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The Man Who Stood Up to Bob Knight

Date posted: Monday, October 3, 2011

Author Murray Sperber on the problems with the NCAA, the decline of the public university, and memories of Allen Ginsberg.

Murray Sperber

Of the four books that Murray Sperber has written about college sports, Beer and Circus is his most important. It reveals a “powerful synergy” between big-time college sports and contemporary student life, relying on extensive anecdotal evidence to show how large, public universities have used football and basketball to distract undergraduates from the decreasing value of their education. This argument, never before compiled in such nuanced form, struck both the academic and the sports world. The New York Times Book Review called Beer and Circus “an admirable, timely, and profoundly disturbing work,” and Sports Illustrated named it one of the “Top 100 Sports Books of All Time.” Sperber, a tenured professor at Indiana University, became the authority on the relationship between college sports and undergraduate education.

It was around this time—spring of 2000—that Sperber appeared on CNN. He was a frequent TV guest commentator, but this occasion was not typical: a former Indiana basketball player named Neil Reed was accusing Bob Knight, his former coach, of once having choked him during practice. To anyone who knew of Knight, this was not such a shock. He had entered the American consciousness long ago, as both the brilliant coach who won three national championships and the despicable misogynist who told the journalist Connie Chung that “if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.” Knight had a history of bullying (referees, secretaries, police officers) and escaping major punishment, so during the CNN program Sperber said that if the choking allegations were true, Indiana probably wouldn’t do anything to Knight, and then he labeled him “the Emperor of Indiana.”

The comments were benign rhetoric, but the backlash was immense. Bob Knight loyalists sent Sperber chilling phone calls, such as, “If you don’t shut up, I’ll shut you up,” and took their anger onto the Internet, vilifying him on message boards and rating him #3 on the Enemy List. Sperber worked for a public institution, and his email address and upcoming teaching schedule were available online. When an anonymous caller said, “I know how to find you,” and began rattling off discussion sections of a large lecture course, Sperber felt that to teach the fall semester would be to subject his students and teaching assistants to potential danger. Thus he became, as far as anyone knows, the first professor to take a leave of absence because of harassment from sports fans.

Sperber wrote about his experience in an article for Salon, published on September 12, 2000, the day after Bob Knight was fired. Months earlier, a leaked videotape had proven the choking allegations. Indiana President Myles Brand placed Knight on a “zero-tolerance” policy, and Knight promptly violated it by grabbing a freshman student who had casually greeted him on the street. With that incident, the Knight saga ended. But he and Sperber, two contemporaries (they were born a month apart (1940) and arrived at Indiana in 1971) who had somehow never met, would always be linked.

“I’m sure Bob Knight’s name will go on my gravestone, but I think I’m okay with that,” Sperber told me. “It certainly was one of the more interesting things that happened to me.”

For many years, the idea that Sperber could become implicated in a national collegiate sports scandal was unlikely. He began his career as a literary academic, having written much of his dissertation on the works of Arthur Koestler, and then took a short break from teaching to become a soccer reporter in Canada. When he returned to Indiana, he had a deal to write a book on Orwell, but an editor told him his drafts weren’t “theoretical” enough. He had always been a sports fan, had even played semi-professional basketball in France, but it wasn’t until a drive to Florida in 1981 that he gave serious sports writing a thought.

“I stopped in a motel, and there was a hockey game on ESPN, it was the first time I had ever seen ESPN,” he said. “I looked at the TV—I grew up in Montreal, it reminded me of watching Hockey Night In Canada, but that was only on Saturday nights—and thought, ‘It’s a Tuesday night, this sports stuff is the future. It’s unstoppable.’”

Beer and Circus was published nearly twelve years ago. Hardly a week goes without an academic calling for higher education to be restructured. Most commentators also agree that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is a broken system. For some perspective on the situation, I called Murray Sperber. He retired from Indiana in 2004 (only to, four years later, begin teaching at Berkeley, his alma mater) but was still willing to talk about Beer and Circus, college sports, and, of course, Bobby Knight.


Construction: Bob Knight was fired in September of 2000, just as the fall semester started. What did you make of his dismissal? Were you surprised?

