BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Murray Sperber, author of "Beer and Circus," where'd you get that
Professor MURRAY SPERBER, AUTHOR, "BEER AND CIRCUS: HOW BIG-TIME COLLEGE SPORTS IS CRIPPLING UNDERGRADUATE EDUCATION": Well, there's a line
in Latin literature. A poet juvenile said that Roman emperors, to
distract the populous from their policies, gave them cheap daily bread
and the circus maximus. And about 10 years ago I was driving in
Bloomington on a Saturday morning, it was a football Saturday and
happened to go by the stadium and the parking lots were filled with
tailgaters and such. I was with my wife. But across the road there
are these student apartment complexes and there were beer kegs on
lawns and many students drunk already and such. And my wife, who went
to a very different school--she went to Berkeley--said, `What's going
on here?' And I said, `It's beer and circus.'
And this was something that I'd thought about a lot. For my own
undergraduate experiences at Purdue, where I had freshman English in a
class of 15 taught by a full faculty member and faculty were very
accessible, I now was teaching at--in a class of 150 students so I
couldn't begin to teach them to read and write at the level that I was
taught at a very similar university, to Indiana.
And I worried about the decline of undergraduate education. I'd also
seen--I'm very interested in sports. 1979, ESPN started; college
sports exploded in popularity. It used to be a weekend activity. It
became an every night thing for many students. And the main sponsors
of college sports were the beer companies and they began to target
college students in the '80s. The Spuds McKenzie campaign was one of
their great successes.
And so these things started to come together in the '90s and it seemed
to me these large public research universities, that in the '70s had
poured billions into research and chashing--chasing the procedure--the
prestige of research, had neglected undergraduate education but they
still desperately needed tuition dollars. And so what they were
giving their students, in many ways, was beer and circus, this kind of
party scene, much of it surrounding big-time college sports. So I
came to write the book.
LAMB: How much of the research money comes from the taxpayer?
Prof. SPERBER: Well, that's interesting. I mean, very, very little.
I mean, when I started at Indiana University in 1971, the state
Legislature was giving about 70 percent of the state--of the school's
budget for everything, including research, and this is true across the
country. It was quite high. But in the 1970s, partly in revolt
to--taxpayers did not like the protests of the '60s, but also I think
the rise of Ronald Reagan, who made much of his career against higher
education. I mean, I was in the California system in the '60s and saw
that. And I think it dropped to the point where now in Indiana
something like--the public universities receive 21 percent of their
budget from the state Legislature, including the research.
Other states it's in the teens. California it's been in the single
digits. So at the very time that they began to privilege research and
chase after it--when I was at Purdue, faculty taught four courses a
semester. In the '70s, it changed to two courses. Faculty were hired
and are very much hired these days to do research, not to teach
undergraduates. That--I've had many faculty tell me that gets in the
way of their research.
And you're certainly promoted, you're given tenure, your salary is
very much pegged to your research. I cannot remember at my school, as
well as--I've asked at many other schools, when a faculty member
received tenure as outstanding in teaching alone. They can be
outstanding in research as well as outstanding in teaching, but
teaching alone. People just shake their heads and say, `No, I can't
LAMB: How long have you taught at Indiana University?
Prof. SPERBER: 1971 I came there.
LAMB: And what--on a given--any given semester, how much do you
Prof. SPERBER: Well, I teach two courses. In a year of--my four
courses is a typical load. I do a large lecture class. You do an
undergraduate class of 25 or so. Another undergraduate class of
around 30 and then a seminar--a graduate seminar.
Now, I--for many years I've taught only undergraduate courses. I
felt--in the late '70s, when my PhD students weren't getting jobs--one
literally was driving a New York taxi, I just felt that this was
immoral to continue with these huge graduate programs. And now my
department has finally slimmed down and cut way back on this. But
many other schools, many other English departments, other departments,
still love their research prestige and their research imperative. So
many faculty try to teach as many graduate courses as possible to get
out of the undergraduate ones. So, I'm an exception in this business.
LAMB: What book is this for you?
Prof. SPERBER: This is my fourth book about college sports, although
I did three previous books that were academic books.
LAMB: When did you start the college sports books and why?
Prof. SPERBER: Well, in 1980 I had a sabbatical from Indiana
University and I went to Montreal, Canada, where I'm from originally.
And I was starting to write a book about Orwell--I had a contract and
such--and the phone rang and it was an fold friend of mine who is a
sportswriter who said, `Molson Beer just bought a professional soccer
And it was a time of the North American Soccer League with Pele
and--at the Cosmos in New York and such. And, `We got a call,' my
friend said, `from this weekly American soccer magazine called Soccer
America. They want somebody to cover this team who can write in
English, speak French, and knows somebody--something about soccer.'
And between graduate school at Berkeley and going to Indiana in 1971 I
had spent two years in France and I had played semi-professional
basketball there. And the town owned the team. And the soccer team
was right next door, and being a sort of sports fan I became
interested in soccer and I went to games and such and my friend knew
And so I called up Soccer America and they said, `Well, there's an
exhibition game against the Cosmos. Go cover it. File your story.
If we don't like it, we'll give you a kill fee. If we do, you're
hired.' And I got hired. And it fulfilled a childhood dream in some
ways being a sportswriter. And I did that for a number of years.
Indiana was more than happy for me to take a leave of absence because
it was when the baby boom had ended, so there was a huge
underenrollment of undergraduates. And so any faculty that would take
a leave without pay was more than appreciated. So I did that for
three years, although--then the soccer league folded and my wife and I
had young children at that point and I really missed teaching. I
missed university life.
