Casting a wary eye on college 'circus'

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To his detractors, Murray Sperber is a modern Don Quixote jousting at windmills, a college sports dreamer up against the realities of big-time intercollegiate athletics.

The news media have often identified him simply as a critic of former Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight. Professor Sperber never met Knight during 29 years on the same campus, and never got past Knight's secretary in once attempting to interview the controversial coach, who was fired last September.

In many ways they revolved in separate orbits - Knight's athletic, Sperber's academic (he teaches English and American Studies). Sperber, however, has kept a close watch on the evolution and development of big-time college sports and has written extensively on the subject.

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His latest book, "Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education" (Henry Holt), examines the ever-greater role sports and drinking play for students these days.

In his view, sports entertainment is a bone tossed to undergrads, who often are poorly served by super-sized lecture classes and professors focused on research, not teaching.

"What students are getting instead of quality education is beer and circus," he says. "That's what's keeping them happy and what's keeping their tuition dollars rolling in.

"I don't see it as a conspiracy or anything."

In his view, it's simply unplanned synergy between the research university imperative, which took hold in the 1970s and '80s, and the increased media focus on college sports, led by ESPN and its seven-days-a-week coverage, which has tilted the undergraduate landscape.

Whereas students once looked forward to attending on-campus weekend games, now, throughout the week, they are served a steady diet of nationally telecast games and highlight shows.

"I have students who go to sports bars every night of the week," Sperber says.

He is opposed to giving athletics-only scholarships, but he says athletes overburdened by practice and training frequently learn to transfer the discipline they learn on the field to the classroom.

"They often are much better students than my frat-rat, beer-drinking students, who never get with the academic program," he observes.

Although Sperber has spent most of his life in Indiana (he earned his undergraduate degree at Purdue), he was born and raised in Montreal and consequently enjoys a different frame of reference.

The Canadian college sports system is decidedly low-key, roughly equivalent to the Division III, small-college level in the United States. There are no athletic scholarships, little hoopla, and to the consternation of some Canadians, top athletes migrate across the border to accept scholarship offers from big-time American programs.

When Canadians ask his opinion on changing their system, Sperber says, "Don't go the American way. Canadian schools are much cheaper than American schools and receive tremendous public support. I think one of the problems with public support of American schools is that the public believes that these schools are making fortunes from college sports."

With big-time college sports so ingrained in the American culture, Sperber doesn't anticipate any downsizing. What's more likely, he says, is acceptance of open professionalization.

"I'm convinced this will happen," he says. In fact, he and a group of other reform proponents stand ready to assist any athlete brave enough to challenge the college sports establishment in court. So far no one has stepped forward to sue for a larger share of the college athletic pie, but Sperber thinks there is precedent for doing so.

Several years ago, assistant college coaches won a $54 million court settlement from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the sports governing body that attempted to cap their salaries. The coaches claimed that college sports is a commercial business in which market rates should prevail.

If an athlete succeeded in making this same point, Sperber says, there are all sorts of reimbursement models possible. For instance, athletes could be hired on staff contracts and given fee remissions if they wanted to take classes.

Some big-time college athletic powers, Sperber says, would have no qualms about changing over to outright professionalization. Other schools, like Stanford, Rice, and Northwestern, he surmises, would reject it. Still others, like Indiana University, would be on the bubble, caught between upholding academic traditions and a love of the big-time college environment.

Few probably imagined that Sperber, who played two years of semipro basketball in France but never played as an undergraduate at Purdue University, would enjoy a longer stay at Indiana than Knight.

Knight led the Hoosiers to three national championships, but became increasingly known for his angry outbursts. Last spring the university placed him under a "zero tolerance" watch.

While known to be critical of Knight's deportment, Sperber has never sat on Indiana's Faculty Intercollegiate Athletic Committee, a group that carries the administration's stamp. Nonetheless, Sperber received threats of various kinds from Knight backers both before and after the university announced its get-tough policy.

As a result, Sperber decided to take an unpaid leave of absence. Initially he planned to sit out a year, but has returned to teach several classes, assuming the reins left when other professors took last-minute leaves.

The campus police department has advised him on security measures and suggested that he not keep posted office hours. "Next fall, courses won't be listed under my name, they'll just say 'staff,' " he says.

Sperber says people ask if he feels vindicated in the wake of Knight's firing. His response, he says, is one of relief that both he and the university can move on.

Knight, meanwhile, has given his side of things in several major interviews, but has not returned to coaching. A dotcom company has hired him to pick the field for the NCAA tournament and participate in an online chat.

And how has Indiana's basketball team fared without Knight? The Hoosiers, now coached by former assistant Mike Davis, are 18-11. At the same time last year under Knight, they were 20-9.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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