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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Beer and Circus

How Big-Time College Sports Has Crippled Undergraduate Education

Murray Sperber

Holt Paperbacks


Beer and Circus

The 1960s marked a low point for the collegiate subculture on
American campuses; numerous fraternities and sororities downsized or closed their doors as some of their members, and many incoming students, joined the rebel subculture. But scores of Greek organizations, particularly at large public universities, survived the 1960s and, during the following decade, wanted to attract a new generation of college students. The popular film Animal House proved crucial to the recruiting campaign of the collegiate subculture.

Animal House is to me the story of a fraternity house full of friends. They don't have much in common, just drinking beer and drinking some more beer, but isn't that enough? ... [People] underrate the importance of Animal House. The movie came out during my freshmen year in college when I joined a fraternity. Of course I can barely remember the three years that followed. It is more than a movie, it is a social statement, a commentary on a generation.
--Kyle, an Animal House fan on the World Wide Web
Animal House is one of the most remarkable movies in Hollywood history. Costing only $2.3 million to make--and turned down by most studios before Universal reluctantly backed it--the film grossed $141 million domestically, and earned many more millions abroad and in video sales. Most film reviewers disliked the movie, but the public embraced it, legions of young people returning to see it again and again. An important elementin the 1978 film's success was its setting--not the post Vietnam present but the pre-Vietnam past. The filmmakers consciously placed Animal House in the early 1960s, attempting to exploit the nostalgia for the simpler pre-Vietnam era--as George Lucas had done in his popular 1970s film about youth culture, American Graffiti--but with a collegiate twist.
The main writer on Animal House explained: "We wanted to blow away that Graffiti sentimentality," and show that "people in college were bad then, because it was fun, people were into being sick," vomiting from over-drinking, and also playing "sick" jokes. Thus, Animal House connected to the old collegiate tradition in student life, but, contrary to the filmmakers' intentions, the movie reflected the late 1970s as much as the early 1960s. Such characters and scenes as the pot-smoking professor (played by Donald Sutherland) in bed with one of his students would not have made sense to early-1960s undergraduates, but received applause from late-1970s collegians--they saw the character as representing the few "hip profs" on faculties at this time.
Most of all, Animal House confirmed the validity of collegiate life in the 1970s and helped reinvigorate it. The Chicago Sun-Times speculated that "Animal House may be the Woodstock of 1978. All over the country students are waiting in long lines to see it ... . The question is: Will life imitate art? The answer is: Don't be surprised." Some observers had noticed that, after the rebel 1960s, "gradually during the 1970s college life revved up again. Essentially some collegians--wanting more, but not understanding how to create it--reverted to the old standbys of college life: the Greek system, organized athletics, pranks."
Each generation of college students tries to distinguish itself from its predecessors, if only in differences of clothing styles, slang, and musical tastes. After Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War, many 1970s undergraduates rejected the political activism of the previous student generation and, in a failure of imagination, turned back to collegiate life.

Nationwide membership in fraternities doubled from about one hundred thousand in 1970 to two hundred thousand in 1980, and doubled again to almost four hundred thousand by 1990. Similarly, sorority membership, usually about half of the fraternity numbers on most campuses, increased even more rapidly during these decades, reaching almost 250,000 in 1990. In addition, many fraternity and sorority chapters that were on life support at the beginning of the 1970s were thriving by 1980, building additions on their houses and sponsoring new chapters at other schools. During the next decade, the number of new Greek chapters exceeded one thousand nationwide.Most university officials encouraged this expansion, viewing Greek organizations as benign and their members as easier to control than the 1960s rebels had been (as various Greek-inspired riots later demonstrated, this calculation proved incorrect).
In the mid 1980s, a nationally published guidebook for prospective college students, offering "the inside scoop" about social life on campuses around the country, charted the resurgence of Greek life. For example, at the University of Miami, "since 1980, fraternities have expanded by 30 percent" a year, and they have extended the traditional collegiate subculture to include nonresidential students: "Commuters are joining up, too, since otherwise their tenure at school would be very much like going to a nine-to-five job." Then, in a comment that would have pleased the Chicagoans who wrote Animal House, the guidebook asked, "What university now has the biggest Greek system in the United States? Let's hear it for the UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS! How about fifty-five fraternities! Twenty-five sororities!" Huge houses, all full, and with members consuming amazing amounts of alcohol. Soon after the film's release, a University of Illinois fraternity man exclaimed, "Oh brother! The movie Animal House is NOT strictly nostalgia. Last year when a member got pinned [pre-engaged], we got superloaded and took him to a farm and handcuffed him inside a pen with a bull. The farmer called the cops and they uncuffed him, but it was pretty funny."

