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Top teams ride gridiron gravy train

| Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

Don't expect investigative journalist Gilbert M. Gaul to cheer when college football's 2015 season kicks off. His new book, “Billion-Dollar Ball: A Journey Through the Big-Money Culture of College Football” (Viking, available Tuesday), details how elite gridiron programs have come to dominate the institutions they represent, distorting higher education's supposed balance between athletics and academics.

Gaul, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, traces the book's inspiration to more than a decade ago, when he began wondering why some schools were spending 10 times more on football players than they did on top students. He cites Penn State, which at that time — before the Jerry Sandusky scandal and Joe Paterno's ouster — “was being touted by the media as a model for balancing education and big-time football” while awarding football scholarships worth $25,000 a year and Honors College scholarships worth just $2,250.

Today, Gaul says, college football is a $2.5-billion-a-year business fueled by television deals and corporate sponsorships, with top programs' profit margins at 60 to 75 percent — exceeding those of Apple, Facebook and Microsoft. Usually kept within athletic departments, the money finances lavish facilities and ever-growing ranks of coaches, trainers and marketers, plus bureaucrats and tutors tasked with keeping players academically eligible.

In 2013, college football coaches were the highest-paid public employees in 27 states, Gaul says. And these lucrative football programs pay no federal taxes, thanks to congressional supporters.

Noting that elite football schools tend to tout their gridiron success more than their academic offerings, Gaul says college presidents have embraced big-time football as a branding mechanism and a lure for alumni and prospective students. For most schools, though, football's a losing financial proposition, absorbing millions of dollars “that might otherwise be used for building a new lab or lowering tuition.”

But at elite schools, former University of Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds tells Gaul, football “drives everything and pays for everything.” And Gaul puts the eye-popping financial figures he cites in thought-provoking perspective when he writes, “It is impossible to exaggerate how football dependent many of the largest, best-known universities have become.”

ISIS ON ITS OWN TERMS

“The Complete Infidel's Guide to ISIS” by Robert Spencer (Regnery, available Monday) — The author directs the David Horowitz Freedom Center's Jihad Watch program and has written best-selling books on Islamic terrorism. He says the Obama administration wrongly insists that ISIS distorts a religion of peace and wrongly blames poverty and lack of education for susceptibility to jihadism. He quotes Islamic texts and ISIS documents and leaders to show how the terror group's claims of theological legitimacy attract followers — and how it's aiming to fulfill, in less than a decade, Islamic prophecy about Armageddon-style confrontation with non-Muslims in the Middle East while targeting Europe and America. And because U.S. ground forces could not stay indefinitely, he says, ISIS can't be defeated militarily. Instead, the West must win its existential, ideological clash with ISIS, which he says challenges “not just ... Judeo-Christian Western civilization,” but “the very idea of civilization.”

INSIDE OAK RIDGE

“Ignored Heroes of World War II: The Manhattan Project Workers of Oak Ridge, Tennessee” by Richard Cook (Amazon Digital Services) — Combining photos and quotes from The Center for Oak Ridge Oral History at the town's public library with his own commentary in this e-book, the author — an Oak Ridge resident whose father worked on the Manhattan Project — presents what he considers the neglected story of those who secretly produced enriched uranium in Tennessee for the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Built quickly, Oak Ridge grew in three years to a population of 75,000 by 1945. Its volunteer civilian workers — mostly young women, with so many young men in uniform — formed a vibrant community despite intense security, secrecy and racial segregation. The author calls Oak Ridge “a place where people never locked their homes” during a period of “tremendous faith in ... government to do the right thing during a time of war.”

IN THE PIPELINE

Forthcoming titles from both ends of the political spectrum:

Conservative

• “Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World” by Nicholas Griffin (Skyhorse Publishing, Sept. 15)

• “What Is Conservatism?: A New Edition of the Classic by 12 Leading Conservatives” edited by Frank S. Meyer, foreword by Jonah Goldberg (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Sept. 15)

• “Let There Be Water: Israel's Solution for a Water-Starved World” by Seth M. Siegel (Thomas Dunne Books, Sept. 15)

• “Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators” by Jay Nordlinger (Encounter Books, Sept. 22)

• “America the Strong: Conservative Ideas to Spark the Next Generation” by William J. Bennett and John T.E. Cribb (Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Sept. 22)

Liberal

• “The WikiLeaks Files: The World According to US Empire” by WikiLeaks, introduction by Julian Assange (Verso, available Tuesday)

• “Preventing the Next Mortgage Crisis: The Meltdown, the Federal Response, and the Future of Housing in America” by Dan Immergluck (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Sept. 1)

• “Fracture: Barack Obama, the Clintons, and the Racial Divide” by Joy-Ann Reid (William Morrow, Sept. 8)

• “The Essential Bernie Sanders and His Vision for America” by Jonathan Tasini (Chelsea Green Publishing, Sept. 8)

• “The Hidden Wealth of Nations: The Scourge of Tax Havens” by Gabriel Zucman, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, foreword by Thomas Piketty (University of Chicago Press, Sept. 29)

Alan Wallace is a Trib Total Media editorial page writer (412-320-7983 or awallace@tribweb.com).

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