It's a gorgeous, late-summer day when Murray Sperber meets PW on the steps of a modest row house on a sleepy, tree-lined street in Montreal. The porch is cluttered with tools and hunks of lumber. Workmen are shuffling back and forth, doing repairs, even as Sperber and his wife, Aneta, settle in. The couple will be living here this winter while in exile from Bloomington, Ind., where Sperber has taught in the English Department at Indiana University for 29 years. He decided to take a break from campus life after going head-to-head with IU basketball coach Bob Knight last spring. Their high-profile confrontation--carried out on CNN and ESPN--made Sperber a bit of a celebrity, but it also made him a target of Indiana's die-hard sports fans. In the months since, Knight devotees have barraged the 59-year-old professor with e-mailed death threats and left ominous messages on his answering machine.
"The stuff this spring was amazing," Sperber says, as he settles into a chair in his comfortable, sunny living room. He's a lean man, dressed in running shoes and a t-shirt. "There were phone calls and such, but by far the most threatening stuff appeared on the Internet. These people began posting very threatening messages, such as 'I see dead bodies' and then my name. It took more of a toll than I thought it would."
The furor began just before the NCAA basketball tournament. Bob Knight was accused of choking one of his former players, an incident that allegedly took place in 1997. After weeks of denials and counter-accusations, a videotape of the assault aired on CNN. Sperber quickly joined the chorus of critics who called for the coach's resignation.
"It was much more unpleasant than I could have imagined," he says, laughing and shaking his head, as if still a little baffled by it all. "But I know my publishers became a lot more interested in the book because of it." The new book--Beer and Circus, published by Henry Holt--is Sperber's fourth on the subject of college athletics. Starting with College Sports, Inc. in 1990, he has established himself as a leading critic of amateur sports in America. He has documented the perennial scandals that rock this billion-dollar industry, from the players bought off by overzealous alumni to the fudged test scores for jocks who can't read.
But Sperber has also made a point of challenging what he describes as the arrogance of powerful coaches and athletic directors. "I asked once to see the financial records of the athletic department at my own university," he says. "They said no. I said, 'What do you mean? I'm a professor here.' They said no. I said, 'What about the Indiana Public Records Act?' They said, 'Get a lawyer.'"
Sperber didn't get a lawyer, but he did keep digging. For 10 years now, he has scoured Internet databases and searched the public record for any scrap of information that offers a peek behind the jock-strap curtain. In books like Shake Down the Thunder (1993) and Onward to Victory: The Crises That Shaped College Sports (1998), Sperber has traced the burgeoning flow of cash between TV networks, gamblers, beer companies, universities and coaches.
Lost in this heady mix of power and fame are the students who attend America's big universities. In Beer and Circus, Sperber argues that schools are using their sports teams--and all the associated hoopla--to hide their declining education standards. Class sizes are ballooning. Fewer professors actually spend their time teaching. Freshmen are allowed to enroll, despite the fact that they can't read or write. All of which is neatly obscured as thousands of fans flock to sports bars and shiny new stadiums for the week's big game. "What has happened for many schools," Sperber says, "is that they can't give undergraduate students much of an education. So we give them this wonderful lifestyle experience. It's essentially beer and circus. It's a party scene revolving around intercollegiate athletics."
This focus on sports as a social force--and a negative one, at that--dates back to Sperber's stint at the University of California-Berkley in the late '60s. His passions then were politics and literature. He wrote a book about the circle of intellectuals who fought in the Spanish Civil War. Their conviction that scholars and thinkers should have a voice in popular culture primed Sperber for his clash with Bob Knight. "I was interested in writers like George Orwell who were engaged in a public debate," he says. "Those were people who addressed general readers on current topics."
Sperber's own shot at an audience outside academia came when a friend, John Wright, left Oxford University Press to set up shop as an agent specializing in sports books. Sperber sent him the proposal that would evolve into College Sports, Inc. "I think to succeed in this business you need a certain amount of luck and help," Sperber says. "The important thing for me was John liking my idea and believing in it."
A decade after his first sports book hit the shelves, Sperber still bristles at the idea that he's an ivory tower academic, meddling in a game he doesn't understand. He proudly describes himself as a sports fan, who played pick-up hockey as a child here in his native Montreal, and who still listens to the ESPN radio that trickles north across the border. Sperber learned the game of basketball from New York City kids at a summer camp in Vermont. He even played a couple of years in a semi-pro basketball league in southern France.
"When I spoke up about Knight," Sperber says, "a lot of the fans just assumed that I was some pointy-headed professor who knew nothing. They said, 'Well it's obvious that Sperber's never worn a jock.' " Remembering his days in the hockey rink, he chuckles and adds: "You just learned very early, you had to fight. You would often get beat up, but if you wanted to come back the next day or keep playing, you had to fight. But it was always a fair fight. Whereas the whole fight against Knight's fans and the threats--that's really a fight between sanity and insanity."
