'College Sports' shows big-money programs don't come without price


College Sports Inc. -- The Athletic Department vs. The University

By Murray Sperber

Henry Holt and Co.

400 pages, $19.95 Item: George Steinbrenner announced yesterday that he has fired University of Florida football coach Steve Spurrier and replaced him with ex-Yankees executive Lou Saban. Saban will take over the team immediately and continue its preparation for the Jan. 1 Trump Bowl in Pasadena. Spurrier will become chief fund-raiser for the university's planned $50 million horse racing plant, Billy Martin Downs. Athletic director Gene "Stick me again" Michael said, "It's George's team, and he can do anything he wants with it."

No, it hasn't happened yet, but the continually blurring lines between higher education, college athletics and commercialism make such a scenario more realistic than most observers might realize.

Indiana University English professor Murray Sperber, in his book "College Sports Inc.," examines that unwieldy, unholy alliance and shows us who really pays the price to support the powerful, entrenched, money-losing athletic programs.

The University of Maryland is hardly alone in financial difficulty, and many athletic departments peddle themselves in order to cut their losses. San Diego State, for example, sold home football games in 1988 to Texaco, Smith Barney, Sea World, and El Cajon Ford. Among its three full-season sponsors was Tijuana, Mexico-based Agua Caliente Race Track, "which has a very problematic ownership history," Sperber writes.

Sperber quotes a Yale associate AD who worries that donors might "begin to demand input in the decision-making of the department . . . Are we foolish enough to think that six- and seven-figure patrons are going to be satisfied with signage, mentions and preferred seating?"

Athletic directors have managed to convince university administrators that it's necessary to spend money to make money, but it rarely works out that way. The University of Michigan, often held up as a model program, won the Rose Bowl and NCAA basketball championship in 1989 yet was $2.5 million in the red.

Sperber catalogs the spending abuses of athletic departments: inflated salaries for ADs and coaches; assistant coaches earning more than associate professors; $500,000 recruiting budgets; and lots more. The subsequent deficits are covered by general university funds, taking away from the academic mission. New arenas and facilities are often paid for by socking students with increased fees. The new Patriot Center at George Mason University is being paid off by students at the rate of "a mandatory $100 a year per student -- whether they ever attend an event in the arena or not -- and repayment will go on into the next century," he writes.

Sperber also excels at detailing the academic fraud perpetrated within athletic departments. Everyone knows that some athletes major in eligibility in the "Division of Hideaway Studies," taking Advanced Slow Pitch Softball and the like. But one athletic "tutor" in the Midwest devised a new twist for his department.

"Using its university's mainframe computer and the previous 10 years of transcripts for all scholarship holders, it compiled a statistical profile of the grades each faculty member had given" to athletes, Sperber writes. Profile in hand, the department's academic advisers then channeled the athletes to easy graders. The athletes' grades went up an average of 20 percent.

The NCAA is shown to be an organization of self-interested ADs and coaches, whose policies are controlled by them and for them. Attempts by university presidents to reform collegiate athletics are doomed before they get off the ground.

Sperber has thoroughly annotated his quotes and sources of information and a quick glance affirms that extensive research went into this highly readable volume. Sperber says he enjoys college sports and doesn't want to see them abolished, but thinks major surgery is necessary "to save the patient."

Yet the patient already may be too sick to save. Ethically, morally and financially there is little life left. The Western European industrialized countries don't have this problem because they don't have intercollegiate athletics. Athletes are developed through clubs and private enterprise.

It's time to end the sham of "student-athletes" and stop the assault on academic integrity.

Murray Sperber can tell you why.

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