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BEER AND CIRCUS by Murray Sperber


How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education

by Murray Sperber

Pub Date: Sept. 20th, 2000
ISBN: 0-8050-3864-7
Publisher: Henry Holt

Though not late-breaking news, here is an extremely dispiriting portrait of undergraduate life being reduced to a support unit for the athletic department, from long-time critic of the university sport scene Sperber (Onward to Victory, 1998, etc.).

Following the money trail, many large state and private universities have put their emphasis on postgraduate research and thumbed their noses at undergraduate education. But since they need those tuition dollars, Sperber convincingly argues, they now entice students into their hallowed halls by promising them a darn good time—more often than not hinging on a hot sports scene liberally soaked in booze (especially when all you have to offer freshmen academically are lecture courses with 1,500 students being taught by a teaching assistant). From interviews and questionnaires and a culling of the literature, Sperber delineates a grotesque "beer and circus" culture, where binge drinking is fueled by corporate encouragement and if you can't be a hero on the field or court, maybe you can achieve renown through alcohol poisoning. Here is a world where the coach has more prestige and power than the university president. Witness Sperber's school, Indiana University: there's Bobby Knight, and there's whatsizname. ESPN has more attentive disciples than any Nobel-winning professor, but then the Nobel-winning professor doesn't teach anyway. If the sports teams cheat in recruiting and mock amateurism, then you might as well cheat in the classroom (even when grades are inflated because the need is there to show you've taught something). Sperber takes fraternities and sororities apart with a relish, not just as anti-intellectual, but as self-destructive liquor-centrals. Sperber's recommendations are sound-nix athletic scholarships, trim enrollment for smaller classes, accent teaching, separate out pure research, demand minimum levels of achievement—but a revolution away.

A student nicely summed up Sperber's well-framed argument: college has become "a four-year party—one long tailgater—with an $18,000 annual cover charge." And you thought Dobie Gillis was bad.