Will game end on foul play?

April 16, 2004

Stephen Phillips reports on how scandal has damaged the status of US college sports

Murray Sperber thought it prudent to go check out the house he'd inherited in Montreal and to make himself scarce around campus for a while. It was May 2000 and he'd just spoken out against legendary - and notorious - Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight.

Sperber, though a Canadian, had been an undergraduate at the Bloomington, Indiana, campus before becoming professor of English and American studies there. And although he had commented on US intercollegiate sport in several books, he was stunned by the reaction to his criticism of Knight.

Knight, dubbed "the General", had been caught on film throttling one of his players in a fit of rage - the latest incident in what university officials dubbed "a pattern of inappropriate behaviour". But Sperber's stand earned him death threats in a state where the university basketball team, the Hoosiers, is an institution, and Knight, the talismanic, technically brilliant coach of three National Collegiate Athletic Association championship-winning sides, is revered.

"I had to go into hiding... it was amazing. I thought I knew about America," Sperber recounts. Tales of Knight's volatility are legion - hurling chairs, manhandling players, launching into expletive-laden tirades - even allegedly aiming a plant pot at the head of an elderly secretary after being denied immediate access to Indiana's athletics director, his boss.

Officials seemed to overlook such explosions while the mercurial Knight, who confessed to "a temper problem", delivered the goods on the basketball court. But the choking incident was a step too far. Knight was rebuked, docked $30,000 from his $170,000 salary, suspended for three games and served notice that he was on his "last chance".

Three months later, he grabbed a student who had hailed him on campus and Knight's game was over. Although some commentators argued that Knight's winning ways on the court had been on the wane anyway, furious Knight loyalists gave the student who came forward a great deal of heat.

Literally. They burned him in effigy.

For Sperber, it meant he could emerge from enforced exile.

Six months after being forced to leave Indiana, Knight signed a $4.5 million (£2.45 million), five-year contract to coach at Texas Tech.

Trying to explain American college sport to an outsider is a little like trying to explain the finer points of cricket to an American, Sperber says.

It's a colourful pageant as bold and brash as the nation that produced it, with all the hoopla of its professional counterparts. Elite undergraduate American football and basketball teams square off in packed amphitheatres and arenas, with the action being beamed, primetime, into millions of US homes.

Top-flight leagues go by names such as the "Big East" or "Big Ten", and across the divisions teams with nicknames such as the Wolfpack, the Minutemen or, less formidably, the Hustlin' Quakers or the Boll Weevils are pitted against each other while pompom-wielding cheerleaders whip up the crowd.

Last month, fans of "college hoops" across the US holed up in sports bars or opened six-packs at home for the annual "March Madness" NCAA basketball playoffs. The month-long competitive frenzy spawns office sweepstakes and fantasy leagues much like English soccer's Premier League or FA Cup.

The "college football" season climaxes with its own version of a cup final, the Rose Bowl, staged on New Year's Day in Pasadena, California.

College sport owes its cultural centrality and footing to the peculiarities of US sports history, says Sperber, who points out that professional leagues are a relatively recent phenomenon. The first Super Bowl, professional American football's annual showdown, wasn't played until 1967; while the National Basketball Association didn't really become popular until the 1970s.

"In many, particularly non-urban, areas, college teams often became the public team," Sperber says. "If you were reading the sports pages in the 1950s and the headline said 'Big football game this weekend', it wouldn't be talking about the National Football League, but rather college football." Given such high status, Sperber adds, "payment under the table has existed since the start of college sports".

Because of their popularity, basketball and American football have long dominated university athletics departments. As their commercial power has grown in recent years, their influence on campus has expanded even more and they often muscle aside sports that have more participants or conform more closely to Olympian ideals. The University of Miami's American football programme spans a roster of 105 players. Its support has come at the expense of wrestling, gymnastics, men's swimming and women's badminton, according to a 2002 NCAA poll.

Last year, the NCAA sold television rights to men's basketball for $6 billion over 11 years. Cashing in on demand from commercial sponsors in college football, this year's Rose Bowl was "presented by PlayStation 2", while other teams contested the Toyota Gator Bowl, the Mazda Tangerine Bowl, the Nokia Sugar Bowl, the Alamo Bowl presented by MasterCard and the Chik-Fil-A Peach Bowl.

With commercial returns linked to results, college coaches have all the job security of a Premier League soccer manager, and players must perform or face losing their scholarships.

Such high stakes help explain the scandals that have rocked US college sports recently. Over the past year, campus teams have been roiled by allegations of rape and of plying prospective recruits with alcohol and strippers and by claims of academic fraud and murder.

Police discovered the decapitated body of Baylor University basketball player Patrick Dennehy near the Texas campus last July and charged team-mate Carlton Dotson with his murder. The investigation opened up another can of worms and - to deflect reports that Dennehy had pocketed illicit payments at odds with his amateur status - coach Dave Bliss concocted a cover story painting the slain player as a drug pusher. He was fired after his scheming was caught on tape.

