Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education

George C. Leef

Spokesmen for the higher education establishment can be counted on to do two things: first, to proclaim that America’s higher ed system is the best in the world, and second, to plead for more government funding. Fortunately, there are naysayers on both counts, and it is especially interesting to find the occasional education “insider” who is willing to dissent from the orthodoxy.

Professor Murray Sperber is not opposed to government funding (he has been teaching English at Indiana University for almost 30 years), but can’t stomach the canard that American higher ed is marvelous. In his view, undergraduate education is little more than an expensive joke at many of our “elite” universities, and in his new book, Beer and Circus, he explains why it is in an advanced state of decay. The book’s subtitle identifies his villain-in-chief, but his story weaves together several strands. Also complicit are university administrators bent on achieving “prestige” status at all costs and faculty members who are so fixated on their own “research” projects that they treat undergraduate teaching as nothing more than a necessary evil. The triangle of athletic directors, starry-eyed administrators, and faculty members who try to avoid teaching has indeed made a terrible mess at many schools. (Sperber’s school, Indiana University, is still reeling from the events surrounding the dismissal of long-time basketball coach Bobby Knight.)

Here’s his conclusion: “[M]any universities, because of their emphasis on research and graduate programs, and because of their inability to provide quality undergraduate education to most of their students, 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 and the tuition dollars rolling in.” I think he is right, but leaves out a crucial element, namely the pervasive dumbing down of education at the lower levels. More on that later.

Sperber has nothing against sports per se. The root of the problem is that many university administrators are not content to preside over an institution that simply teaches students. There isn’t much prestige in that. No, what confers prestige (in the eyes of the higher ed community, anyway) is having a retinue of graduate schools and research programs. That requires hiring academic “stars” who will demand high salaries in return for doing a tiny amount of teaching but lots of research and writing. But moving into the ranks of the “research university” requires a lot of money. Perhaps some prodigiously wealthy alum will donate the funds, but the surest way to increase the inflow of cash is to expand the student body. That’s where sports comes in.

Young Americans—men especially, women also but to a lesser degree—are big on sports. Many organize their lives around the offerings on ESPN and the networks. Schools with well-known football and basketball teams have a huge advantage in recruiting compared to schools that don’t. Sperber recounts how applications at Boston College increased by 25 percent the year after the B.C. football team defeated mighty University of Miami in a nationally televised game in 1984. College administrators made the connection—winning big-time sports can lead to enrollment gains.

Thus many of the prestige-challenged universities went head over heels trying to build winning teams in the ‘80s and ‘90s. At some, the University of Oregon, for example, the gambit worked and sports victories led to rising enrollments. At others, like the University of Buffalo, it flopped. But win or lose, the impact on the quality of undergraduate education was bad: fewer decently taught classes in exchange for more of the “beer and circus” environment of team boosterism.

One of Sperber’s most important chapters is on what he calls the faculty/student nonaggression pact. He explains that “Big-time Us handle their undergraduate education problem by establishing a truce between faculty who want to spend a minimum amount of time on undergraduate teaching and students who want to obtain a degree as easily as possible.” The result is lots of fluff courses guaranteeing good grades (anything less than a B is courting trouble) for negligible work. Sperber says that the truce “short-circuits students’ natural curiosity and desire to learn.”

In a few cases that’s undoubtedly so, but great numbers of students these days enter college just wanting to buy a degree without effort. Having gone through 12 years of schooling with low standards, they insist that college be a continuation of the self-esteem building. The “truce” is to be found not only at the big universities, but also at small schools with no sports or research.

Although Beer and Circus probably won’t change the universities one iota, Sperber’s exposé should cause a reassessment of the direction of higher ed in the United States.