Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity
by Ken Armstrong
Reviewed by Jeff Baker
When Rick Neuheisel coached the University of Colorado, he called a fake punt against Oregon in the 1996 Cotton Bowl when his team was ahead by 30 points. Two years later, after Colorado beat the Ducks in the Aloha Bowl and Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said the better team lost, Neuheisel replied, "Scoreboard, baby."
The comment, and the insouciant way Neuheisel delivered it, is a perfect two-word summation of big-time college sports. All that matters is what's on the scoreboard. Nothing else counts. That the comment is a derivation of "just win, baby," the rallying cry of the Oakland Raiders and their outlaw owner, Al Davis, makes it all the more appropriate as a title for Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry's expose on the University of Washington's 2000 team, which went to the Rose Bowl in spite of (or because of) some serious criminals on its roster.
Whether a college football team can win without recruiting athletes who are marginal students and troublemakers is a question that goes largely unexplored in Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity." The book, which grew out of a 2008 series in The Seattle Times, concentrates instead on whether it matters to fans that the athletes they cheer for on Saturday afternoons may be committing rape and armed robbery, beating their wives and girlfriends, and driving drunk at high speeds during the rest of the week.
The answer, pretty clearly, is it doesn't matter to most fans as long as the team is winning. When tight end Jerramy Stevens was arrested on suspicion of rape before the season, the questions asked by fans and in the media were about whether he would play or not and how the case would affect the team's chances. When Curtis Williams, a player with a long history of violent behavior toward women and other crimes, was paralyzed from the neck down after a vicious hit against Stanford, he was treated as a fallen hero, an inspirational figure whose past was ignored.
It's unfair, of course, to single out fans for their callous behavior. Three other institutions -- the university, the legal system and the media -- deserve shame for perpetuating a corrupt culture. The university -- in this case, Washington -- routinely admits athletes who are educationally unfit to attend school and whose previous crimes make them a danger to other students. Stevens was charged with felony assault after his senior year of high school and Washington coach Jim Lambright and his top two assistants wrote letters to the judge on his behalf. "We do believe in Jerramy," Lambright wrote, underlining "believe." Neuheisel, who took over for Lambright, never suspended Stevens.
The legal system routinely gives breaks to star athletes. Stevens was convicted of fourth-degree assault, a misdemeanor, in the high school case and sentenced to community service and time served. While at UW, he was not charged with rape despite what Armstrong and Perry show was a strong case against him. (Stevens and a fraternity later settled a civil suit against them for $300,000.) The King County prosecuting attorney had a history of going easy on Husky football players, often reducing charges and holding hearings in secret, away from scrutiny by the public and the media.
The media gets criticized for what it does and what it doesn't do, as usual. When it reports on crimes by athletes and investigates university athletic departments, it is ripped by fans and boosters, the way Armstrong and Perry were when their series ran in the Times. When it fails to cover what happens in the courthouse as thoroughly as it does what happens on the field, or falls into the trap of treating arrests as "distractions" that might affect the outcome of games, it is rightly seen as being too close to the team. Scoreboard, Baby is full of examples from Seattle newspapers about Stevens, Williams and linebacker Jeremiah Pharms that in retrospect are naive about or ignorant of what was really happening.
What happened in 2000 at Washington wasn't unusual.
"At least two dozen players on Washington's 2000 football team were arrested or charged with some crime while at the UW," the authors write. "But rarely did they miss playing time. This has become the story of college football. Some players do serious damage. Some get used up. A city looks away, and the game goes on. Variations of this story -- more about culture than sports, more about a community that a team -- can be found across the country."
Examples are everywhere. Three months after Oregon went to the 2010 Rose Bowl, its star quarterback and running back appeared at the Lane County courthouse on the same day, on different charges. An Oregon State player had to be subdued with a Taser after he was found naked in a woman's house and charged at police, an incident many people on the Internet found amusing.
There have been at least 30 arrests involving University of Florida football players in the last five years; the coach referred to the arrests as "stupid mistakes." Florida won two national championships in those five years.