No one died at the University of Colorado, Boulder, an American football powerhouse, but officials there stand accused of hiring strippers for booze-fuelled recruiting parties to woo promising secondary-school players. Three women claim that they were raped at one such party in 2001. Other women have also made allegations that players sexually assaulted them, and the university has convened a panel of inquiry.

According to one panel member, football coach Gary Barnett testified in a recent lawsuit that he feared that altering recruitment practices would put Boulder at a disadvantage to rival teams. Barnett is not coaching now, having been suspended for disparaging the athletic ability of one of the female accusers, a former place-kicker on the side.

Incidents at other universities have invited more derision than opprobrium. Ghostwritten papers and pushover "rocks for jocks" courses are an open secret, Sperber says, but St Bonaventure University in New York was penalised last March for fielding a basketball player whose only academic credential was a welding certificate.

At about the same time, the University of Georgia sacked its assistant basketball coach after revelations that he dished out straight As for a phoney course, "Coaching principles and strategies of basketball", so players could meet academic requirements. A sample from the 20-question multiple-choice test that was the only course requirement included "How many halves are in a college basketball game?"

Sixteen of the 65 male teams contesting March Madness this year had graduation rates below 25 per cent, while the University of Memphis failed to graduate a single basketball player who enrolled between 1993 and 1996, NCAA figures show. Overall, The Washington Post estimates, just 44 per cent of male students on basketball scholarships and 54 per cent of those on football scholarships earn a degree. Such figures confirm the belief of people such as Terry Meyer, a professor of English at William and Mary College in Virginia, that colleges have become nursery teams for the professional ranks.

"There needs to be dramatic cultural change," says Tomas Jimenez, the assistant athletic director for academics at the University of Miami. He says that recent NCAA reforms, such as new study-based competition eligibility requirements, are an improvement.

But the notion of entrusting the NCAA to clean up college sports is risible to William Dowling, professor of English and American literature at Rutgers University. "They're the marketing arm of the TV networks," he says.

Nothing short of a "root-and-branch operation... ripping out the structure from the ground up" will reform college sports programmes, says Dowling, a founding member of the Drake Group, a coalition of anti-sports corruption academics.

Dowling is outraged by what he witheringly calls "academic sumpholes" and "sports factories" and the damage they inflict on students who do not play sports.

"(With) more attention on sports, they're pushing the idea that what (bright kids) are good at isn't valued," he says. "What earns crazed enthusiasm is some functional illiterate who can slam dunk, kick or throw something better than others."

It isn't often that faculty members become so exercised by campus sports, Sperber says. "Your average academic isn't interested in sport, doesn't want to hear about it. Friction occurs only when athletes misbehave and a scandal ensues."

That attitude may be changing, however, amid rising concern about loss-making sports programmes siphoning funds from core academic services.

Spending at leading campus athletics departments rose by an average of 25 per cent between 1995 and 2001, compared with a 10 per cent increase in inflation-adjusted average university spending, according to a recent poll by USA Today and Iowa's Des Moines Register .

Meanwhile, as recessionary state budgets put the screws on university spending, some athletics departments seem to hardly feel the pinch. The University of Oregon last autumn splashed out on an advertising hoarding in New York's Times Square to promote its football star Keenan Howry.

Meyer says: "We and other state institutions are looking at what costs can be controlled, but a blind eye tends to get turned to intercollegiate athletics while the academic side of things (is) focused on." At his college, William and Mary, athletics funding was shaved by 1 per cent last year while state funding fell 30 per cent.

"Research, library acquisitions, subscriptions to research journals were cut - this is what a higher learning institution is supposed to be about," says Meyer, who is fighting to have the annual $916 "intercollegiate athletic fee" that William and Mary students pay itemised. It is currently lumped in with other fees.

For all the money changing hands, just 40 universities say their athletics departments are self-sustaining as costs escalate.

Meanwhile, Meyer disputes the wisdom that holds that intercollegiate spectator sports boost morale and foster campus spirit. "William and Mary students are by and large indifferent... local residents attend games." On the other hand, "campus spirit" boiled over at the University of New Hampshire last April after its team lost the NCAA ice hockey final, and police arrested 87 rioters, mostly students.

"Many college presidents will say that, given the choice of starting an intercollegiate athletics programme, they'd never start one," Sperber says.

He adds that the problem dates back to the first US intercollegiate sporting encounter, pitting the rowers of Harvard and Yale against each other in an 1845 challenge match staged on New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee by the promoter of the Boston-Montreal Railway. "A number of rowers from both schools weren't students and were actually professional," Sperber says. "So before the gun goes off on American college sports, it's totally commercial and there's cheating. It's been downhill ever since."

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