The Big College Try

Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education

Murray Sperber
Henry Holt, 322 pp., $26.00

As president of the University of Michigan from 1988 through 1995, James Duderstadt was the chief executive of one of the nation’s top centers for graduate education and research. While he had previously served as a provost and a dean, it was only on becoming president that he found how much of his time and energy would be taken up by the school’s athletic program. Despite its general title, his book draws largely on his Michigan experience and it is full of revelations about college sports. Here are a few examples:

—Football teams at universities like Michigan, Florida, and Notre Dame are now “more valuable than most professional football franchises.”

—In what is basically a barter agreement, Nike supplies or otherwise pays for all of Michigan’s sports equipment. In return, it can place its “swoosh” logo on the uniforms the players wear.

—Licensing the university’s name for commercial products has become a major source of revenue. One best seller is a musical toilet seat that plays “Hail to the Victors!” when raised.

—Over half of Michigan’s football players eventually suffer injuries requiring surgery. Its medical school recently opened an orthopedic clinic inside the university’s sports complex.

—Being a sports power puts you on television. But “the more one is televised, the more one must spend.” Michigan’s new scoreboard, with graphics to divert homebound viewers, cost $8 million.

—“Many minority athletes eat together, live together, study together, and have little interaction with the white student majority on most campuses.” At some schools, black students who are brought in to join their teams are virtually the only members of their race at the institutions.

—“Less than 25 percent of the spectators at Big Ten football and basketball games are students. In fact, most students do not attend athletic events on a regular basis.” Indeed, Duderstadt adds, “As I used to walk through tailgate crowds on my way to a Michigan football game, I used to marvel at just how few of these fans had any connection whatever to the university.”

—“Every university has a number of courses taught by faculty members well disposed toward intercollegiate athletics. Student-athletes with weaker academic skills are steered toward these safe harbors.” No professors are named.

Beer and Circus is Murray Sperber’s third book assessing the impact of sports on this country’s campuses. He teaches at Indiana University, long a bastion of big-time athletics, where he has not been exactly popular with coaches, boosters, and alumni. In his current book, he has two major theses.

He begins by arguing that large universities, especially those within state systems, have given up on undergraduate education. He does not say there was once a golden age, since one can easily cite a philistine past. Rather, he judges what is happening according to his own conception of what a college experience ought to be. Some of what he describes is familiar: for example, the vast lecture rooms where the professor can …

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