The bout with Bob Knight comes up often in Sperber's conversation. He talks of the legendary coach with the strange sort of intimacy that grows up between enemies. He notes that they arrived at Indiana the same semester, in the fall of 1971. He finds it strange that they've never met face-to-face in all the years since. Even when denouncing one another on national television, their paths never actually crossed.
Still, Sperber has enjoyed a front row seat for Bob Knight's mercurial career. He watched in admiration as the coach racked up three national championships. Only four men in the history of NCAA Division I basketball have won more games than Knight. That's a feat Sperber respects. But then there were the fits of uncontrolled fury, the profanity, the infamous thrown chair. Sperber recalls reading headlines about fistfights and tussles and broken-hearted players transferring to other teams.
"Bob Knight is in some ways an old-fashioned power coach," he says. "He's been at the same school for 29 years. That's increasingly unusual. Other coaches who win championships--like Rick Pitino at Kentucky--they move on." In remaining at Indiana, Bob Knight has amassed a huge amount of power. Politicians court him. University presidents acknowledge his authority. The school's current athletic director has just been fired and will likely be replaced by one of Knight's former players. When former player Neil Reed came forward in the spring with his claim that he'd been assaulted and choked, Knight was glib. He joked about the incident. Only when footage of the assault was leaked were the charges taken seriously. Despite calls that Knight step down, the coach instead accepted a fine, a three-game suspension, and a "zero tolerance" policy restricting his behavior. "People in Bloomington knew about this guy from the start," Sperber says angrily. "For years, the positives outweighed the negatives."
The negatives finally overtook Bob Knight two weeks ago. Indiana freshman Kent Harvey passed the coach on campus and said, "Hey, what's up, Knight?" Angered by what he felt was Harvey's disrespectful greeting, Knight allegedly grabbed the 19-year-old by the arm and cursed at him. Days later, the University fired Knight, triggering a series of protests and near riots on campus. "I call him 'the Emperor of Indiana,' " Sperber notes. "And you know, the question is, If you've reigned as an emperor for 29 years, can you suddenly change your act? I think this incident proves he cannot."
The wrath of Knights' fans--now focused on Kent Harvey and on Indiana University president Myles Brand--is well known to Sperber.
"A Bob Knight fan called me on my office phone and said, 'I know how to find you.' " he says. "He began reading my schedule of classes. The university, to their credit, said, 'We'll put a cop in every class' and I think they were sincere. But I've been there. I was at Berkely. I've actually been in classes with police and I can tell you, it's a total distraction." Instead, Sperber chose to retreat to Montreal.
After talking for an hour, Sperber offers a tour of his new neighborhood. We find a strip of good coffee shops up on the corner. We buy a French newspaper and settle with our lattes at a sunny sidewalk table. The exiled academic looks relaxed and easy, with the controversy in Indiana half a continent away.
"I always knew I could come to Montreal," he says. "I was born less than a mile from here, you know. I'll retire here. This is my island of sanity. No one here knows about Bob Knight. No one here cares about this stuff remotely." Yet despite all the ugliness, it would be wrong to say that Sperber regrets speaking up. Or even that he dislikes his newfound celebrity. In fact, this veteran English professor has handled his fame pretty well. As the Knight affair boiled up around him, Sperber navigated the sports-talk circuit like a pro. The New York Times profiled him glowingly. The Chicago Tribune called him "a skilled self-promoter" who also "makes some sense." Sperber is in the midst of an American book tour promoting Beer and Circus, and he hopes that his deeply researched arguments will change the debate over undergraduate education. He also hopes to hold a mirror to the big research universities, showing them a world of binge drinking and high drop-out rates, where cheating is an epidemic and undergraduates care more about ESPN's Sportsnight than studying.
But Sperber is also eager to talk about his next big project: not a book, but a lawsuit that he intends to bring against the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The goal is to force universities to pay their "amateur" athletes a fair salary. "I can see an athlete going to court and saying, 'Why am I confined only to my athletic scholarship? Why can't I get market value for my services? I demand more than this.' In fact," Sperber says, "we're looking for an athlete and a lawyer even as we speak."
With many schools already losing money on their sports programs, Sperber thinks player salaries will be the final straw. Universities will be forced to cut athletic departments. True student athletes--without scholarships--will resume their place on the field. Colleges will focus once again on education and scholarship, rather than TV ratings and won-loss records. "Even within athletic departments I've had a lot of support," Sperber says. "Especially coaches in minor sports and women's sports have totally agreed with my analysis."
With Bob Knight finally gone, Sperber hopes to return to Indiana. But it's unlikely he'll be able to teach any time soon.
"I saw the student riot on television the other night," he says, referring to the outcry in Bloomington at Knight's dismissal. "As an intellectual, I was seeing my theory carried out. That riot was pure beer and circus. And yet it was my school. I was horrified that it was happening at Indiana University."
Brian Mann is a freelance writer and correspondent for North Country Public Radio, based in New York's Adirondack Mountains.