I think being a sportswriter is for a young person. It's not for
somebody--I already was approaching my 40s. And so I went back to
universities but I was still interested in college sports. And I had
been in English literature before that and I decided to change to
American studies and study college sports. And I also freelanced and
kept up part-time with Soccer America.
And I began hearing from soccer coaches about the waste,
mismanagement, sometimes fraud in athletic department. And I thought,
`Well, this is an interesting story,' and I asked my athletic
department if I could see their financial books and they said no. And
I said, `Wait, the Indiana Public Records Act allows me.' They said,
`Hire a lawyer. It's your shallow pockets vs. our deep pockets.' And
I asked Illinois, I asked Purdue, my alma mater, and they stonewalled.
And the more they stonewalled, I decided there had to be a great story
here. And one of my heroes when I was young was I.F. Stone, the
great writer, who said--Izzy Stone always said, `Everything you want
to know is on the public record. You've just got to know where to
find it.' And he was a genius at that. He would have loved the
database age we live in. And so, I did a book about the finances of
college sports called "College Sports Inc." and that was quite
successful and I decided I would do that full time, essentially, for
LAMB: Did you ever get to see those records or--the accounting at
Indiana and Purdue?
Prof. SPERBER: I eventually saw the Indiana records after the book
came out. I've had many reporters call me up and I've steered them to
other records, and The Indianapolis Star looked at the Purdue ones.
And most athletic departments lose money, by the way. That's why they
want to, you know, keep that quiet and such. But various
newspapers--USA Today, over the years, has done very good research on
LAMB: Now you went to Berkeley and Purdue and now teach at Indiana.
How big are those three schools today?
Prof. SPERBER: Well, Berkeley must be well over 30,000; Indiana is;
I think--Purdue is probably approaching 30,000 at this--now they were
much smaller. When I was at Purdue, I believe it was 14,000,
something like that. Berkeley was smaller. When I started Indiana,
it was smaller and I think that's one of the problems at these
schools, that they're just enormous and you begin as a freshman with
these huge lecture classes. It can be very, very difficult for you.
LAMB: This book, "Beer and Circus," comes at a time, as you well
know, that your well-known basketball coach, Bobby Knight, was fired.
Prof. SPERBER: Right. Right.
LAMB: When--when you were at IU--I--I don't know it well, but I know
you must have written about him and must have been outspoken.
Prof. SPERBER: Right.
LAMB: First of all, do you have tenure at IU?
Prof. SPERBER: I do, indeed.
LAMB: If you did not have tenure, could you say what you've been
saying about all this at your own school?
Prof. SPERBER: No. No. I had--I should say I got tenure in 1980,
which allowed me to switch fields in my research and such. And I
should say IU has a great tradition of respecting tenure. I mean,
it's the school of Alfred Kinsey, the pioneer of s--sex researcher and
it's my understanding that the state Legislature wanted to fire him in
the 1950s because they were so outraged about what he was writing
about. The president of IU at that time, a man named Herman B.
Wells, who died recently actually, did not like Kinsey, did not like
his work, but said if Indiana University is to be a real university,
it has to respect Professor Kinsey's ten--tenure and freedom of speech
and such. And that's been true. I've spoken out about college sports
for over 10 years now and have criticized Indiana University and
pointed out when it lost money and such. Now I did not really enter
the Knight controversy till this year. I had commented about him but
it was really this year--I was on the original CNNSI report that
exposed him choking the player, Neil Reid, and such. And the next day
he held a press conference on ESPN. This was in the middle of March.
And he denounced everybody who spoke on that program.
All that I had said basically is there's--there were two sets of rules
at Indiana University. One for every faculty member and staff member
who had authority over students and no set of rules for Bob Knight.
And I called him the Emperor of Indiana. And he denounced everybody
who had been on that program, all the players and me and such. And
that was a signal to his fans to, you know, send me vilifying e-mails
and such. And this escalated through the spring to the point where
they dis--they could not fine Neil Reid, the player who was chocked,
nor an--former assistant coach named Ron Felling, who Knight had fired
in December and who allegedly gave the tape of Reid being choked to
And that was really the smoking gun in this whole saga. But they
could fine me 'cause I work for a public institution. And they also
discovered on the Indiana Web site--it listed my fall classes. And as
every professor, it's your name, the room, the day of the week, the
time you're going to teach, and they downloaded that and said, `Let's
invade Sperber's classes and such.' And I saw that and there were
other threats. And I went to my boss and I said, `I just can't teach
under these circumstances.' And now the university said we'd put a cop
in every class and I said, `I've been there. You know, I went to
Berkeley in the '60s. I actually was in a class with a policeman.
And I can tell you it's very distracting.'
But more to the point, since one of my courses was this freshman
course, there could be a discussion section with a graduate
student--young graduate student, and 25 freshmen and one of these
lunatics comes flying through the door and, you know, I'm responsible
for that. And I said, `You could put a cop in the class but say a
freshman calls home and tells their parents there's a cop in my
class.' I know my daughter was a freshman in college a number of years
ago gra--and if she had called home, I'd be on the phone so fast to
the university that--so they agreed that I should take a leave and
that's what I'm on now. Now I--planning to go back to teaching in
January at IU.
LAMB: For those who'd never watched sports and had never heard of
Prof. SPERBER: Right.
LAMB: ...what's the controversy?
