Beer and Circus
by Murray Sperber
Henry Holt & Company, $26
Sperber has been in the news lately as Bob Knight's faculty antagonist at Indiana, but Knight foes will be disappointed to discover that in this book the English and American Studies professor devotes only a few pages to indicting the former basketball coach. Sperber has much larger targets in mind, and he believes coaches such as Knight are merely symptomatic of an educational system gone haywire.
Sperber's title is a paraphrase of the Roman poet Juvenal's observation that corrupt emperors distracted their subjects from injustices by providing "bread and circus." Beer, of course, is much bigger than bread on today's college campuses. But the country's large public universities, the "Big-Time U's," in Sperber's view, are, in the Roman tradition, entertaining undergraduates with football and basketball spectacles while shortchanging them on education.
In the competition to enroll students and collect their ever-more-expensive tuition, school brochures tend to deemphasize academics in favor of the virtues of the collegiate "life style experience." Prospective students correctly interpret the phrase as meaning sports and parties.
If things continue on the same path, he predicts, it won't be long before schools in the big conferences start paying their players salaries, obliging already beleaguered athletic directors to deal with agents. If nothing else, that could bring an end to the madness.
Dancing at Halftime
by Carol Spindel
New York University Press, $21.95
In the mid-1970s civil rights activists convinced a few colleges that nicknaming their sports teams "Indians" or other names associated with Native American tribes was racist and demeaning. Some schools, notably Stanford and Dartmouth, changed to other, presumably less offensive names. The controversy reached Illinois, but the school held fast. The Illini, it was argued, celebrates a tribe of brave warriors, and the college mascot, Chief Illiniwek, represents its noble leader. Nothing demeaning there, it was said.
Spindel, who teaches creative nonfiction writing at Illinois, dispassionately explores this contention, mixing irony and history in equal proportion. Ultimately, she concludes that the story of Chief Illiniwek is based on myth, on a "fondness for a romanticized illusory past that never was, not for contemporary Native American people or culture." Yes, the use of the nickname and the chief are insulting. This is an unusual and unfailingly interesting examination of a clash of cultures.