University dormitories also became highly collegiate in the 1970s and 1980s; because most schools abandoned in loco parentis regulations early in the 1970s, collegiate life ruled in many residence halls, particularly at large public universities. Stereo systems blasted rock music, and raucous partying occurred during many nights, not just on weekends. One higher education writer reported that dormitories "are often so noisy that they fail to serve even their most elementary function" as sleeping places; moreover, "the noise and chaos that surrounds" students becomes intolerable for some, especially those few trying to study in their rooms. Indeed, many schools conceded this point when they established "quiet floors" in their residence halls, i.e., a small number of dormitory floors set aside for students who wanted to live and sleep in a tranquil environment. University personnel monitored these areas to ensure quiet, and they moved disruptive residents to regular dorms. However, the implication of "quiet floors" was highly negative: schools were admitting that the vast majority of the floors in their residence halls--all those locations not designated as "quiet"--were far too loud and often zoolike. Residents and visitors constantly confirmed this reality.
The collegiate culture thrived in the dorms. Rutgers anthropologist Michael Moffat lived in and studied the resident halls at his school, and noted that in the 1970s, "the single most popular event [was] the floor party ... with beer kegs and highly potent punch and other liquor in the lounges" of the floor. Significantly, fraternity and sorority members often attended these parties, and reciprocated with open invitation events of their own, frequently setting up kegs of beer on the front lawns of their Greek units. A Penn State alum remembered his campus in the 1970s as awash in booze, openly consumed on university grounds and everywhere else: "It was one of the reasons the place became known as Happy Valley."

Helping increase beer consumption on college campuses in this period was the campaign by major brewers to push their product to student consumers. The companies, as well as their local distributors, hired undergraduates as "campus reps" to set up booths and hand out free cups of their product at college sports events and other occasions. In addition, the famous Anheuser-Busch Clydesdale horses entertained football crowds, and the Bud Light Daredevils, an acrobatic squad, performed during college basketball games. The brewers also supplied huge inflatable plastic beer cans of their brands as signs at party sites, serving as beacons for all students to follow to the "suds."
Therefore, when Animal House appeared in 1978, many undergraduates in America were well prepared--or, to use the slang of the time, "well oiled"--to watch and enjoy it, the film sanctioning their present behavior and also providing ideas for future antics. As one fan of the movie exclaimed, "At the Delta house anything goes: you wanna throw shit out the window? Okay. You wanna crush a bunch of beer cans on your forehead, and pour honey mustard all over your chest? Go right ahead."
In addition, the main character, brilliantly played by John Belushi, became a folk hero to many collegiates of this generation. One fan rhapsodized, "Bluto is the man. He's the kind of guy who slugs back entire fifths of whiskey, then proclaims, 'I needed that.' The kind of guy who puts a cream-filled Snowball into his mouth, puffs up his cheeks and spits it out, and then says, 'I'm a zit--get it?'" At one point, the villain of the film, the old-fashioned authoritarian dean, tells Flounder, a young fraternity member, "Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son." But Bluto, and millions of other collegians with him, responded, "IT SURE IS."
One film reviewer commented that "Animal House will confirm every parent's worst fears--that they are paying $5,000 each year to send their sons and daughters on a vacation called 'college.'" Parental worries andcollege costs escalated, as did nationwide imitations of Animal House behavior, into the 1980s. Then, a reaction occurred: groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (M.A.D.D.) lobbied against excessive drinking, and against allowing legal purchase and consumption of alcohol to begin at age eighteen; as a result, in 1984, the U.S. Congress passed legislation that pushed states to mandate twenty-one as the minimum drinking age, and, by 1987, every state had complied. But these laws, even though they obligated schools to curtail open drinking on their property, did not end the Animal House era on college campuses.

The law of unintended consequences enveloped the twenty-one-minimum-age legislation: like Prohibition in the 1920s, the new regulations failed to reduce student drinking. For underage students the laws added an interesting element to ordinary boozing--a lively hide-and-seek game with the authorities. In addition, the legislation helped increase enrollment in Greek organizations at an even greater rate than previously, and it also prompted large numbers of students to move into off-campus apartments and houses. One researcher reported that as "colleges cracked down on alcohol in the dorms, many Greek houses became underage drinking clubs. [Also] fraternity and sorority membership opened to more campus types." Numerous Greek houses, after their near-death experiences in the late 1960s, were happy to add as many new members as possible, including some vocationals and even some students with obvious rebel tendencies--as long as the neophytes were willing to pay for their share of the booze and participate in the drinking rituals.
Because Greek living units overflowed with beer and members in this period, many of the upperclassmen moved off campus. In addition, as universities terminated open drinking in their residence halls, many collegians went directly from the dorms to off-campus housing. In the article "Beer and Loafing [at Indiana University]: A Fifth-Year Senior Reflects on Years of Madness," Robert J. Warren described the party scene at his apartment house in the late 1980s: "We lined the edges of the balcony and took turns pumping beer from the keg ... . We were keg vultures, refusing to leave her side." However, sometimes a member of the group would fall or jump off the balcony and seriously hurt him- or herself. But that was part of the revelry: "Chris plummeted ... and met the concrete porch below [with] his face. He jumped up with a satisfied screech, blood pouring between his eyes and around his nose. An Indian with natural war paint." Of course, not every drunk falling off a balcony bounded back up--nationwide, seven "loaded" students died this way during spring semester1986--but risk and bizarre behavior have always been an essential part of collegiate life, totally sanctioned by scenes in Animal House and its many knock-offs.