Prof. SPERBER: The controversy really is how important is college
sports to a university? And throughout this whole thing, I stayed on
message, as they say in Washington. I just said, `A college sports
scandal or a controversy should never overshadow the academic purpose
of a university.' I kept s--keep seeing--saying that in the book.
And, unfortunately, this was a situation where Bob Knight had become a
culture hero in Indiana in many ways. And many people saw--not
Indiana University but Bob Knight University. And to the outside
world, this was making us look ridiculous. And...
LAMB: How long was he there?
Prof. SPERBER: He was there the same amount of t--he came the exact
same time I did, 29 years ago, in 1971.
LAMB: What was he able to do that you weren't able to do?
Prof. SPERBER: Well, he won three national championships in
LAMB: No. But I mean, what was it that he was able to violate that
Prof. SPERBER: Right.
LAMB: ...wouldn't be able to violate?
Prof. SPERBER: Well, on the CNNSI thing, they showed the player,
Neil Reid, choking--accusing Knight of choking him. They showed other
players talking about various incidents in the locker room, that
Knight had acted very improperly. And I was sitting in a classroom in
Valentine Hall, where I worked, it was an empty classroom, and the CNN
announcer asked me, `Well, if you did these things in this classroom,
what would happen to you?' And I said, `I'd be suspended in all
pro--by the time I got back to my office on the fourth floor, there'd
be tenure hearings, probably. And it's very hard to lose ten--your
tenure, but this would be, certainly if the allegations about choking
were proven true, I would lose my tenure. I would be fired.' And
because the videotape showed that Knight indeed choked Reid, I think
that finally moved the university to--in May, to consider firing him
and then finally to imposing some rules upon him. And that's
what--and apparently he would not live by these rules called zero
tolerance. And a number of weeks ago in September, early September,
Myles Brand, the president, fired Knight.
But I think the controversy--well, Knight had brought lots of
positives to Indiana University. He had won national championships.
He had run clean programs in a very corrupt sport. He had also
graduated a majority of his players. Now his fans and he say 98
percent but that's by doing the statistics in a totally aberrant way.
The NCAA says lower 60s. That's higher than most other coaches. And
I guess his fans saw him as a culture hero, that he represented
values, he claims to represent discipline, although he's one of the
least disciplined persons I've ever observed and--in his behavior
publicly as well as privately. And--but they saw him as representing
traditional values and bringing fame and fortune to the state of
Indiana and such and they felt this was much more important than the
reputation of Indiana University as an academic institution or
anything like that.
I felt quite the opposite, very deeply. You know, we--we're not in
the commercial entertainment business. We are in higher education.
We should address those problems. Unfortunately, this became a huge
distraction for the university.
LAMB: In your book, "Beer and Circus," how did you organize it and
what will people get?
Prof. SPERBER: Well, I organized it chronologically in the sense
that I start with the 1970s and I start with the research imperative
of the university. I also discuss the film "Animal House," which, as
a cultural document, is terribly important in that each generation of
students defines itself differently from the previous one. And the
previous ones had been very politically active and such. And in what
I call a failure of imagination, many late '70s students embraced the
film "Animal House" and embraced the kind of culture of drinking and
such that it glorified.
So I moved through the '70s and the '80s and do it chronologically.
There is a long section about the research university and its ills.
And also the rise of "Beer and Circus." There's a section called
College Light, less educationally filling. And then I bring it to the
present and talk about how schools are marketing beer and circus very
consciously. If you remember in the fall, there was a controversy at
the University of Wisconsin where in their admissions brochures, they
had shown a number of students at a football game and through
Photoshop they changed the race of one of the students to show
I'm not interested in that question so much as how schools are using
this in their marketing, and certainly to a high school senior in the
state of Wisconsin or surrounding states, they're well aware that Camp
Randall Stadium in Madison, the football stadium, is one of the great
alcohol-soaked venues in America. So come to Wisconsin for beer and
circus. They didn't show you in this brochure any of the huge lecture
halls that you're going to endure or anything like that. So I really
feel that schools have taken a horrible turn when they start using
this as their main marketing tool.
LAMB: You say there are four cultures in schools: collegiate,
academic, vocational and rebel.
Prof. SPERBER: Right.
LAMB: Are those cultures that you invented or...
Prof. SPERBER: No. No, there was--it's interesting. Most
sociologists have not studied undergraduate student life. Most
academics were academic and were most concerned about school and were
not interested in the other subcultures, particularly the collegiate
one, which was the rah-rah, party scene and such. But in the late
1950s, early '60s, a number of sociologists at Berkeley became very
interested in that, in part, because Berkeley really represented all
of these cultures and it was a kind of hot bed of college activity.
And so these sociologists really defined these cultures and I brought
it up to date and used it.
LAMB: Collegiate culture, who's in that?
Prof. SPERBER: Well, it tends to be fraternity and sorority members,
students who love college sports, who want their degrees but are not
particularly engaged with the intellectual aspects of the university
LAMB: You were active in a fraternity at Purdue.
Prof. SPERBER: Right. I was--I was very collegiate. I not only was
active, I was president of my fraternity.
LAMB: What was it?
Prof. SPERBER: Tau epsilon phi, which later disappeared through a
horrible incident. But it was a couple years after I graduated. And
I was vice president of the Interfraternity Council, but it was an age
where faculty had enough time to look at students and in my case see
beyond the crew cut and the fraternity pin and see somebody who was
interested in books. And I had some wonderful English professors at
Purdue, the people who started modern fiction studies. And they
prepared me for graduate school and the hardest graduate school in
English in the country at--Berkeley. So I received a wonderful
education there, despite the institution in many ways. And it could
not be replicated, unfortunately.
