College Sports Inc. Defies Logic and Reformers’ Zeal

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

“communications” majors.

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 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.