A commercial entertainment juggernaut has conquered academe, argues this incisive, acerbic exposé of Division I college football. Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Gaul (Free Ride: The Tax-Exempt Economy) surveys the powerhouse football programs that are essentially independent, hugely profitable companies and virtual “extensions of ESPN”; the multi-million dollar salaries and severance packages for superstar coaches with lackluster records; the barely literate players pampered with lavish tutoring (including nannies who make sure they go to class); sky-high (but tax-deductible) “donations” for choice stadium seats; and the cutthroat marketing jihads (the University of Alabama threatened legal action against a baker who decorated cookies with team colors, mascots, and the letter A). The hypocrisy of this grubby business masquerading as education is clear in Gaul’s telling, though it appears less harmful at powerhouse schools where football funds not only itself but the many women’s rowing teams that provide Title IX balance (visiting one, he discovers the true spirit of collegiate athletics). Gaul’s mix of shrewd financial analysis and colorful reportage makes for an engrossing account of America’s most sentimental yet mercenary sports culture.
Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
“With the depth and clarity that have defined his distinguished investigative reporting career, Gilbert Gaul takes readers on an enlightening if sobering tour of modern college football. What does a ‘walker’ do for players at Kansas? Why does Princeton have nearly twice as many varsity athletes as Texas? Billion-Dollar Ball not only has the answers, it raises the right questions.”
—David Maraniss, author of When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi
“Billion-Dollar Ball is really a book about piracy. Two time Pulitzer prize winner Gil Gaul exposes the schemes by which a small group of honchos have hijacked universities and diverted the profits of college sports which equal those of large corporations, into their own pockets without answering to anyone. It's a ground-breaking work of reporting that cries out for a federal investigation.”
—Sally Jenkins, Washington Post columnist and author of The Real All Americans and The State of Jones
“With an uncanny combination of tenacious investigative reporting and effervescent prose, Gilbert Gaul has written an urgently important and immensely readable book. Even for a college football fan like me, Billion-Dollar Ball raises painfully disquieting questions.”
—Samuel G. Freedman, author of Breaking the Line and Letters to a Young Journalist
“This book is timely and important. Gil Gaul paints a devastating picture of the transformation of what once at least resembled a college sport into ‘an elaborately rich entertainment.’ The forces that have driven this evolution cannot be reversed by reforms from within. It is going to take some combination of the courts and federal legislators to force real change—and probably the dismemberment of the NCAA as we know it today. Things probably have to get worse before they can get better.”
—William G. Bowen, President emeritus of Princeton University and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
"Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Gaul (Giant Steps, 1993) follows the money straight into the end zone, locker room, and alumni skybox. "The notional idea that college football is still a game, as opposed to an elaborately rich entertainment, is rapidly receding from the American landscape of sports," writes the author toward the end of an often aggrieved, often simply bemused account that finds him traveling the country to interview coaches, players, fundraisers, and assorted walk-on characters. Some of them have the quaint idea that college should be about academics and education; some maintain that football programs should bring money into the system rather than pumping it out; some even wonder why it is that in all but a few states the highest-paid public employee is the major college's football coach. Gaul is fearless in his pursuit, which finds him in Texas stadium parking lots on the verge (perhaps) of getting pounded by overly zealous fans or in Alabama being sized up by an unimpressed assistant athletic director who's certain that Gaul is "going to call us all a bunch of yahoos in your book for being passionate about a game." "Yahoos" doesn't really enter the picture, not when so much money is at stake, and the author's dogged pursuit of the money story is made all the more interesting by the fact that public schools can hide behind NCAA rules of secrecy in financial reporting, requiring Gaul to use the Freedom of Information Act. How much money? Billions. So many billions, in fact, that many football programs behave as entities independent of their cash-strapped home institutions, where even the most title-laden professor is paid logarithmically less than an assistant coach in a winning football program. Gaul's reporting is unassailable, but watch as his conclusions stir up a furor in the sports press. You don't even have to hate football to find this book valuable—and certainly worth reading."
Kirkus Reviews June 10, 2015
Selected by Apple IBooks as a book of the month for August 2015.