LAMB: The second category of the cultures is academic. What did they
Prof. SPERBER: Right.
LAMB: And--and how many--by--first of all, how many of the school are
in the collegiate group?
Prof. SPERBER: Well, certainly these large public universities have
huge contingents. I know in my research at Indiana University I would
say about 50 percent. Now one of the things that's changed from when
the research was originally done, which at that point it was very hard
to move between cultures. I was fortunate that I could move from
collegiate to academic. Now I--I have a chapter near the end of the
book called Student Mix and Match, where it's much easier for students
to move certainly between the collegiate and the vocational and rebel
cultures which we'll talk about in a minute. But--and students can
beg--begin in one culture, move to another their next year and so
forth. So the lines are breaking down as the national culture breaks
LAMB: Academic culture, who belongs?
Prof. SPERBER: Well, future professors, by and large. And certainly
at a school like Indiana, I'd say about--only about 10 percent of the
undergraduates. Other schools like Swarthmore, University of Chicago,
obviously, have much higher percentages of academically oriented
students. One of the problems of large research universities is the
faculty tends to come out of the academic culture and academic schools
and have little sympathy or understanding for the collegiate
subculture there. I mean, in my department, I can only think
of--there are many faculty who went to Amherst, Ivy League schools and
all this, but I only have one colleague that I can think of who went
to a large public university like I did. He--he went to LSU and--but
this is, you know, very typical of academic departments in public
LAMB: Who is in the vocational culture?
Prof. SPERBER: Well, those are the students who have to work.
Traditionally, you see them at urban schools, people who are working
full time and have to fit in school in the evening, at odd hours, on
the weekends and such. And a residential campus, like Indiana
University at Bloomington, does not have that high a percentage,
although as tuition rises, more and more students have to work part
time to go to school. Indianapolis--at Indianapolis, there's a campus
of--combined of Purdue and Indiana called IUPUI that's mainly
But one of the things in my research I discovered is that the athletes
are vocational students. If you're on an athletic scholarship, you're
on a contract, a one-year renewable contract. And you are in very
intensive training programs; 30, 40, sometimes 50 hours a week. And
you cannot take courses in the afternoon because you have practice and
various other things. And you're often tired. In fact, over the
years I've encountered very few dumb jocks. What I've encountered are
physically and mentally exhausted athletes who academically
underachieve the same way vocational students academically
underachieve. Typically, a vocational student will ask you the first
day of class, `What do I need to do to get a B in this course?' And,
you know, a professor who is an academic finally, wants to hear
something like, `What will I learn in this course' or something.
But, voca--I have sympathy with vocational students. You know, they
have very difficult lives. And, in fact, I'd much rather teach them
and the athletes. The athletes, by the way, after their eligibility
is over, either through four years or injury, are often wonderful
students because the discipline that they've learned in athletics they
can apply to academics. I'd much rather teach them than my collegiate
beer-drinking students who are never there on Fridays, Mondays are
lost, Thursday afternoons are gone and such and they never get with
the academic program. So in some ways I a--I very much admire the
LAMB: The rebel category.
Prof. SPERBER: Well, that's a kind of minority these days. Of
course, in the '60s, they, at some campuses, were dominant and there
are still some schools, like Sarah Lawrence for instance, that has a
fair number of politically active, environmentally conscious students.
Often they're students who are interested in parts of the academic
program. I've long taught a course called 1950s Youth Culture, an
American studies-type course.
And part of the curriculum is on the Beat Generation. So I have a
fair number of rebel students in there. Although at Indiana
University, I would think far less than 10 percent are rebel students.
And these students want to know all about the Beats, who were original
students at Columbia. In many ways, they invented the modern form,
Ginsberg and Kerouac. And these students will turn on to the Beat
stuff and such, but they'll disappear for other parts of the course.
And they've long been in American higher education. They're often by
far the most interesting type students and--but certainly at a campus
like Indiana or these large public research universities, they're
often a minority and--tiny minority and they'll drop out. Bloomington
has an--a very large music scene. They'll join that and such, but
they're often by far the most interesting type students.
LAMB: What's wrong with someone paying a place--called a
university--money and coming to that university and loving sports and
living sports and drinking--as you say, the binge drinking and all
that and getting the grades an--and getting out? What's--what's wrong
Prof. SPERBER: Well, let's talk about the grades. Let's start at
the back and move forward. Yes, they can get A's. There's been huge
grade inflation. I have a chapter called The Faculty/Student
Nonaggression Pact. If you're paid to do research as a faculty
member, you're--and that's where the rewards are. There are no
rewards in undergraduate teaching. It's taking your time, and you
want to get through it as quickly as possible. It's a lot easier to
give a student an A than a B or a C or, God forbid, a D or an F.
You're inviting lawsuits if you go down that road, even though the
student might deserve it.
So, indeed, many students get high grades and get their degrees and
think they've learned something, but I really question it. I've had
many seniors in my classes who really could not read or write at a
college level. I've seen this nationally. One of the proposals I
have at the end of the book is before a student receives a degree from
an accredited university, he or she should take the Graduate Record
Exam. This is the equivalent of--it's done by the SAT people for
college seniors who want to go on to graduate school. And they should
achieve a minimum score. This is much less culturally biased than the
SAT. It's an excellent exam. I took it myself.
And--but I've said this to college presidents and administrators, and
they just roll their eyes 'cause, you know, the emperor has no
clothes; they know that if they subjected all their degree candidates
to the GRE, it--many of--many of them would not receive that degree.
