Teacher debunks college sports myth

December 09, 1990|By Ed Sherman | Ed Sherman,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Lou Holtz wrote a book. So did Bo Schembechler and Barry Switzer.

All of those books became best sellers, which says something about America's fascination with college sports.

Murray Sperber also wrote a book about college sports, which was released this fall. It hasn't become a best seller, and that's too bad.

It seems the public would rather read stories about Holtz's motivational methods or Schembechler's relationship with Woody Hayes. Switzer's book, "Bootlegger's Boy," is worth reading if only for sections on his wild and turbulent upbringing.

Sperber, though, looks into a different side of intercollegiate athletics in his book, "College Sports, Inc." The subtitle, "The Athletic Department vs. the University," gives the reader an idea where this book is going.

Sperber's book should appeal to any faculty member of a university that competes in big-time sports. Or any taxpayer who doesn't want his money to go for paying an assistant coach. Or for any fan who enjoys college football on Saturday afternoons, but who wants to watch it with some sort of conscience.

The latter group, unfortunately, is extremely rare, which probably accounts for many of the problems intercollegiate sports face today. In his book, Sperber documents many of the crises.

An associate professor in English and American studies at Indiana University, Sperber extensively details how almost two-thirds of the athletic departments operate in the red. He offers instances of how recruits with ridiculously low test scores are admitted into universities, and then how they stay there. He campaigns against a system in which hypocrisy runs rampant.

Sperber doesn't break much new ground here. Rather, his narrative is valuable for the way he compiled mounds of research, culled mainly from public-access documents and news reports. When pieced together in a restrained and coherent manner, the book provides a stunning look at the morass of problems in intercollegiate athletics.

Sperber, it should be noted, said he did not write this book from an anti-sports point of view. Quite the contrary, he played semipro basketball in France at one time. He worked as a sportswriter in Montreal covering pro soccer.

A graduate of Purdue with a doctorate from Cal-Berkeley, Sperber said, "I love college sports."

But not the way it exists under the current setup.

"As a faculty member, we're talking about a system that's failed," said Sperber, who spent four years on the project. "I just don't see how it's helping the university. The faculty really hasn't spoken. I think I represent a lot of the faculty."

The faculty member in him has much trouble with the finances of the athletic department. In an age when university funding constantly is being slashed, he can't understand how these schools can tolerate deficits in their athletic programs.

Sperber gets even angrier when payments to cover those

deficits and expenses comes from the university's general fund. Meanwhile, when a library needs to be upgraded, the money isn't always there.

"You could reform college sports tomorrow if they opened the books," Sperber said. "The public would be stunned to see where the money is going."

Naturally, as a faculty member, Sperber has trouble with salaries for coaches. He has been teaching for 20 years and has received high ratings in performance reviews. For that, Sperber says he pulls in $34,000 per year.

Meanwhile, Hoosiers basketball coach Bob Knight makes more than $100,000 from the university. Who's more valuable to the school? A professor who teaches English, or a coach who can fill up the arena?

"I didn't enter the academic profession to make money, but I didn't take a vow of poverty, either," Sperber said. "Coaches should be put on the same faculty salary lines."

Sperber tried to interview Knight for his book, but he never got close. Because he and Knight both are considered "faculty," Sperber didn't think it would be such a problem.

If Sperber had his way, the university wouldn't be paying Knight's salary. The money instead would come from a pro team.

Sperber gets radical in his conclusion. He recommends schools jettison the major sports programs and have them operate as separate businesses. The athletes would be paid, and wouldn't have to go to school.

Meanwhile, intercollegiate sports still could exist, but "as genuine student activities," not as mass entertainment. No scholarships and the athletes would have to meet the standard admission requirements.

Just a thought, he says, at a time when thoughts and ideas are desperately needed.

"A part of me is angry, but I'm more just amazed," Sperber said of intercollegiate athletics. "What saved this country for a long time was the values of higher education. Now it's deteriorating. College sports is only one part, but it's a dramatic part of it.

"I hope this book gets people to think. Any debate about college sports usually is burdened by all kinds of myths. Rather than debate at ground zero, I hope this brings the debate to a much higher level."

The state of intercollegiate athletics couldn't get much lower. The only direction it could go is up.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.