stay the same too—a few people are fired, commissions issue reports, new rules are passed, settlements are reached, everyone pats themselves on the back. And then it happens at another university.
What does not change are the fundamental power imbalances that have been baked into college football since its inception. For a century now, football players have been unpaid, and therefore exploited, workers. But because their work is key to keeping coaches and administrators well-paid and billionaire boosters happy, they still hold a lot of barely hidden power in their universities and communities. This is how you end up with football players getting more COVID-19 tests than other students or, in LSU’s case, a special person to handle their Title IX cases.
This dynamic is so old Buster Keaton once made a movie about it in 1927 called, simply, College. Keaton plays Ronald, a young and brilliant man on his way to higher learning. Speaking to a crowd as he receives an award, he chooses to castigate the already massive industry of college sports. The joke is on him. Having walked in the rain to give this speech, his suit shrinks and buttons pop off one by one. The audience, in disgust at his words, storms off and leaves. He concludes his speech, a man in a shrunken suit, to an audience of one, his own mother. And it turns out Keaton does need to be athletic to achieve his goal, ultimately using newfound sports acumen to win the heart of his ladylove. The movie ends with Keaton’s character getting the girl, (saving her from her athlete boyfriend who has taken her hostage).
I do not labor under the impression that college sports will be fixed anytime soon. I grew up in SEC Country, went to an SEC school and for what it lacked in Ivy League prestige, it more than made up for in teaching me how the world worked. I can still, more than a decade later, rattle off the nickname for our most important boosters (the Bull Gators) and the name of the citrus baron whose name graces the football field (Ben Hill Griffin Jr.). I remember this because I was inculcated to believe those men were the most powerful and therefore the most important people in college football, and maybe they are. So long as what the powerful want is to pump their fists in victory, to stand under the confetti, to tell their fellow businessmen I’m a national champion, the rest—the NCAA enforcement cosplay, the reports of violence by football players, the hand-wringing about academics—is just stuff that gets in their way.
In one police report that surfaced years after the fact, an unnamed LSU football player told campus police he was “scared of Jim Bernhard’s ‘power'” even though he was never directly threatened by Bernhard. He didn’t have to be. He knew how college football works.