So, in that sense, schools are very much shortchanging students.
I think, you know, as far as the drinking and the rooting for the
teams and such, the Harvard School of Public Health has done wonderful
research on student drinking, and they don't divide schools between
schools where students drink and don't drink. I mean, the only
co--stone cold, sober school in America probably is Brigham Young.
They--the Harvard people talk about high-binge schools and low-binge
And their characteristics for high binge, as well as my own research
and other people, are schools where students take these huge lecture
classes, become--many become academically alienated from that whole
process, but these schools have huge college sports programs, and
students love them and there's a very large party scene around it.
Sports bars line the campuses, and there's a kind of nightly drinking
scene for many students as well as a huge weekend scene.
Low-binge schools tend to be schools where the students go to class
during the week, are not academically alienated, but on the weekend,
party. And my daughter goes to Rice University, so a school--a
low-binge school that I've observed quite a bit over the last couple
of years, and the students seem attached to their studies. But on the
weekends, there's no question they party. Now the Rice Owls are not a
winning sports tradition, although they play at the highest level, but
they have things like Beer Bike and various other things.
So my ambition, actually, is very modest. I would like schools to
move from high binge to low binge, to start focusing on undergraduate
education, start giving their students a--a meaningful education and
degree, and ratchet down the college sports programs, ratchet down
the--the binge drinking. I mean, binge drinking is a very serious
problem in America that only gets reported when a student actually
dies, but you'd better believe it continues.
And one of the horrible parts of it is from the time I was in college
and even in the '70s, women now drink much more than ever before. And
one of the--now the role of women now in America has changed. I know
I have many female students who drink something called Long Island
iced tea. I mean, it sounds very innocuous and such, but it is a very
potent drink. And so this has become a kind of national epidemic, and
schools just don't want to address it. What they do--their lawyers
have told the campus police to move it out of the fraternity houses,
move it off campus to avoid legal liability. But they don't care
about the off-campus scene, particularly. In fact, that's what
attracts many students to their schools.
LAMB: I--I don't mean to beat this drum, but what--what's wrong,
again, with somebody who wants to spend their money and come to a
college and binge drink and spend their life talking about sports?
And if the colleges are letting them get the grades, and there's grade
inflation, who's to blame in all this?
Prof. SPERBER: Well...
LAMB: I mean, what's wrong with it?
Prof. SPERBER: ...it's a free society. I agree, if you want to
spend your money that way. Just don't call it higher education
because it's not higher than anything. I mean, you know, why not
encourage these people or set up a situation where these people really
can't make it in the school? I had fraternity brothers who
essentially binge-drunk their way out of Purdue, and, you know,
there's plenty of neighborhood bars and sports bars where, if that's
what you want to do--consume your life drinking and watching
sports--in fact, you can do it better now than ever before in our
LAMB: OK. Let me just go a step further. This is the country that
everybody wants to be like because it does so well, it's financially
Prof. SPERBER: Right.
LAMB: Again, why do you want to change things if we're really
the--the idol of everybody's eye?
Prof. SPERBER: Well, we're not the idol in higher education. In
fact, as a Canadian, I'm very aware of the fact there's no other
higher-education system in the world, for instance, that gives
athletic scholarships; that sees itself as providing minor-league
training not only in basketball and football, which are an historic
role in this country, but now in baseball and hockey and any number of
For instance, I called up the National Hockey League office a number
of years ago, and I said, `How many players in the NHL played Canadian
college hockey?' Because a huge number of Canadians played American
college hockey and play in the NHL. And they eventually found one
player who had not gone into the pro system or the American college
system as a young--as an 18-year-old. He had been undersized and had
played a year at the University of Calgary and then went in the pro
But in Europe, you want to be a soccer player, you don't go to
university. You--it's a whole different system. And so I don't think
they want that. For one thing, I spent the summer in Montreal to get
away from the whole Knight thing, and in Quebec, the system is you go
three years to high school, two years to junior college and three
years to university, and as a result, because everybody goes to junior
college, it doesn't have the stigma it has in this country; it
corrects the remedial problems that universities are burdened with
because the high schools are turning out people who can't read or
write in many--at--at a decent level; and then it also gives terminal
degrees. And if you want to go to university, you're much better
prepared. But nowhere in the university system are they giving
athletic scholarships and such.
Now the UN does these studies of the literacy and numeracy level of
populations and such. Canada comes first. The United States is
something like 13th. So the rest of the world wants to imitate lots
of American things, but it does not want to imitate--I don't see any
country making a move to institute athletic scholarships, big-time
college sports in universities and the panoply of problems that come
LAMB: Again, going back to your position, does it--does it feel
lonely out there?
Prof. SPERBER: It does. Certainly at Indiana University, it felt
very lonely criticizing Bob Knight.
LAMB: But your--your fellow professors seemed to like the research
Prof. SPERBER: Yeah. Fortunately, my own university is still o--so
obsessed with Bob Knight that they haven't really focused on my book.
Now I have started to get heat from people who very much condemn what
I'm saying and say don't I realize that this is the triumph of
American higher education and such. And in my proposals, I say, yes,
keep the research for--well, really turn it into the European model,
more of institutes--if private corporations want to fund institutes
and such--but separate it from undergraduate education. Don't burden
undergraduate education with it, as--as is now done.
LAMB: Who funded your research?
