Debunking Sports Myths The Gipper, for one, was a big boozer and a gambler

November 30, 1998

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!

--Ron Fimrite

COLOR PHOTO: HENRY HOLT AND CO. [Cover of book Onward to Victory by Murray Sperber]

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