Onward to Victory: The Crises That Shaped College Sports
By Murray Sperber
Henry Holt and Co., $32.50
This is the most complete, entertaining and original account of the college sports scandals that rocked an unsuspecting public in the early 1950s. But this lengthy book (608 pages) is considerably more than that. It examines the mythmaking that made sports fans swallow the risible concept of the Simon-pure "student-athlete" and the fatherly, self-sacrificing coach. Gee-whiz sportswriters, juvenile-fiction authors, public-relations hucksters and even college presidents have promulgated this enduring fantasy, but the real culprit, in the view of Sperber, an English professor at Indiana, may well have been one extremely popular movie: the saccharine Knute Rockne, All American.
This film, made in 1940, created at least two legendary figures: St. Knute, as Sperber calls him (played by Pat O'Brien), and, of course, the coach's doomed star halfback, George Gipp (played by Ronald Reagan). Rockne, the movie strongly suggests, could just as easily have become a Nobel Prize-winning chemist as a football coach. Gipp, in the film's deathbed scene, is forever enshrined as the source of St. Knute's tear-jerking "win one for the Gipper" plea, a speech now equated with Pericles' funeral oration. Well, as Sperber informs us with iconoclastic zeal, Rockne's undergraduate major at Notre Dame was pharmacy, and though he was an excellent student, he never wavered from his ambition to be a coach. Gipp was a boozer extraordinaire, a womanizer and an inveterate gambler. If he imparted any last words to his old coach, they would probably have been a request to put a fiver down on some worthless nag. Nevertheless, this movie and others of similar ilk seemed to convince the public that such icons existed.
Then, in 1951, it all came crashing down with the widespread basketball point-shaving crimes and, most unsettling of all, the West Point cribbing scandals, in which 90 cadets—football players and their "student tutors"—were expelled for cheating on exams. There followed a period of disillusionment and talk of deemphasising college football, but thanks to the public-relations power of the NCAA, nothing of lasting significance ensued. The coaches emerged from these outrages virtually unscathed. Sperber gleefully skewers the pompous Red Blaik, Nat Holman, Clair Bee, Adolph Rupp and even Pop Warner, all laid bare here as, if not outright scoundrels, at least "buccaneers."
So what does all this mean for the here and now? According to Sperber, "intercollegiate athletics has never solved its systematic problems" and ridiculous sums of money are still spent on sports. Such expenditures, writes Sperber, "indicate that [colleges and universities] place a higher priority on sports than on education, and they also tell prospective students, particularly those from minority groups, that because the main chance of obtaining a free college education is through sports, they should first develop their athletic skills and then their academic ones."
Rah! Rah! Rah!