Prof. SPERBER: My publisher, Henry Holt. I applied for grants over
the years, and nobody wanted to give grants to somebody investigating
college sports or investigating these problems. And essentially the
advances from my publisher funded my research, so I thank Henry Holt
LAMB: And how did you do your research?
Prof. SPERBER: I did it a number of ways. For this book, I read
deeply in the history of higher education, as well as college sports.
I also read a lot of the sociology. I worked with some people and
designed my own survey. And I went to a great number of schools, I
handed it out in classes, I went to places like student unions and
handed it out. And then, because my wife is a computer whiz, I put it
up on the Web. And after it was all over, I received over 1,900
And I found students were quite wonderful. Students really are aware
of what's going on. And if an adult approaches them and, in a neutral
way, wants to talk to them, say, `I'm not going to use your name.
This is a survey,' and such, they will open up. I mean, it seems to
me the highlight of the book are the student comments. They had
stories in there that were just brilliant.
And I remember--I have a section about Penn--about spring break. And
a student at Penn State had written in the comment section on my Web
survey--the question was, `After you leave the school, what will you
remember most about it?' And--or, `What will you most remember about
your time here?' And he talked about spring break and really showed me
that here was a very movable concept for colleges. They're talking
about their collegiate subculture that moves away. But he said what
he would remember most was the spring breaks and being at different
motels and hotels in Florida and in Texas and going out on the
balcony--and generally you go out on a hotel balcony it's deserted,
but you'd go out at spring break and it was just filled with screaming
And that was his most vivid memory of college. And I thought, you
know, that--that was such a memorable comment, you know. You couldn't
begin to get that if you didn't listen to the students.
LAMB: I have something that just because it's in the Washington area
I wanted to read to you and--and have you put it in context. You
probably don't even know about it. Thi--this is an important notice.
Prof. SPERBER: Right.
LAMB: University of Maryland. And this was on wi--the windshield
of--of people in the parking lots. It says, `Please remind
faculty'--no, it actually was given to--I think it was given to the
students, but anyway, `Please remind faculty that on September the
28th the campus will be hosting the Florida State game and parking
will be an important issue for students attending campus. We are
warning faculty who have a class at 3 PM or later of this issue so
they cam make alternate arrangements and include it in the fall
syllabi.' And the warning is, `Get your--get your vehicles out of the
parking lots at 3:00 on a Thursday afternoon.'
Prof. SPERBER: Right. Right.
LAMB: And this goes with this letter, `Dear permit holder, as you may
already know, on Thursday, September the 28th, at 8 PM, the University
of Maryland football team will play Florida State at Byrd Stadium.
This Atlantic Coast Conference game will be televised by ESPN.'
Prof. SPERBER: Right.
LAMB: Thursday night. They had--some of these professors had to
Prof. SPERBER: Right.
LAMB: ...because there was no place to park. I just ask you, how
often did this go on and why?
Prof. SPERBER: It--it goes on increasingly often. It's--athletic
departments love the TV dollars, and Maryland historically has lost
money on college sports and is chasing every dollar it can find. And
ESPN has to fill up 24 hours of sports. It--when it started, it took
college basketball from a weekend activity and put it on an every
night activity. In fact, this year, for the first time, there's
Sunday night college basketball. The ACC has gone to Sunday night.
You'll probably see Maryland on there. But this idea of
Thursday--first it was Friday football, then Thursday football.
Within the decade, you will see Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday football.
And, of course, you're going to have, at Maryland, for the Florida
State game, huge numbers of fans. Florida State being a
winning--being a national champion, attracts huge numbers of fans.
And, indeed, professors will have to call off classes, students won't
be there. Some Maryland students, because it's partly a vocational
school, where people commute from Washington, just won't go that day.
Other students will start the parties early, because there's a big
fraternity-sorority system there. But it's really a perfect example
of beer and circus.
LAMB: When you did your survey, did you put it--the results back on
Prof. SPERBER: Unfortunately, I didn't because Knight's fans
discovered the survey and so trashed it that I took it down. But I
should hopefully--if all this will die down and Mr. Knight will move
on, I'll--I'll put it back on on the Web.
LAMB: Have you ever met him, by the way?
Prof. SPERBER: No. In 29 years, I never met him. But it's not a
story about Bob Knight and me. It's really a story about big-time
LAMB: I realize, but I wanted to know what it feels like. I mean,
you're--you're talking about, you know, hiding up in Canada...
Prof. SPERBER: Right.
LAMB: ...and you're--you're on a sabbatical this--this year and all
Prof. SPERBER: Right.
LAMB: Is--is it all worth it?
Prof. SPERBER: Well, you know, the best description of what it--it
feels like--I--I--I could never figure it out for myself, and I had
lunch this summer with a young faculty member who had come to Indiana
from another school that was a very open school. And he said, `You
know, coming to the school was like coming into a dysfunctional
family.' At the head of the family was Bob Knight, you know, this very
abusive person, although I--he--other people in the family saw him as
a breadwinner, because he had brought fame and fortune to Indiana
University. And normally rational people would make excuses for his
behavior. And he said it was just this weirdest thing. And I said to
him, `Well, what was--what's my role in this whole thing?' And he
said, `You're the crazy uncle who goes around mumbling the truth, but
nobody wants to listen.' And so I--when I think about it, that was
really the role and the isolation and such.
