NewsStreet Scribe

Scandals Have Always Plagued College Football, Including at Georgia

Georgia fans celebrate the national championship on Jan. 9. A few hours later, player Devin Willock and team staffer Chandler LeCroy would die in a street racing crash. Credit: Suzannah Evans/file

“Big-time college football is out of control, rotten from the foundation up” wrote sports journalist and former college football player Rick Telander in his 1989 book The Hundred Yard Lie. Telander’s book should be required reading for coaches and fans of the University of Georgia’s gridiron program here in Athens. 

When the Georgia Bulldogs team won a second national championship in January, many fans went into a frenzy in downtown Athens, damaging property and destroying newly planted trees during a spate of hooliganism over their team’s back-to-back national victories. They showed why the word “fan” is derived from the word “fanatic.” Tragically, two people connected with the UGA football program died and two were hospitalized in a high-speed late-night car wreck after the game.

The Bulldog body count resulted in lawsuits, recriminations and a series of stories in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about scandals connected with the university’s vaunted football program—scandals that gave unwanted national attention to the Georgia Bulldogs in their moment of triumph. On June 28, USA Today sports columnist Dan Wolken summed up the program’s problems when he wrote, “Georgia has built an entire infrastructure to help minimize legal issues involving players and keep them out of public view. The so-called internal discipline rarely leads to game suspensions or dismissals from the team.”

In his book, Telander wrote, “Big-time sport and support for learning have nothing to do with one another,” and his words from 1989 apply today. Recently the Georgia General Assembly cut $66 million in funding from the state’s 26 colleges and universities. Meanwhile, university regents approved an expenditure of more than $68 million for renovations and expansion of the university’s football stadium, already one of the largest college football venues in the nation.

Winning football teams can indeed bring in big bucks, but as writer Telander said, “All those millions of dollars go not to the universities’ general funds, but to their athletic departments… In truth, athletic departments exist solely to promote themselves. Like flatworms, they have the genetic mandate to enlarge.” 

Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi famously said, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” Georgia Bulldogs boosters and officials seem to have taken Lombardi’s view to the extreme while ignoring the words of another coaching legend, Alabama’s Bear Bryant, who said, “Show class, have pride and display character. If you do, winning takes care of itself.”

The University of Georgia had another scandal 40 years ago when Jan Kemp, a UGA faculty member, blew the whistle on preferential treatment of football players in the school’s remedial English program. After nine team members failed to pass the course, UGA officials intervened so that the players could compete in the 1982 Sugar Bowl game. Kemp was fired from the faculty in 1983, but she went from vilified to vindicated in 1986, when a jury found that she had been illegally dismissed from her teaching position. She was awarded more than $1 million in damages and later reinstated at UGA. Athens attorney Hue Henry, one of the lawyers who represented Kemp in her lawsuit, detailed the case in his 2018 book, Take Down: Inside the Jan Kemp Affair. The case was big news in Georgia in the ‘80s, but unlike the current situation with the university’s football program, nobody died during Kemp’s time in the spotlight.

Sports scandals on college campuses are nothing new, and sometimes they have been fodder for comedy. In the 1940s, a play and later a film titled The Male Animal satirized the battle between athletics and academics at a large university in the Midwest. Co-written by American humorist James Thurber and actor Elliott Nugent, The Male Animal used a comic touch to poke fun at the over-emphasis of college football at the expense of academic integrity.

Today there is nothing funny when football becomes the tail that wags the Bulldog. Georgia may well win a third national championship in the next season, and if it does, Athens authorities could have to contend with a rah-rah riot downtown, proving what writer Elbert Hubbard meant when he said, “College football is a sport that bears the same relation to education that bullfighting does to agriculture.”