BOOKS/Alvena Bieri

Higher Ed on the Disabled List

In 1977 a weird thing happened in the sports world. Dexter Manley, National Football League All-Pro end, revealed publicly that he had been admitted to Oklahoma State University several years before despite the fact that he could not read or write. He played football for four years, and he said he left college just as illiterate as when he came.

Professor Murray Sperber, who teaches English at the University of Indiana, has written a book full of depressing revelations about college sports and undergraduate education at some of our biggest and best known universities. The Washington Post calls his book, Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education (Henry Holt and Co., 200O) a devastating condemnation of higher education in America. After reading it, I think that's an understatement.

Sperber's thesis is that the commercialization of college sports and the heavy drinking at parties associated with sports events are ruining academic education. He adds to these problems that undergraduates in general are not being taught well in their courses. A sad situation is made even sadder, in my opinion, by the need of most families these days to have to save money for college for 15 or 20 years, or have to go deeply into debt to finance four years of college.

His title echoes the practice of ancient Roman emperors who kept their subjects under control by giving them bread and circuses. Sperber writes with a certain authority about the frantic and dangerous party scene which frequently includes binge drinking and even death since he has long been interested in the relation between athletics and partying and education. He observes all this from the perfect vantage point since he writes from the University of Indiana at Bloomington, the former home of the infamous coach, Bobby Knight, who no matter what outrageous things he did and said, was still supported by the president of the university. Sperber describes Knight as "the emperor of Indiana, living in his high castle", and he is convinced that most college presidents, just as at Indiana, either don't know much about their athletic programs, or don't care.

Big business has its hand in everything athletic. Does anyone remember the time when a televised college football or basketball game showed half-time activities on the field or court, maybe the band playing, or a queen being crowned, or a funny skit? Now that precious time is given to advertising, ads for beer or cars, or quick reports on the how the other beer and circus teams are doing all over the country.

The author says the new three Rs are recruitment, retention, and renewal, or money raising aimed at alumni. His opinion of the NCAA is that it is a trade association, or big business, something like IBM or General Motors, not a group whose purpose is to encourage athletics as a part of education.

So what's wrong with a little beer drinking on the campus? After all, it's a long tradition. Sperber argues, after reading the answers to his questionnaire distributed to students all across the country, that it's not just a little bit of drinking any more. It's binge drinking on a regular basis for some students.

Not all students have the same values, it's true. He says there are several cultures on the campuses of big universities. They are the collegiate, the academic, the vocational, and the rebel. The first is personified by the old movie, Animal House, and these students seem to live for the partying and hard drinking surrounding athletic events. The academics actually value learning, the vocationals are serious about quick job certification, and the rebels just have their own ideas and love to go their own way. The good news is that it's possible to change from one of these cultures to another as the author did, going from a big fraternity boy to a scholar and college teacher.

Go ahead and look up your favorite school in the index. Most of the big ones are here. I have one last point. I marvel at the change for the worse in higher education that Sperber outlines here, and I have another example from close to home. The University of Oklahoma football coach makes $2 million a year. As an Oklahoma taxpayer, I resent that when almost a fourth of our state's children live in poverty. We could use our tax money more wisely.

Contact Alvena Bieri, 2023 W. 11th Ave, Stillwater OK 74074 or email

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