US college football mired in rape scandal

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The Independent US

A mushrooming sex-and-football scandal at the University of Colorado (CU) widened further yesterday, exposing yet more of the tawdry underside of the huge financial machine that is US college sports.

Police in Boulder, the site of the main CU campus, are investigating a sixth allegation of rape involving a player with the Buffaloes, the CU American football team. The affair has already led to the suspension of Gary Barnett, the team's coach. More broadly, the scandal is being held up as a case study in all that is wrong in the rotten world of college sports.

The affair, which had been simmering in Boulder for months, hit the national headlines this week when Katie Hnida, a former female place-kicker on the Buffaloes, claimed she had been sexually harassed and raped by her team mates.

Mr Barnett dismissed the accusation, saying, "Katie was awful. You know what guys do, they respect your ability ... Katie was not only a girl, she was terrible." Outrage was instant, and Mr Barnett was promptly placed on "administrative leave". But his departure fuelled revelations about strippers, escort services, sex parties and all-but-tolerated rape - all part of the package laid on to recruit promising high-school players to enrol at CU.

But the underlying problem is not the oversized libido of undergraduate athletes. This scandal is rooted in the colossal sums the television networks pay to show college sports. Last year, CBS paid a minimum of $6bn (£3.2bn) for the 10-year rights to show the college basketball championships. Top-flight college football commands similar sums.

In the case of football, the revenue mostly goes straight to the college teams. A successful football team can be a university's biggest single money-spinner. For those involved, the financial rewards are to match. Until he was suspended, Mr Barnett made $1.6m a year, making him the highest-paid public employee in Colorado. Carl Wieman, physics professor at Colorado and a 2001 Nobel prize winner, described the university as "an academic appendage to a football programme".

The Buffaloes and other top college teams play in Wembley-sized stadiums before 70,000-plus crowds. The only difference from the professional major leagues, to which the best players graduate, is that college athletes are supposedly amateur. Legally, they are entitled to no more than a scholarship covering their academic tuition; but, as events in Colorado prove, other perks are on offer. They range from free limos to sex and, allegedly, under-the-counter payments.

Mr Barnett appears to have been an extreme case, and the University of Colorado has long been known as a "party campus", where drugs, booze and sex are consumed in especially generous quantities. "I said the wrong thing about Katie," the coach said yesterday, adding rather implausibly, "I was trying to express my care for her." But others see Colorado as part of a national malaise. The the National Collegiate Athletic Association last week set up a task force to investigate recruiting practices for college football and basketball programmes. "This is a nationwide problem," Elizabeth Hoffman, the CU president, maintains.

And as long as giant television contracts continue to pour vast sums into college sports, and performers are not allowed to be paid a going rate, the problem will not go away.