In the film, the scene that begins the Deltas' final, riskiest, and most hilarious prank starts when they learn that the dean of students has expelled them from campus. One of the members groans, "War's over, man, Wormer dropped the big one." To this, Bluto replies:
Over? Did you say 'over'? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!
OTTER [a fraternity brother]: Germans?
BOON [another fraternity brother]: Forget it, he's rolling.
BLUTO: And it ain't over now. 'Cause when the goin' gets tough [thinks hard], the tough get goin!
The Deltas loved Bluto's ignorance, and collegiate audiences enjoyed the film's profoundly anti-academic stance. The few scenes that occurred inside a classroom depicted the students as totally bored and indifferent to education. An Animal House fan explained that the movie proves "college is not about studying and growing up. In the Deltas' eyes, this is their last chance to have fun with their lives." Similarly, in a poll of college student attitudes begun in the late 1980s, to the question--"After you graduate from and/or leave your university, what do you think you will remember most vividly about your time here?"--very few respondents mentioned courses, professors, or anything connected to the academic functions of their school. Almost all the answers centered on extracurricular experiences: having fun at memorable parties and at college sports events, participating in great pranks, and friendships with peers.
Anthropologist Michael Moffat observed the anti-academic ethos at his school, and commented:
Imagine, for instance, that you were an undergraduate who had been reading a sonnet by the poet Shelley for a classroom assignment, and that it had really swept you away. Unless you enjoyed being a figure of fun, you would not have dared to articulate your feelings for the poem with any honesty in the average peer group talk in the average dorm lounge [or any other average college housing unit].
However, if you were an academically inclined undergraduate and living in an honors college or off-campus with a group of your academic friends, you would probably discuss your enjoyment of Shelley and other intellectual or emotional discoveries. Moreover, you would live almost as far outside the student mainstream at your school as your faculty mentors did. You and your professors could discuss Shelley and other topics with understanding and feeling, but none of you could broach such subjects with the average student at your university. Moffat pinpointed this distance when he stated that "almost all of" his fellow professors at Rutgers "would have been confused and uncomfortable in the average dorm talk session, and none of them would have had any inkling of how to go about locating a good party on the College Avenue Campus." Possibly the academic undergraduates at his school would know how to find "a good party"--however, probably they would not attend it for fear of being mocked or even assaulted by drunken collegians.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the old ritual of faculty bringing their undergraduate sons and daughters into the academic profession continued--the present university outsiders selected the future outsiders. In 1980, a sociologist noted that "a disproportionate percentage of academics ... come from that small fraction" of undergraduates "taught by faculty members with a desire ... to introduce students into what an earlier era would have termed the 'mysteries' of their craft." Not only did these "mysteries" include the wizardry of research, but also the mastery of the arcane jargon of various fields and disciplines.
Significantly, although the barriers between most student subcultures began to drop in this era, the one separating academic undergraduates and other groups only lowered slightly. Few academic students participated in the collegiate subculture of time-consuming social rituals, long periods of partying, and fervent support of college sports teams. Indeed, many academic students, like their faculty models, still defined themselves in opposition to this subculture (this began to change for academically inclined students in the 1990s).
In the 1970s and 1980s, the lack of interest in college sports not only separated academics from the mainstream of university life at many schools, but also from an important component of popular culture outside the university. As the electronic media ratcheted up the coverage of all sports, especially intercollegiate athletics, more students embraced their college teams than previously, and more members of the general public became college sports fans. Nevertheless, a majority of academics remainedindifferent to the fun and games, usually spending basketball nights and football afternoons doing course work (if students) or research (if faculty). However, the cultural division over athletics had major consequences for higher education when college sports controversies and scandals occurred.
The people within universities who were supposedly in charge of intercollegiate athletics--the college presidents--usually came out of academic backgrounds and, as a result, knew little about college sports. In the 1970s and 1980s, when various university presidents tried to exert control over "power coaches" or corrupt athletic departments, deplorable incidents often happened. Because these episodes took place so frequently and had such negative effects upon schools--and this phenomenon continues to the present day--it seems appropriate to begin the next chapter with a discussion of a famous 1980s incident, and also probe its core cause, the gulf between the academic and collegiate subcultures.
Copyright © 2000 by Murray Sperber