US & Canada

Do the NFL's problems start in college - or earlier?

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Media captionBaylor's new-found success on the football pitch has turned its athletes into campus celebrities - and not everyone is happy about that

The popularity of college football in America now rivals the professional National Football League (NFL) game. But with the NFL hit by abuse scandals and the behaviour of its athletes under scrutiny, some are now wondering if the culture of college, and even high school, football might be partly to blame.

This weekend America's biggest sport hits the UK. London is hosting an NFL game between the Miami Dolphins and the Oakland Raiders.

Back home, American football has been hit by scandal, as some of the NFL's biggest stars are being investigated for shocking domestic violence.

While some have rejected the theory that abuse is something endemic within the sport, others are looking to college and even high-school football for answers as to why this crisis has hit.

Football 'helps everybody'

If you want to get an idea of how important American football is to a community, you need look no further than Waco, Texas.

Within recent years, the performance of Baylor University's football team in Waco has improved dramatically, and with it, the fortunes of the university and even the town.

"In the last five years since we changed football coach and started winning, the admissions at the university have soared. This year it's record admissions," says Prof John Cunningham, who teaches communication studies to around three-quarters of Baylor's football players.

Image caption Baylor's changing fortunes on the pitch have led to this new stadium

"The football team has a direct effect on the number of students that we brought into Baylor this year, and that helps everybody at the university.

"More students means more tuition dollars coming in, which means more faculty and staff being hired."

It also means the Baylor Bears have just moved into an extraordinary new stadium that the university has just had built. It cost nearly $270m (£166m) and seats more than 45,000.

Not long after the start of the season, every ticket for every game has already been sold.

"It feels great. It's crazy that we have a place that is on par with some NFL stadiums," says Jason Osei from north London, who has just started his second season playing for the Baylor Bears.

Image caption Troy Baker says college players are being reminded to watch their behaviour after multiple NFL scandals

It is part of the team's recent meteoric success that its coaching staff have looked far afield for talented players to whom it can offer scholarships.

"Just to be part of the atmosphere, seeing all the fans so happy to be there cheering us on," Mr Osei says, "it's an amazing atmosphere, it's really electric, and it's part of the reason why we're so successful right now as well."

'Celebrities in college'

The players we met on the practice pitches told us they had been saddened by the domestic abuse stories in the NFL.

They had all seen the shocking video of one of the league's best players, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, punching his then-fiancee (now wife) in the face and knocking her out, before dragging her along the floor out of a lift.

Away from the football field, many students on the Baylor University campus said their footballers were made to feel that they were the university's most valuable asset.

Image caption Young players emulate their pro-league heroes on the pitch

It could be contributing to the problems with player behaviour, students said, which they could take with them into professional sport.

"People kind of treat them like celebrities in college, so they think they're higher than everybody else, like 'we can do whatever we want'," said one student.

"It starts in high school, and the mentality's kind of built up," another student told us. "Once you get away with something one time, you're like, 'Oh, I can get away with that always'."

There was a clear perception that bad behaviour was tolerated much more from football players than from other students.

At other universities, there have been huge scandals involving footballers cheating in examinations and committing sexual assaults.

But at Baylor, the football coaching staff said they were very aware of the potential for problems and taught their players accordingly.

The college athletes too, like Troy Baker, an offensive lineman with the Baylor Bears, said all the players had been reminded of their responsibilities, especially since increased scrutiny has fallen on the NFL.

Image caption High-school football can draw crowds of tens of thousands - especially in Texas

"It's definitely something we're trying to make sure we don't get into the headlines for," he said.

"We had a little meeting the other night where they brought in a speaker to talk about violence with women, just to make sure we stay ahead of the game with it."

But he and other players told us they could understand how, unchecked, some footballers might feel that they could behave with impunity.

"Even high-school football, especially in Texas, is such a big deal," Mr Baker said.

"When you've got 40,000 or 50,000 people going to a high-school game it's kind of inevitable some people let it get to their heads."

Later that day, the stadium in Waco was hosting a high-school game. Thousands came out to see the local teenage stars.

They, in turn, were trying to emulate their pro-league heroes on the pitch, with their skills and celebrations and bravado all broadcast live on a huge, high-definition screen. They were rightly enjoying their time in the spotlight.

But if the NFL is serious about dealing with issues of abusive behaviour long-term, there are many who feel they really need to take a look at the elevated status afforded to even the game's youngest talents.

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