Sunday, November 12, 2000

IU professor aims to fix the system

        Murray Sperber was in Colorado Saturday, plotting against hypocrisy, scheming against fraud, conspiring to fix college athletics.

        You remember Professor Sperber, right? He was Bobby Knight's most stern critic at Indiana University, the one who was forced to flee the country to distance himself from threats. He's going back to Bloomington in January, and he's already at work on a new set of enemies.

        The same week Knight was fired, Sperber published a compelling indictment of the academic indifference undermining public universities: “Beer and Circus: How Big-time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education.” Now, having diagnosed the problem, the prof is setting out in search of a solution that is sure to expand his pariah status beyond Assembly Hall.

  Murray Sperber will sign copies of “Beer and Circus” at the Joseph-Beth at Rookwood Pavilion at 7 p.m. Thursday.
      Sperber and some like-minded academics have gathered in the Rockies this weekend to chart a path toward real reform. Known either as the Drake Group or the National Alliance for Collegiate Athletic Reform, their aim is to find an athlete willing to sue the system on the theory that big-time college sports is a big-money enterprise built on the labor of exploited students.

        “I debated (NCAA executive director) Cedric Dempsey in Indianapolis last Saturday,” Sperber said. “Someone asked me, "Give me one reason why the NCAA can't reform college sports?' I said, "I'll give you six billion reasons.' ”

        He was referring, of course, to CBS' 11-year contract to broadcast college basketball.

        “That's not a contribution to education,” Sperber argues. “That's payment for a product.” Education forgotten

        Society no longer harbors many illusions about the education of the scholarship athlete. Relatively few of them are scholars in any legitimate sense. Many are glorified vocational students, learning basketball or football as a trade, opening books mainly as a means to balance wobbly tables.

        More troubling is Sperber's contention that many large American universities employ big-time sports to deliberately divert students from what they're missing. They've “stopped trying to give their students a meaningful undergraduate education,” preferring to promote a lively sports/alcohol scene that keeps tuition payments flowing and impedes authentic enlightenment. One student, responding to a Sperber questionnaire, described his college experience as “a four-year party — one long tailgater — with an $18,000 annual cover charge.”

        Just wondering: Was “Animal House” fiction or documentary?

        If the courts were to decide the NCAA was a cartel and that the grant-in-aid constitutes an artificial cap on an athlete's wages, Sperber thinks it could lead to overt professionalism. A few prominent schools would be able to compete while paying players above the table, and the rest would be likely to adopt the Division III model with no scholarships and some perspective.

        Perspective can be hard to find around big-time college sports. No one knows this better than Sperber.

        “I still can't get past the idea that it's sports,” he said. “It's fun and games. It's not life, and it's certainly not worth threatening a university professor about.”

        This is the part Sperber hasn't quite figured out. Where he has reached conclusions, however, he's pretty convincing.



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