And I know it became very hard for my wife, who's a very private
person. And certainly this spring at the height of the controversy
and this--and before going to Montreal, she stopped using her credit
card because people would see the name `Sperber,' and they would say,
`Are you related to Murray Sperber,' and they--if they were Knight
fans they would yell at her. Now, fortunately, many people would say,
you know, `I really respect what your husband's doing,' and such, but
she just felt she didn't need that when she's going to buy the
groceries at Krogers and such, and other things. So, in that sense,
it was very isolating. But college towns can become that way.
LAMB: What do you think is at work here? I mean, you're just one
person saying the guy ought to go or whatever.
Prof. SPERBER: Right.
LAMB: Why did they just--why don't they just ignore you? Why do they
get so bent out of shape?
Prof. SPERBER: Yeah. I--I guess I--I never understood that. And
the same with my criticisms of college sports. I mean, they're huge
and vast, and they've got this huge machine and I'm like the guy in
front of the tank in Tiananmen Square. You know, it's--they--they've
got the tank and I've just got the pea shooter of the book. And so
I--I guess I've never understood why it bothers them so much. I think
there's something in the sports mentality--and particularly Bob Knight
is called the general and he is a perfectionist. The idea that you're
either on the team if you work for a university or you're opposed to
it and have to be silenced, I think many faculty did not speak up
because they see Indiana University as a team, and it certainly wasn't
in their interest to speak up. And so, in that way, the sports
mentality laps over.
And my first book was "College Sports, Inc.: The Athletic Department
Vs. the University." I'm thinking of doing a book called `College
Sports, Mega Inc: The Athletic Department is the University,' because
increasingly that kind of corporate mentality is taking over the
university. I know President Brand wrote in the paper when I
took--when--my taking a leave because of the threats to my teaching
became public, and defending my freedom of speech, but he wrote that
many, many alumni had written him and said, `How can you let this guy
Sperber speak up? If he worked for my corporation, you better believe
he'd be quiet or he'd be out the door.' So, in that sense, it really
poses very interesting problems about freedom of speech and freedom of
research and where the American university is going. And
un--unfortunately, it is increasingly going to this corporate model.
LAMB: Would you do this again?
Prof. SPERBER: The book or the...
LAMB: All this criticism and take on Bobby Knight and the--the sports
Prof. SPERBER: I gu--I gu--I--people ask me that all the time and I
think you don't live your life that way. And--in the sense that at
each step, at each crossroads, it seemed to me the logical thing to
do. One of the reasons I spoke up this year is in January, ESPN asked
me to be on a program about Bobby Bowden, the Florida State coach, in
the hour before the championship game between Florida State and
Virginia Tech. And I had some negative things to say about him, as
well as some positive, and received lots of nasty e-mails from Florida
State people. But then CNNSI comes along and said, `We want you to
speak up about Bob Knight,' it's--or could just comment. `We're not
going to tell you what to say. Just comment.' And it seemed to me,
because I'm a well-known critic of college sports and had spoken about
Bobby Bowden, I couldn't take a pass about Bobby Knight, because he's
the coach at my school. It just did not--so at that point--so that's
why I chose to do that. And so I never think would I do it again. I
'cause I can't go ba--back in the time machine and change it.
LAMB: Now if you had to do it over again, would you join a fraternity
based on what you know today?
Prof. SPERBER: Sure. Because the alternative at Purdue was living
in these very horrible dorms, and--and the fraternity was a much more
human experience. Some of those people are--are lifelong friends.
And some are lifelong enemies. So--so, yeah. No, I mean again,
in--in retrospect, that was the choice at that time. In the same way
when I graduated from Purdue I had a choice of going to law school or
the University of California at Berkeley and English. I chose
English. I have never regretted that for a minute of my life.
LAMB: But knowing what you know now, and you've written about these
big schools and all the sports, would you go back to a Purdue again?
Prof. SPERBER: Yes, I would. I deeply believe in public education.
I mean, I've been asked a lot would I go to a private university,
because I talk about in the book how they are doing, by and large, a
much better job of undergraduate education. And Purdue transformed
me. It changed my life. The University of California at Berkeley
changed me even more. My wife grew up in a poor family in Oakland,
California, and went to Berkeley. It was free then, by the way and it
was free for me. So I really deeply believe in public education. The
best thing for me at Indiana University in 29 years are the students,
and you get students from small rural communities in Indiana, from
large cities who don't know how smart they are and are lost. And you
can--I really felt that I'd made an impact in their lives. One of the
few positive things with this whole Knight business is I received lots
of e-mails from former students who said, `I just want to tell you, I
really appreciated your taking time when you were a teacher teaching
me and such.' And so, yeah--no, I absolutely believe in public
education and for me to leave it would make no sense.
LAMB: What do you think of the honors programs at schools?
Prof. SPERBER: Well, they were the key to proving how bad
undergraduate education is. I mean, it was sort of--I was--I did my
research. I truly believe it was in terrible shape. But how can you
prove it? Because you'd--I'd call up universities and they'd--I'd ask
them about undergraduate education and they would say, `Oh, it's
great. It's fabulous.'
And it happened I was in DC and I was at the Crown bookstore on Dupont
Circle, and they have a very good education sess--section because of
all the associations across the street. And I saw this book,
"Peterson's Guide to Honors Programs," and what it does is it--it
reproduces their literature, basically. And I started reading it.
And I got out my pen and I started underlining. I sat on one of those
stools, and a clerk came over to me and said, `Sir, you are going to
buy that book, aren't you?' And I said, `Not only am I going to buy
that book, I would pay 10 times your face--your list price for that
book,' because it was the key that opened the door. In their own
words--Maryland, for instance--they say, `Come to our honors
program'--they're competing against private schools for those
students--`and in it you'll take small classes taught by full faculty
as opposed to--regular Maryland students are going to take huge
lecture classes often taught by graduate students,' and all of this.
