American investigative journalism has a new heroine this week: Fraidy Reiss, a student at Rutgers University in New Jersey who, as part of her journalism course work, conducted a long investigation into the perks offered by Rutgers to persuade star athletes to join the college.

Reiss got an A+ from her teacher, but the campus newspaper - the splendidly-named Daily Targum - refused to run the article. Indeed it refused even to accept it as a paid advert, and the university then announced that henceforth journalism students would be obliged to conduct their investigations off-campus, thank you very much. This policy was hastily reversed when someone twigged that this would make Rutgers a target for every aspirant Woodward or Bernstein on the eastern seaboard.

Reiss did not uncover any actual breaches of the convoluted regulations drawn up by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the body that sort-of governs US student sport, but rather in the manner an enfeebled Chinese emperor might have governed thousands of feuding warlords. And as revelations go, the allegation that universities, in effect, bribe top sportsmen ranks with "Pope is Catholic - Shock Claim" and "There is a shortage of flush toilets for bears living in woodland settings."

This phenomenon is most topical at this time of year, when the US succumbs to March Madness: the climax of the college basketball season when every office traditionally organises five or 10-dollar sweepstakes on the match-ups that lead to the emergence of a national champion.

Technically, this is amateur sport, but only in the manner of the Olympics of about 30 years ago. The players are not paid directly, but there is a huge amount at stake both for them (desperate to impress and get megabuck professional contracts) and the institutions. In effect, they are running sports franchises. Stanford, for instance, get 90,000 people watching the regular-season (American) football games, which may be the highest attendance at any routine sporting event on the planet. The income from those sorts of crowds, and the attendant television rights, is enormous.

The more successful the teams - the football and men's basketball teams in particular - the more money the university makes. The more money it makes, the better it gets: laboratories can be built to help cure terrible diseases, poor students can be given scholarships, and courses can even be run to accommodate over-nosy media students who have no idea how the world works.

Inevitably corners get cut, and these corners are murky enough for even the most respectable universities not to want the likes of Fraidy Reiss sniffing around. Some, like Stanford, take pride in having sports stars who also get good grades. But generally, Tom Wolfe's account of the pampered lives of college basketball players in his latest novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons,is thought to be near the mark.

At Wolfe's not very imaginary university, the heroes are barely literate, never mind proper students; their rooms are more like five-star hotels than college dorms; they get cars donated to them by kindly alumni; nerdy students are employed to write their essays …oops, sorry, help them with their studies; and their most personal needs are met as promptly as a request for iced water. Indeed, one rather expects there are mid-western states where it is illegal to refuse sex to a college basketball star.

Even grown-up investigative journalists shy away from getting too deeply into this subject, partly because there are uncomfortable racial undertones. But to European eyes, it seems very strange. All colleges are to some extent coalitions between the nerds and the jocks, the arties and the hearties. But in Britain, university sport was downgraded long ago. The Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, though as enticing to most sports fans as a grass growing contest, still has just enough profile to perhaps make it worthwhile taking on a champion rower whose A-levels may be a bit iffy.

Other than that, corpore sano has completely lost out to mens sana.Student sport outside Oxbridge is so low-profile that the vast majority of students are barely aware their universities have teams. It is a similar story on the Continent: Germany does not care if Heidelberg beats Tübingen. And disgraceful though the US system may be, sport fosters external awareness of the universities and internal spirit. Successful alumni are happy to make donations to their beloved old college, especially when it wins; Britain's soulless degree factories generate hardly any institutional pride or loyalty.

And millions of Americans really enjoy college basketball. Knowledgeable fans regard it as far more of a team game than the over-individualistic professional version. As the competition builds through March, so does the enthusiasm among fans who have no idea where on earth Rutgers or Drexel or Wake Forest might be.

"It's a very sweet conjunction of purity and corruption," says a friend in California. If corruption be the food of purity, play on.

Get alerts on US when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article