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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.1

—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 barely be seen, while more and more classes are being taught by adjuncts and graduate assistants. A student, he observes, can even receive a bachelor’s degree without writing a paper. These conditions reflect “a truce between faculty who want to spend a minimum of time on undergraduate teaching and students who want to obtain a degree as easily as possible.” By Sperber’s calculations, at “an average research university,” only about a third of the classes are taught by full-time faculty. Part of the pact is grade inflation, which reduces student complaints and relieves professors from having to defend harsher appraisals.

Sperber contends that lack of money is not the central issue. True, state schools tend to be huge. Ohio State University is fairly typical. During the academic year 1999–2000, it had 42,869 students, of whom 30,958 were undergraduates, with 6,105 of them freshmen. At the same time, the full-time faculty numbered 2,930, of whom 2,053 had professorial appointments. If we divide the second faculty fig-ure into the full student body, there was one professor for every twenty-one students. (At Stanford and Duke, highly regarded private schools, the ratio is one to eighteen.) Even though graduate programs usually make heavier demands on teaching time, there should, in theory, be enough professors to teach most undergraduates in small or mid-sized classes. However, Sperber writes that “professors dislike teaching introductory courses because the material is so far from their research.” And it isn’t likely they will have to, since they benefit from “a faculty reward system that relentlessly denigrates undergraduate teaching.”

If this account tends to be familiar and widely accepted, Sperber’s next point is more open to question. Because of their “inability to provide quality undergraduate education to most of their students,” he writes, university administrators have chosen to

spend increasing amounts of money on their athletic departments, and use big-time college sports—commercial entertainment around which many undergraduates organize their hyperactive social lives—to keep their students happy and distracted.

Pursuing this theme, Beer and Circus has much to say about campus rallies and other festivities devoted to exalting the teams, as well as the bonfires and parades at which the school’s president is expected to be present and join in. He cites surveys showing that most students applying to colleges know more about their teams than they do about their academic programs. And he quotes liberally from published guides to colleges, which identify some well-known ones as “party schools.”

Despite his spirited account of campus rallies, Sperber never tells us how many students take part. All indications are that most do not. To start, women outnumber men at many of the schools that sponsor nationally known teams, like his own Indiana (54.2 percent); Florida State (55.6 percent); and North Carolina (60.8 percent). While many women may be fans, my Big Ten friends tell me that at least some probably attend the beer-and-bonfire rallies to humor boyfriends. In fact, as Duderstadt noted, only a minority of undergraduates attend the games. One reason is that they also have to pay for their tickets, albeit at reduced prices, and then are relegated to end-zone seats. Stands are increasingly filled with visiting fans, many of them visibly middle-aged.

Nor do I agree with Sperber that most students are looking for an easy degree. My own observation after teaching thousands of college students is that all but a few of them would like a demanding education, with stimulating and committed teachers. Even alumni who are not of a scholarly bent recall courses that engaged them, and say they wish that they had had more. Nor am I persuaded by his idea that undergraduates are drawn to sports as a solace because they feel deprived of seminars. However much some of us may deplore the glorification of athletics, I doubt that these contests are sufficient to provide relief from boring classes and unavailable professors. Moreover, from what I have seen, a good many undergraduates become adept at putting together an education, largely by exchanging information on courses they have liked. Nor are these necessarily classes known for high and easy grades.2

Sperber is also much concerned about heavy drinking by undergraduates, especially at large universities. Beer flows freely at fraternity houses and local bars, where proof of age is rarely demanded. Breweries regard colleges as a major market, and advertise heavily in campus news-papers. Sperber believes students are drawn to drink because the atmosphere generated by intercollegiate sports turns campuses into an uninterrupted circus maximus, fueled by alcohol.

Here, too, any regular visitor to universities has seen students passing out or throwing up along fraternity row during big sports weekends. But what proportion of undergraduates succumb to this kind of binging? Of course, drinking too much is a familiar problem; and there may be less of it at schools with modest athletic programs. But a larger cause may be the scale of the campuses Sperber writes about. Most schools with nationally competitive teams are huge, like Penn State (38,583), or the University of Illinois (36,794), or the University of Florida (40,391). They are usually residential, with undergraduates away from home for the first time. And since they tend to be in smaller towns with few diversions, students find themselves confined to an impersonal campus that is dominated by high-rise dormitories and administrative offices and ringed by research institutes and laboratories they will never enter. (Indeed, at most such universities, employed adults outnumber the students.) Considering that many students are still in their teens, we should not be surprised that some cut loose with drugs or sex or drinking. Or that they do these things to make an impression or simply to fit in.


The Game of Life, by William Bowen, the former president of Princeton, and his Mellon Foundation associate James Shulman, is about affirmative action for athletes, as practiced by colleges, ranging from Yale and Stanford to Notre Dame and Penn State, that pride themselves on their selectivity. I don’t recall that the authors use the phrase “affirmative action,” and it isn’t listed in the index. But the book draws on the same source material that was used for The Shape of the River, the 1998 study of affirmative action of which William Bowen was also a coauthor.3 Both books are based on detailed information on some 90,000 students who attended thirty “academically selective” colleges from the 1950s through the 1980s. (Despite the common source, race is treated only tangentially in the current book.)

Some of the thirty colleges, such as Yale, Swarthmore, and Williams, take a minute fraction of their applicants, and field indifferent teams in the better-known sports. Twelve of these schools also belong to Division IA of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which expects professional-level teams and sold-out stands. Some in this group have solid academic reputations, like Stanford and Duke, and Ann Arbor and Chapel Hill. But not all the colleges discussed in the book are truly selective. Miami University of Ohio and Tulane admit three quarters of their applicants, and Kenyon and Denison accept two thirds. Even Oberlin mails 3,819 acceptances to fill a freshman class of 634, and over half of those Williams accepts end up going elsewhere.

Perhaps the most surprising findings in The Game of Life are that elite colleges put more emphasis on athletics than most of us would have suspected. When concerns arise about the role of sports, the targets tend to be Division IA schools, which recruit football and basketball stars with small regard for their academic abilities. These are the physically impressive young people we generally think of when we hear of “athletes” on campus. Shulman and Bowen use that term repeatedly, but they give it a rather different meaning. For them, “athletes” are applicants who stress their skills in a particular sport, in hopes that these abilities will lead to their admission. Nor is this wishful thinking. Admissions offices at places like Columbia and Princeton routinely forward such applications to the appropriate coaches, who match them against their teams’ needs. If they seem promising they will be “flagged”—i.e., they will have priority when the freshman class is being formed.

  1. 1

    See John S. Watterson, College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), pp. 401–402, for figures on deaths, head injuries, and cervical spine injuries suffered by college football players.

  2. 2

    A recent survey asked 63,329 undergraduates at 276 schools to rate their education. As might be expected, smaller liberal arts colleges won the most favorable responses. The sample also included forty universities with Division IA football teams, of which only five were judged “strong performers” by academic standards. Two of the five were Sperber’s Indiana University and Duderstadt’s University of Michigan. See National Benchmarks of Effective Educational Practice: The College Student Report (National Survey of Student Engagement, 2000).

  3. 3

    William G. Bowen and Derek Bok, The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions (Princeton University Press, 1998).

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