So, in their own words I was able to prove the neglect of
I remember the University of Oregon said, `Our honors program will
teach you such fundamental skills as reading and writing.' And I
thought, `Wait a second. You mean the regular classes won't teach
those fundamental skills?' I guess that's what they're saying. It's
in their own words. So in that sense, the honors programs helped me.
Now what I actually think about them--as a strong advocate of public
universities, I have always refused to teach in the honors program at
Indiana. That seems to me a kind of easy way out. A lot of faculty
love it because they can actually do some of their research with the
honors students. But it's a much greater challenge to me to teach
regular undergraduates, as I was at Purdue. Purdue didn't have an
honors program at that point, and--nor did most schools. And, you
know, just--I don't feel they belong in public universities. I think
it's a way of schools avoiding their problems with undergraduate
LAMB: This may not be a fair question, but do your books sell?
Prof. SPERBER: They do. I seem to--there seems to be an audience
for that. And I notice on Amazon.com this book's been in triple
digits, which is quite good. And I did a book about the history of
Notre Dame football that sold exceptionally well. And, yeah, they
sell quite well.
LAMB: In your research--and you say you went to 40 different schools
in your research?
Prof. SPERBER: Right.
LAMB: Who's--who--which university was the most friendly and said,
`Come on in, you can look at everything?'
Prof. SPERBER: Actually, Stanford University was, and it's a private
school. Notre Dame was. Historically, people have a terrific
misconception about Notre Dame, they're hostile to the outside world.
Quite the opposite. They are totally professional. They let me go
wherever I want and talk to whoever I wanted. No-holds-barred.
LAMB: Who was the least friendly?
Prof. SPERBER: Probab--well--well, it--it's hard to say. There are
schools that just said, `Don't come here.' Syracuse University was not
interested in me going there. I did--I had some Web surveys done...
LAMB: Just said, `Don't come'?
Prof. SPERBER: They said--no, they didn't say, `Don't come.' They
just--from their--you know, `We're very busy. You know, we--we're
doing our own research on these topics. And, you know, we'll get back
to you,' sort of thing.
LAMB: In the brief time we have left, how much of this do you blame
on somebody like CBS and an 11-year contract with the National
Collegiate Athletic Association? And how much is it worth?
Prof. SPERBER: $6 billion. Not $6 million, $6 billion. I blame a
lot--well, they're doing--you know, they're in the TV business. I
blame universities and the NCAA for taking the money in the sense--and
not admitting. This is not a--that's not $6 billion as a contribution
to higher education. That's payment for a product, and the product
the schools have to turn out is, in this case, college basketball
played at the highest possible level, which means putting players in
these very intensive training programs, making it difficult for them
to get a meaningful education, and also pretending--the NCAA and
schools have this whole propaganda machine about student athletes, and
they show you that thing at halftime and all of that and pretending
that this is a wonderful system, this $6 billion helps higher
education enormously. What it does is it distorts public opinion.
I've--I do a certain amount of speaking at Kiwanis Clubs and Rotary
Clubs and such, and meet ordinary people, and they truly--they see
those numbers and the bold numbers and they truly believe that the
money from college sports funds other parts of the university. The
Bob Knight fans constantly said don't I realize my salary as an
English professor is paid by the athletic department from its profits?
That is totally false. So in a sense, it hurts the universities in
all kinds of ways.
LAMB: OK. How many of these coaches make $1 million a year?
Prof. SPERBER: Oh, gee, at this point I'd say about 40 are
approaching it in basketball and football or...
LAMB: Who pays for that?
Prof. SPERBER: Essentially the university. Now part of it is the
deals with the shoe contracts and such. But Nike does not pay a coach
because they love some middle-aged fat coach. They want that team to
win, and the Nike swoosh is very visible on TV. They want fans to
look in and see the players are wearing their product. So when they
pay a coach hundreds of thousands of dollars, essentially that's money
that should go to the school, but doesn't, and goes to the coach. So
it's--it's a very distorted system, but unfortunately increasing
numbers of faculty look at that and say, `Hey, I should be an
entrepreneur like the coach.'
LAMB: Will we see you back in the Indiana University English
Prof. SPERBER: Well, I'm planning to be back in January, although
the problem is the Knight thing doesn't seem to end. The fans don't
give up. They're--you look at their Web sites, and there's this
fantasy that the trustees are going to fire Brand or a judge will
intervene and do it and bring Bob Knight back. And until they
actually give up--I believe until he is coaching at another school, IU
cannot move past it.
LAMB: Who--do you have a champion out there now, somebody in public
education who is leading to change things?
Prof. SPERBER: Well, there's a group of faculty that's organized
that I'm a member of called NAFCAR, National Alliance for Collegiate
Athletic Reform, that has a number of prominent faculty members across
the country that we're going to--we spoke at the Knight commission
hearings on October 18th in Washington, and, you know, they're--that's
funded by the Knight-Ridder Foundation, and they investigated college
sports 10 years ago--Father Hesberg of Notre Dame and Bill Friday,
chancellor of the caro--North Carolina system are co-chairs. And
they're interested in our ideas. Now whether it can have an effect or
not remains to be seen.
LAMB: Our guest has been Murray Sperber, and he is the author of this
book "Beer and Circus: How Big-time College Sports Is Crippling
Undergraduate Education." Thank you very much.
Prof. SPERBER: Thank you.
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