Books by Murray Sperber

Released: Sept. 20, 2000

"A student nicely summed up Sperber's well-framed argument: college has become 'a four-year party—one long tailgater—with an $18,000 annual cover charge.' And you thought Dobie Gillis was bad."
Though not late-breaking news, here is an extremely dispiriting portrait of undergraduate life being reduced to a support unit for the athletic department, from long-time critic of the university sport scene Sperber (Onward to Victory, 1998, etc.).Read full book review >
Released: Nov. 1, 1998

Sperber (English and American Studies/Indiana Univ.; Shake Down the Thunder, 1993, etc.) again chips away at the sacred mythic core of college sports. Beginning with the George Gipp/Knute Rockne legend so carefully crafted by Hollywood in the 1940 film Knute Rockne, All American, and moving onward through the decades, the author demonstrates that this surpassing bit of lore served as the bedrock for a massive sham: the myth of the "scholar-athlete." Sperber shows how, before the Rockne film, college athletes were widely perceived as violent, disloyal, drunken brutes. In support of this, he cites 1920s sportswriters such as Westbrook Pegler and Damon Runyon'scribes forming a decidedly unsentimental school of pundits whom Sperber calls the "Aw-Nuts" men—and such films as the 1930s Marx Brothers' romp, Horse Feathers, as examples of the low regard in which schoolboy athletes were held. Sperber also details a withering litany of scandals in gambling, cheating, recruitment, and more over the years—e.g., the Kentucky and CCNY basketball point-shaving contretemps of the late '40s-early '50s and the Army testing scandal of 1951, to name two. However, many misdeeds, according to the author, stemmed not from athletes' inherent lawlessness, but from a corrupt system that made money hand over fist while strictly enforcing players' amateurism. The "antidote" to college sports' corrupt ways came not in the form of sincere self-regulation, but was induced by journalists, promoters, producers, and university publicity flacks. —Shocking— is the word that best describes the depth and breadth of the complicity—from Hollywood, from magazines that breathlessly anointed college footballer heroes, and from Madison Avenue types who crafted program covers that proselytized (and propagandized) about college athletics as a pure, noble, and, above all, American pursuit. A scathing reminder that the "good old days" in college sports never were. (24 b&w photos, not seen) Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 1, 1993

Sperber (English and American Studies/Indiana University; College Sports Inc., 1990) does in this exceptional, exhaustive history of Notre Dame football what he does best: dash myths and penetrate to systemic corruption and hypocrisy, all the while maintaining an implicit love for collegiate athletics. Using a cache of previously unexamined correspondence and athletic department files dated 1909-34, Sperber starts with the school's origins in the 1840's and continues through 1941. He attributes Notre Dame's football success in part to the independence it gained through its repeated rejection by the Western Conference and by the school's ``unique culture of athleticism.'' Included are fascinating anecdotes about the scheduling and playing of the great Michigan and Army games (the latter of which, contrary to legend, came about because the cadets had become ``pariahs'' by flouting standard eligibility rules); the ``Fighting Irish'' nickname, the fight song, the cheers, and the mascot; the making of the film ``Knute Rockne—All-American''; the Catholic school's battles with the KKK and other ``anti-papists''; and the corruption of journalists, officials, and coaches like ``Pop'' Warner, who frequently pocketed gate receipts. Sperber addresses what he calls Notre Dame's ``historic dilemma...the tension between its athletic prominence and its academic aspiration.'' Most telling is his look at the Knute Rockne myth. Sperber finds Rockne to be a man so concerned with ``the decline of American masculinity'' that he had no qualms about publicly humiliating those he saw as less than ``he-men.'' As the record and the testimony show, Rockne wasn't universally mourned when he died in that 1931 plane crash. His greatness as a coach, however, and as a football innovator, are given their just due here, though also placed in a realistic historical perspective. Quite an achievement: a monumental work of scholarship in both sports and social history. (Eight pages of photographs—not seen). Read full book review >