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

By Ryan, Michael | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

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


Ryan, Michael, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


Beer and Circus: How Big-time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education. Murray Sperber. New York, NY: Henry Holt, 2000. 322 pp. $26 hbk.

My students and I honor an unwritten, nonaggression pact: I will grade their work as hard as they think I should, not as hard as 1 think I should; I will overlook their cheating and supply study guides that will guarantee high test scores; and I will not expect them to attend class. In return, students will not make demands that will distract me from what is most important to me, my research, and they will give me decent ratings on teaching evaluations. In short, we mutually agree that we will not bother each other.

My university also has a pact with students: It will put most of its money into high-profile, prestige-enhancing graduate, honors, and research programs, and minimal funds into regular undergraduate programs. To make this bitter pill easier to swallow, the university will take no meaningful steps to control binge drinking, and it will put unconscionable amounts of money into circus (big-time college football and basketball programs), which is what students come to the university for in the first place.

Murray Sperber, an Indiana University English professor, contends that these kinds of pacts are common (no, I don't, in fact, have such an agreement with my students) as he documents the decline in undergraduate education, and the negative impact of intercollegiate sports on universities, particularly those in the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division 1-A.

Journalism and mass communication students and faculty should read this book for three reasons. First, Beer and Circus is an excellent example of investigative journalism; it is a reporting model that demonstrates how objective journalism should be practiced. The book ought to outrage students as it helps them develop critical thinking and reporting skills.

Second, Sperber's sometimes indirect criticism of the media is most instructive. The media not only have missed Sperber's story; they frequently paint a false picture of sports in the academy. For example, they perpetuate the myth that athletic departments make money through "revenue" sports. In fact, almost all lose money, particularly when one considers the hidden costs buried in general university budgets (e.g., utilities, maintenance). Further, few journalists understand that many universities support expensive, bigtime athletic programs because they cost substantially less than good undergraduate programs and they distract the rabble so it won't get angry about poor educational opportunities, according to Sperber. …

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