The jocks rule but honour is absent

Confessions of a Spoilsport
November 16, 2007

University sport in the US is known as "intercollegiate athletics", and its status and scale bear little or no resemblance to sport programmes at UK universities. There are three tiers or divisions of sport in US higher education. Division III intercollegiate comes closest to our own system, being fully amateur and played by talented students as an incidental byproduct of their journey through undergraduate education.

Sport in universities that have Division I or "Big Time" programmes is an altogether different matter, being much closer in everything but name to what we recognise as professional sports. Centred on American football and basketball, Big Time intercollegiate athletics is a multibillion-dollar industry that plays to packed audiences and enjoys prime-time national television coverage. It also serves as a feeder system into the professional leagues. College football powerhouses in the Midwest, such as Ohio State, Kentucky and Nebraska, have stadiums with capacities equivalent to that of the UK's new Wembley, selling out well in advance for each home fixture. Head football coaches at such schools are paid significantly more than university presidents.

Officially, none of the athletes themselves is paid. Instead they are given "athletic scholarships", ostensibly to pay for tuition fees, books and subsistence, but in reality a device allowing them to pursue professional sporting apprenticeships thinly disguised as higher learning. Herein lies the hypocrisy of Big Time intercollegiate athletics: college sports stars are supposed to be students first and athletes second. However, linking recruitment into and progress through such programmes to academic ability can undermine the capacity of Big Time schools to nurture - some would say exploit - the best young athletic talent in the country; so the rules are bent or broken in ways that damage an institution's academic standing and educational culture.

William Dowling's Spoilsport is an autobiographical account of a lifetime in higher education spent trying to unmask this hypocrisy, point out its consequences and root out its causes.

The main narrative focuses on the sporting rise and academic decline of Rutgers, a traditional Eastern University once highly regarded for its scholarly achievements.

Reading it took me back 30 years to when I was a postgraduate teaching assistant in the department of physical education at the University of Connecticut. UConn was then a Division II university, operating a mixed model of genuinely amateur pursuits alongside a number of revenue- producing and scholarship-funded high-profile sports.

The athletic director held aspirations to move up to Division I in basketball and football. I taught an undergraduate class in the psychology and sociology of sport, which was attended by the football team's top- rated running back, freshly recruited on a scholarship from a small, poor town in the Deep South. On trying to read his in-class written examination, I realised that he had the literacy capacity of a five-year- old and had no option but to fail him. This led to a series of furious phone calls from officials in the athletics department, who explained to me that, according to the NCAA (the body responsible for regulating intercollegiate athletics), failing student-athletes were ineligible to play and if his grade stood I would be jeopardising the future of football at the university. So be it, I responded, pointing out that maybe in the future they would think twice about recruiting illiterate students. I taught at UConn for four more years and never again did any scholarship athletes sign up for my classes.

Spoilsport is packed full of examples of the sharp practice through which the NCAA rule book is circumvented. It also provides a cracking and theoretically informed analysis of how the development of a Big Time sporting ethos generates a campus culture that is not only anti- intellectual but also, sometimes, downright criminal. This interesting and provocative book will be of great interest to those studying sport, social relations and comparative educational cultures. Spoilsport should be required reading for anybody who harbours misguided thoughts of introducing an American model of university sports into the UK.

John Sugden is professor of the sociology of sport, Brighton University.

Confessions of a Spoilsport: My Life and Hard Times Fighting Sports Corruption at an Old Eastern University

Author - William C. Dowling
Publisher - Pennsylvania State University Press
Pages - 216
Price - £15.95
ISBN - 97801032931

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