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The Magic Flutie

USC may again tackle a football program -- hoping to score more enrollment.

Of course, there are plenty of well-documented downsides -- from academic cheating to point-shaving -- that occur when students and administrators decide that life on the porch is so important they don't bother going inside the house. Perhaps the highest-profile critic of the outsized role athletics play on college campuses has been Murray Sperber, whose books include the self-explanatory Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education.

While Sperber concedes that football -- and other successful athletic programs -- may increase the quantity of admissions applications to a school, he notes that the quality may not necessarily remain constant. "I'm sure that it attracts the 'beer and circus' crowd," he says. "But at some point a school has to ask itself if it simply wants warm bodies."

For example, Sperber suspects that the average SAT scores of Michigan State applicants have dropped since the school became known for its party atmosphere after winning the NCAA Division I basketball tournament in 1999. Other critics point out that when you go after students who are willing to select their college based on its football program, you usually get exactly what you're after. "What a good football program does is give exposure to the school on national TV, and that might cause an increase in admissions just as any marketing program does," says one college admissions director. "But the only people who will choose their university based on football are more football players. And lots of those never graduate."

Indeed, Sperber has argued that while football and other athletic events (the aforementioned "beer and circus") may enhance campus life, the hoopla is also a calculated distraction. "Many universities," he writes, "because of their emphasis on their research and graduate programs, and because of their inability to provide quality undergraduate education to most of their students, spend increasing amounts of money on their athletic departments and use big-time college sports -- commercial entertainment around which many undergraduates organize their hyperactive social lives -- to keep their students happy and distracted and the tuition dollars rolling in."

Then there's the whole issue of cost. While CSU's administrators insist that a football program there would be capable of supporting itself, and even turning a profit, Sperber questions how likely that really is. "Everybody in Division II is losing money," he says. "It's like a wasteland. You can never make money because you're so far away from the fame and glory of Division I. Plus, in Division II, unlike Division III, you're giving out scholarships--you are in effect paying students to play football."

Yet Sperber is his own best argument against freighting college athletics with too much importance. Even though he is a popular, long-time professor of English at the University of Indiana, Sperber only attracted significant attention to himself through his harsh criticism of the school's volatile -- and highly successful -- basketball coach, Bobby Knight. This past fall, Knight was finally fired after new revelations that he verbally and physically abused students and athletes even more than everyone already knew -- which was plenty.

Since then, it has been difficult to get in touch with Sperber: He is afraid for his life. Soon after Knight's sacking, Sperber began getting death threats from angry students and alumni. This fall, rather than face the hostility, he decided to take an unpaid leave of absence from the University of Indiana. When I reached him during a rare and unannounced appearance in his IU office, the head of campus security was just leaving.

"People don't really know I'm here," he said. Still, he added, his life was improving. "It's moved from specific threats to just general nastiness. But I'll tell you: I've never rooted harder for Indiana basketball."

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