Sperber's thesis is a tempter from the get-go: "No other American institution has experienced greater crises and scandals than big-time college sports," he writes, "and yet it has not only survived all of them but thrived. Moreover, the problems never end--and they never dent the public's and the media's love for games and their participants. Why?" He spends the next 500 pages searching for answers, and the sweep of the search is as good as the revelations themselves.
What Sperber has essentially assembled is an exhaustive, if pointed, history of college sports in the 20th century, zeroing in particularly on the 1940s and 1950s. It is a wart-filled account, carefully researched, engagingly written, thoughtfully told, and anecdotally loaded. Myths are held up to the light, and ignominy is slipped under the microscope, yet circumspection consistently wins out over sensationalism; this is not a case of accusations piling on.
The book's title comes from the Notre Dame fight song, and Sperber, fittingly, begins with the most storied of all college sports programs. He tugs relentlessly but fairly at the legends of Knute Rockne and George Gipp until they unravel, then continues yanking the seams until the whole mythic tradition frays. The Irish are far from the only culprits, though; he's especially good on the basketball scandals of the 1950s. Sperber examines the pressures and problems that accompany winning, money-making programs, from recruiting violations and academic deceits to gambling, ticket scalping, and organized cover-ups of player indiscretions. He examines the changing role of the sporting press, the hyperboles of Hollywood, and the constant need to manufacture a national heroic epic from elements more often found in sordid paperbacks. The chronicle of the dark side of college sports may not be pretty, but it certainly lights up the board. --Jeff Silverman