We’re coming up on Super Bowl time again, after which
football will drop out of sight until next autumn. Or perhaps I should say ought to drop out of sight, but may not
if well-known players are arrested for murder and lesser crimes, as was the
case in 2000, which seemed to be a particularly splendiferous year for gaudy
transgressions committed by glamorous athletes.
It’s often alleged, and just as often stoutly denied, that
you will find more violent criminals on the local eleven than you will in the
society at large. The preponderance of evidence favors the allegers over the
deniers. The game, apparently at whatever level played, puts a premium on
recruiting thug-ugly types, and it has ever been so.
Nonetheless, most footballers aren’t violent criminals. In
fact, they’re so roughly used by the game that, with the help of the United
Steel Workers of America, A.F.L.-C.I.O., they’re trying to organize a union
called the Collegiate Athletes Coalition-the better to pressure the filthy-rich
National Collegiate Athletic Association, which runs big-time football, into
providing such things as medical insurance for the gridiron’s wounded veterans.
In 1883, a Harvard faculty committee charged with
investigating the game was so shocked by the violence, brutality and barbarism
of the players and the spectators that it recommended the school shut down
football at the university. Historian John Sayle Watterson writes, “From the
beginning football encouraged its participants to demonstrate their machismo.
In 1879 the beefy Yale player and future artist Frederick Remington claimed
that he went to a local slaughterhouse and dipped his uniform in blood to make
it ‘more businesslike’ ….” Any Sunday afternoon TV viewer of the National
Football League will see plenty of blood on the uniforms and will hear John
Madden, a former coach and much-celebrated announcer, delight in the carmine
Legend has it that when President Theodore Roosevelt saw a
newspaper picture of a bloodied Bob (Tiny) Maxwell, a gigantic guard lured away
from the University of Chicago to play on the Swarthmore 11, he reacted by
threatening to close football down unless something was done to prevent
physical mayhem on the gridiron. In fact, Tiny was not injured until after
Roosevelt had called his conference, but that he was a semi-professional player
whose expenses were taken care of by a Swarthmore alumnus is true enough.
Lately Swarthmore has
gotten out of the football business entirely. In recent years the school’s team
had been outstandingly unsuccessful, a situation that the college’s board of
managers believed could be improved on only by offering more athletic
scholarships. Since Swarthmore’s incoming freshman classes generally numbered a
mere 375 students or so, the thought of diluting the school’s brains with so
much brawn was too repulsive to admit. Ergo, after more than a century of
kicking the pigskin around, Swarthmore is a football power no more.
Swarthmore is by no
means the only school to “de-emphasize” football or to drop it completely; and
the schools that have given it up entirely don’t seem to have paid much of a
price for their decision. Georgetown University, which gave it up in 1951, has
only gained in status. The same and more holds true for the University of
Chicago, which after dropping big-time football in 1939 has come to have a
unique reputation as a place of serious, non-rah-rah learning.
That leaves about one million and one football schools.
What’s with them? Murray Sperber, a professor at Indiana University, makes a
compelling stab at answering that question in a new book called Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports
Is Crippling Undergraduate Education (Henry Holt).
Mr. Sperber, whose previous book about college athletic
departments is entitled College Sports
Inc ., maintains that the athletic
departments of all but two or three universities are losing enormous amounts of
money, despite the billions being paid to these schools by the television
networks and other commercial interests. “The main causes of athletic
department red ink,” concludes Mr. Sperber, “were waste, mismanagement and
fraud and this situation continues today.” In addition, Mr. Sperber documents
other forms of rule-breaking, such as paying athletes salaries and keeping them
academically eligible to take part in the lucrative gladiatorial entertainments
by faking their grades.
None of this is new, of course. Every one of the illegal,
anti-educational or unethical practices of college and university athletic
departments has been going on for at least a century. Nor is there any chance
that they will be curtailed or stopped. The first efforts to bring runaway
college athletics to heel date from the 1880’s. They were unsuccessful then, as
Mr. Watterson lays out in careful detail in his book College Football-History, Spectacle, Controversy , and nothing has
happened in the succeeding 120 years to make a dispassionate student of
American higher education think that anything besides the cosmetics will change
in our lifetimes, or our children’s. The indignant few who want reform are
pitted against the corrupt unfew who are making money and having fun running
this nice-sized industry. If John McCain thinks campaign reform is a tough nut,
let him try his nutcracker on the college sports racket.
That said, I have trouble
with the subtitle of Mr. Sperber’s book. He has not demonstrated “How Big-Time
College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education.” Undergraduate education
would be on its way to the sludge pits had basketball and football never found
their way onto campus. And while there is no doubt that big-time sports has
played its role in the lowered state of higher education, it is less the cause
of making “the college experience” a joke than it is an accidental
In preparing his book, Mr. Sperber did extensive interviewing
and made wide use of questionnaires, so that he has given us quite a picture of
daily life on the campus. Parents, be advised your offspring are more likely to
come down with cirrhosis of the liver or an S.T.D. than anemia brought on by
overwork. What with the endemic binge-drinking, the drugging, the gambling, the
music, the dancing and the fucking, the college your son or daughter is
attending is more like a pleasure park than a place of study, for that activity
is only fitfully and occasionally pursued by the larger mass of college
students. You might say that for hundreds of thousands of students, college is
a four-year rave in which one element is the entertainment and excitement
provided by the institution’s professional athletes.
The men and women who run these institutions know full well
what’s happening inside them. That’s why a few floors in the dorms are set
aside for quiet. The students who live on the quiet floors are in the honors
programs. Honors-program students are that fraction of the student body who
take courses with a limited enrollment, taught by faculty members and not by
teaching assistants. This is the small minority who are expected to become
scholars, researchers and members of real professions, as opposed to the
The other members of the undergraduate student body-the huge
majority-are allowed to zoo their way through four years. They party and they
party and they party some more-and in spite of it, they all get good grades.
Mr. Sperber writes that, “In 1969, only 7 percent of undergraduates … earned
A range GPAs, whereas 25 percent possessed C range averages; in 1993 only 9
percent had C range GPAs, versus 26 percent with A range averages.” Needless to
say, D and F scores are rarer than an extinct species of waterfowl. It’s not
just athletes who get grades they don’t deserve.
This comes, in part, because cheating is endemic. Elaborate
systems for getting the test questions beforehand have been developed.
Test-question answers are even delivered via silent pagers, surely an
encouraging thing for wireless Internet companies struggling to show a profit.
Some teachers give A’s not only because it’s easier, but out of fear that a
student with moneybag parents will sue. Go on the Internet and dial up
Schoolsucks.com and you will see one of many services that provide term papers
for every course and subject imaginable.
Non-honors students are often taught by cheap, part-time
faculty. Here in New York, the English department at St. John’s University has
two part-time faculty members for every full-timer. The part-time faculty are
paid $1,800 a course without health or life insurance benefits. When you recall
how much time and work goes into teaching a course competently, an instructor
would be better off on welfare. Universities which pay those kinds of salaries
to teach classes of 50 or 100 students are going to clean up. The instructor,
of course, can only go through the motions, give the kids A’s and get the hell
out of there. It’s laughable. The kids pretend to study and the faculty
pretends to teach.
Only in a nation so rich that it doesn’t feel the need to
care about such things could all this waste pass unnoticed.
So settle back, enjoy the Super Bowl, take note of the
famous “schools” the gladiators “attended,” but don’t serve beer and pretzels.
Chocolate truffles and champagne, please.