While the entire college football universe was focused on a sexual assault allegation against quarterback Jameis Winston during Florida State's 2013 national title run, another off-field scandal was playing out quietly.
Champions Way: Football, Florida, and the Lost Soul of College Sports explores allegations of academic impropriety (involving former Plant High star James Wilder Jr., among others) raised by whistleblower Christina Suggs during that perfect season.
The book, by New York Times investigative reporter Mike McIntire, includes a little new information on the Winston case, like his admission to having 50 or more sexual partners in college. McIntire focuses on FSU but also takes a broader view of the major problems endemic to big-time college football.
With McIntire coming to Tampa's Oxford Exchange for a public conversation Sunday, I caught up with him recently for a Q&A. Full disclosure: McIntire interviewed me during his reporting, and some of my work is cited in his book.
You obviously did a lot of work on the Jameis Winston case. When, and why, did you decide to write a book on the 2013 season?
"It was during our reporting on Winston and other Florida State athletes for The New York Times that I became interested in taking a broader look at problems in big-time college athletics, not just at this one university but across the country. My goal with the book was to elevate the reporting beyond chronicling scandals, and try to explain why they continue to happen with such regularity. As with any story-telling exercise, you look for compelling ways to relate what you've found to readers, and it became apparent that framing a narrative around the experience of FSU would be an effective approach. But as I mentioned, the book also delves into cases at many other schools."
Some of the off-the-field problems of that season are well chronicled. How did you come across Suggs and the academic issues she raised?
"Discovering the tragedy of Christina Suggs was what really convinced me that a focus on Florida State — and specifically the 2013 national championship team — would be important for the book. I learned of her attempt to blow the whistle on academic favoritism for football players from someone who was appalled by what happened. It was surprising to me that Christie's story had never surfaced publicly, given its significance, and so I devoted a lot of effort to reporting out the facts and being able to explain what happened."
What, in your view, was the most troubling thing you learned during the reporting process?
"See my answer to Question No. 2. Seriously, I'd have to say it was the Christie Suggs case and its implications. Here you had a serious doctoral student and excellent teacher going out on a limb to call attention to inappropriate behavior, and nothing came of it — except that she lost her job. Any reasonable person who considers the conduct Christie exposed, including flagrant plagiarism and special breaks for athletes in online courses, would have to wonder how that passes for acceptable standards at any university, let alone comports with NCAA rules."
Some of the off-the-field problems (crime, academics, violence against women) you mention go back to the Bobby Bowden era and the 1990s. How have responses from FSU, fans and coaches changed since then? Or have they changed at all?
"It's hard to see how they've changed much. When you examine how local cops, the university and FSU fans responded to the Jameis Winston sexual assault allegation, it's a pretty sorry track record, regardless of whether you think Winston was guilty or innocent. You can draw a straight line between Bobby Bowden's decision to write a letter of support for a serial rapist whose brother he'd recruited, and Florida State's decision 10 years later to stand behind their star quarterback rather than conduct a timely and thorough investigation."
FSU fans would probably argue that these type of issues go on at almost every major program. How would you respond to that?
"And they would be right. This is not a Florida State problem. It's endemic to big-time college sports. But it's a silly argument that unless you report on each and every scandal at all schools, you somehow cannot report on them at one school. Sometimes the best way to illustrate a larger story is to tell it through the experience of one place."
The Winston case and the ongoing problems at Baylor have brought a lot of attention to violence against women. Have you seen any significant changes in how schools are handling them?
"Unfortunately, reforms seem to follow revelations of wrongdoing, rather than curtail them. We saw it at Florida State, Penn State and, most notoriously, at Baylor, which has taken solid steps to protect against a repeat of the awful history — long after the fact. I'm hopeful that taking the complaints of victims seriously in the first place, rather than treating them as a nuisance that risks tarnishing the team "brand," is a good step in the right direction."
Your book paints a very dark picture in college sports, from boosters to academics to crime. What can be done to fix it?
"I'm a college sports fan, and I hate to dwell on what's wrong with it. But we do ourselves no favors by pretending that it's still some sort of amateur pursuit and not completely overrun by commercialism and an erosion of academic standards. One place to start coming to grips with this reality would be to reconsider the tax exemption for big-time college athletics. Right now, all of us are subsidizing what is essentially a multibillion-dollar entertainment business. Taxing it for what it is — a highly successful commercial enterprise — would remove hundreds of millions of dollars from the system and, perhaps, begin to reduce some of the incentives for bad behavior."