USC hammer thrower Farren Benjamin is not likely to be an Olympian, nor even… (Pierson Clair / USC )
The ugly cloud of cheating and greed that hovers over NCAA athletics these days does not darken anything for Farren Benjamin. Nothing blocks her sunshine.
She says she is a student-athlete.
"Some people get that order wrong," she says. "They think they are athlete-students."
She will be an academic senior and an athletic junior at USC this fall. She will take 16 credits, including four toward a graduate degree. She will work in the Trojans' sports information department as an unpaid intern and will spend four hours a day in training for her varsity sport. Her grade-point average is 3.55 and she got into USC after a year and two summers at Orange Coast College in which she took and passed 48 units.
"My dad took me to the '04 'SC-Cal game, Matt Leinart versus Aaron Rogers," Benjamin says. "After that, I knew there was no place else I wanted to go."
She had a 4.2 GPA at Los Alamitos High and had the type of well-rounded background that universities love, including varsity sports and even a one-year stint as a freshman on the boys' football team.
"I was a backup cornerback," she says. "I was able to lift heavier weights than some of the guys and run faster, but I got cut because having a girl on his team kind of freaked out the coach."
Now, she is one of eight hammer-throwers on the USC women's track and field team. She says her throws rank her "somewhere in the middle" of the eight and says she may be "as much as 100 feet shy" of standing on a medal stand at an NCAA meet.
She is not likely to be an Olympian, nor even a star at her own school. Her parents pay for her schooling, but she gets her track equipment for free. She laughs when asked about cars and money and eager alums.
"No $100-bill handshakes for me," she says.
She is aware of the seamy side of the college sports world, in which she is one of thousands of innocent bystanders.
She mourns the kick in the stomach her school got from the NCAA, thanks to Reggie Bush. She knows about Cam Newton and his agent/daddy, and Jim Tressel and the Columbus, Ohio, tattoo parlor. She knows that Oregon almost beat Newton and Auburn in the Bowl Championship Series title game last season and now Oregon seems to be trying to catch up in the off-field category as well.
She heard about the troubles at North Carolina, of all places, and she is acutely aware of the recent travails of the University of Miami and its former athletic director, Paul Dee. Dee just so happened to be the chairman of the NCAA Committee on Infractions that stomped USC and preached to the Trojans that they "should have known" what Bush and his parents were up to.
It turns out Dee may have been living in a glass house and throwing stones. Or, as my colleague and college football columnist Chris Dufresne wrote in a recent piece on the Dee/Miami case: "College sports is broken, yet the people vowing to fix it have their hands in the same money jar."
The prevailing image, to that part of the sports world that cares enough to pay attention, is that college athletics is a cesspool. That the schools with the fattest alumni cats win. That it is mostly a massive fraud, built on the flawed cliche about sports building character, when, indeed, all that is being built are higher TV ratings in basketball for CBS, more power for the BCS football gods and fatter salaries for big-time coaches. It is egos and power-brokers, masquerading as educators.
Perhaps the most stunning recent report on collegiate athletics was a Bloomberg story on a university that fed 42% of its $62.2-million athletic budget with public money and student fees, while paying its football coach $2.03 million a year and forgiving a $100,000 interest-free loan, paying its women's basketball coach $1.3 million and having professors save money by taking out phones and disallowing photo copying of tests.
The school? Rutgers. (Feel free to add your own line about money not being well spent).
Benjamin keeps walking past the ugliness. She knows the difference between perception and reality, between big-time college sports and a hammer-thrower. She says that being at USC is the best thing in her life because of the simple college experience of campus and professors.
"Being an athlete just enhances that," she says.
She talks about the school's throwing coach, Dan Lange, who is "the kind of person who will take the time to talk to you about anything — grades, a fight you had with your friends, anything."
She says, "I practice throwing four hours a day, and I don't just want to do it, I want to soak up every minute of it."
Soon, it is clear, despite the cheating and overzealous alums — and even the clueless NCAA bureaucrats — that the good will always outweigh the bad in college sports, even as the bad dominates the headlines.
Benjamin says, "I'm very big about representing the logo on my chest, presenting the university that has given me everything in a positive way."
It should be confusing for her, but it is not.
She is at a school she loves because of a football game in 2004, the result of which has been voided by the NCAA. One of the prominent people voiding that result is now on his own hot seat.
Yet, she keeps talking and the sun keeps shining and pretty soon, the Paul Dees of the world no longer seem insurmountable.