Only a game? Not on many campuses.

It's a situation no amount of handwringing seems to change.

Criticism of the role of sports on campus is not really new. Big budgets, easier admissions standards, a party culture - all have long been grounds for argument.

Perhaps that's what is noteworthy about a round of books that take on the juxtaposition of athletics and higher education. For all the talk, these problems aren't being solved, at least according to some who charge that big sports are having an increasingly corrosive influence on school life.

For every partisan who cites bloated budgets and affirmative action for athletes, of course, another talks about fall days at football games and sports' importance in linking alumni (and donations) to their universities. Not everyone, in short, thinks there's a problem.

But male-athlete graduation rates are near record lows. A new Knight Foundation Commission on college sports has come together to deal with a range of abuses. One author of a new book on sports refers to athletes as "vocational students." Some schools are actually dropping football.

Want to make your own call? Here are some new offerings:

*"Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports is Crippling undergraduate Education," by Murray Sperber (Henry Holt).

* "The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values," by James Shulman and William Bowen (Princeton).

* "Intercollegiate Athletics and the American University: A University President's Perspective," by James Duderstadt (University of Michigan).

* "The Last Amateurs: Playing for Glory and Honor in Division I College Basketball," by John Feinstein (Little Brown & Co.).

E-mail newcomba@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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