Murray Sperber makes most sportswriting seem trivial. If a Martian were monitoring Earth sports -- or at least American Earth sports -- and keeping a century-long file, nearly all the issues would come under the heading "NCAA." Sperber, in his 1990 classic "College Sports, Inc." and now in "Beer and Circus: How Big-time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education," isn't just talking about the National Collegiate Athletic Association, he's doing something about it.
It's a constant source of wonder to me that every decent American doesn't get out of bed every day railing at the NCAA. The only conclusion I can reach as to why this doesn't happen is that the NCAA is too huge, too amorphous and too imperfectly understood for the true power of its evil to be comprehended.
Looked at from our perspective, the NCAA is an organization of a few hundred people with the power to make rules for college athletes and deals for college athletics. Looked at from another perspective, from a distance, the NCAA is a financial institution that dwarfs its competitors -- the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball; in fact, it brings in more money annually than all three combined. The NCAA routinely interferes in the lives of college students, violating their civil rights, dictating to colleges which athletes can attend college on what terms and pursuing rebels and enemies with a vindictiveness unmatched outside of Mario Puzo novels.
The NCAA is sole guardian of the gates through which millions of American high school athletes must pass before they can play NCAA-controlled sports, for which they are milked for all the revenues they're worth, and after which the overwhelming majority, many with bad knees or even spinal injuries, are thrown into an uncaring world without even the rudiments of a legitimate college education.
The lucky fraction of 1 percent who are talented enough are funneled into the NFL and NBA, to which NCAA sports functions as a glorious, cost-free minor league training ground. And since, as Sperber has proved time and again, nearly 90 percent of American college athletic departments lose money and are forced to depend on some form of public money, an excellent case could be made that the enormous economic booms of the NFL and NBA have been financed by the taxpaying public.
In "Beer and Circus" -- the title is a paraphrase from the Roman satirist Juvenal, who exposed emperors for distracting citizens from social injustice with "Panem Et Circenses," or bread and circuses -- Sperber widens the attack. The villain, he argues, is not the NCAA but the irresponsible academicians who continue to allow the NCAA to rule in their name. Simply put, Sperber's thesis is that colleges are not in the business of education but instead locked in a competition to enroll students and collect tuition fees, and the result is an increasing emphasis during the recruiting process on "lifestyle experience." Sperber calls the phrase a euphemism for football, basketball, hockey and the year-round party atmosphere that surround them.
"College Sports, Inc." focused on the NCAA's grip on American college sports. "Beer and Circus" functions as a companion volume that shows us why colleges don't dare throw off the irritating and often repressive yoke of the NCAA: because they need the cash from the March basketball tournaments and the NCAA's dozen other multimillion-dollar institutions to compete with each other for students.
As Sperber writes, the NCAA's 1979 marriage to ESPN (which ushered in "wall-to-wall coverage of college sports") "marked a new phenomenon in higher education, one that subsequently became central to student life." That was an entire generation ago; five classes of college students have now graduated since that deal was made. In 1979, about 12 percent of American college students took no courses in English or American literature; as of last year, it was 40 percent. Try telling yourself there's no connection next time you send that fat check to your alma mater.
Some of you outside the New York area may have missed Woody Allen's affectionate and insightful tribute to Patrick Ewing in Sunday's New York Times sports section. If so, it's worth reading.
No one has done a better job of summing up Ewing's achievement with the Knicks: "For years, the Knicks simply played to get the ball to Patrick and for years he didn't disappoint. He was the whole show, and only Ewing's play kept the team from languishing near the bottom of the league season after season." Good work. But then Allen resurrects the argument that Ewing was "one of the 50 greatest players ever" and that his failure to wear a championship ring was "not because of any shortcoming of Patrick's ... the chemistry just wasn't there [in Ewing's teammates] to go all the way."
I wish I could agree. I don't think Ewing was really one of the 50 best players ever; I really don't think he was one of the dozen best at his position, even. Top 20, perhaps. And I'm not saying you have to win a championship ring to be a Hall of Famer, though there is no denying that this is a much more important qualification than in baseball (where a player is simply one of nine) and football (where players don't play on both sides of the ball). I mean, it's hard to think of any truly great center who doesn't have a ring. Hakeem Olajuwan, who dominated Ewing head-to-head, has two, and were Hakeem's teammates really that much more talented than Ewing's?
I don't buy the "chemistry" argument for Patrick Ewing. A great center isn't just a dominant player such as Wilt Chamberlain but one who creates winning chemistry in other players, like Bill Russell. Ewing didn't do that. He was a very good player, at times underappreciated and at all times misunderstood. But he was never great. If he was a baseball player, he'd have been a Gil Hodges; if football, a Phil Simms. They also didn't miss the Hall of Fame by much. Though, come to think of it, they both had championship rings.