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Casting a wary eye on college 'circus'

By Ross Atkin Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 2, 2001

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.

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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.

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."