Murray Sperber: No one expected it. People suspected that he really wanted to keep the job. He had a good basketball team, and nobody thought that he would become so crazy that he’d get fired. At one point, before it happened, there was an Indiana University woman, a lawyer, who went to see him, because there were various lawsuits against him—and he was getting free legal counsel, very good legal counsel—and apparently he just went bananas when she showed up in his office, totally vilified her and swore at her. I don’t think he threw anything.


The guy gets out of the truck and says, “You’re that professor that’s on TV. I wanna congratulate you. I think Bob Knight’s the worst fucking bully in the world.”


Construction: You actually weren’t on campus at the time—you were on your forced sabbatical. But before you left, what did it feel like to be known in Indiana as the Bob Knight dissident?

Murray Sperber: It was very surreal. There was a Mexican restaurant in Bloomington, and one time my wife and I went there on a Saturday night. It was very full, and there was a high noise level. They took us to a table in the far end, so that we had to walk through the restaurant, and we became aware that the noise level kept getting lower and lower, and then it was silent. And we became aware that people were looking at us. And it was so weird. I don’t think being famous is all that it’s cracked up to be. Imagine if that happened to you all the time. It would be horrible.

Construction: Were there any people who supported your stance?

Murray Sperber: I remember this truck. My wife and I had a couple of foster kids at the time, and I was walking to Kroger with my foster daughter. This kind of beat-up truck goes by and then backs up. The guy looks at me, and it’s one of these, you know, really burly Hoosier-type guys, working class. And he gets out of the truck, and I think, “Oh shit, this guy’s gonna beat me up or say something and my poor foster daughter will hear it.” He comes up, and his hands are huge, and he sticks them out and says, “You’re that professor that’s on TV about Bob Knight. I wanna congratulate you. I think Bob Knight’s the worst fucking bully in the world. I hate bullies, and good for you for speaking up. It takes guts.”

There were other incidents like that. I’ll tell you one. I’d gone to Notre Dame to do research or something, and I was driving through Indianapolis and stopped at a cafeteria, and I always got the same thing—stuffed cabbage, potato pancake. I was sitting at a table eating, and at a nearby table there were about eight or nine guys who looked like high school basketball coaches. They were wearing their identity plaques; it was a time when that ABCD Nike basketball camp was held in downtown Indianapolis. So these guys started staring at me, and I thought, “Oh, shit, I don’t need this.” A guy stood up from the table and came over and said, “You’re Professor Sperber, aren’t you?” I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Now I don’t agree with everything you say about Bob Knight, but I do feel that you should speak up, and I’d like to shake your hand.”

I said fine, and we shook hands, and he said, “The other people at my table, we don’t want to bother you, but after you finish your dinner, can you come over? We’d like to talk to you.” I thought, “Okay, I’m probably going to catch a certain amount of shit,” but I’m always willing to talk to my critics, so after I finished eating, I went over, and it was fascinating. Everyone there, they said, “I don’t agree with what you say about college sports, that’s for sure,” and then told a story about how Bob Knight had done something outrageous, either to them or in their presence. You know the film It’s a Wonderful Life? There’s a scene where they go around and talk about all the wonderful things that Jimmy Stewart did for them. Well, this was kind of the reverse of this.

Construction: Beer and Circus came out right around the time of the saga. What was that like?


A friend of mine talked about how college sports didn’t make any sense. One of his examples was one of these early season games, where Central Florida goes to Nebraska for the payday and gets its head handed to it.


Murray Sperber: My publisher, Henry Holt, had gotten very good early reviews, a full-page review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review and a full page in the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune and various others. Henry Holt called me up one day and they said, “Murray, how would you like to go on a book tour?” I had gone on book tours forever, but it was a time when book publishers were starting to cut back on tours. They said, “We think this book’s going to do terrifically well, we’ve already booked you on various TV things, and 60 Minutes is interested.” (The interest was partly because of the Bob Knight thing, of course; I’d be naïve to think otherwise.) I remember going to New York and having a conference with them. They said, “Well, we have this twenty-nine-city tour. How do you feel about that?” And I said, “I’ve got to be able to keep my frequent flyer miles.”

Construction: The last sentence of the book has always stayed with me: “Unless the trustees, administrators, and other persons in charge of large, public research universities come to their senses, a future book title will read: Beer and Circus: How College Sports Destroyed Undergraduate Education at Big-Time U’s.” It’s a very ominous prediction. But in our recent emails, you said that your perspective on college sports has changed a bit. What do you mean by that? Do you still believe that big-time college sports are toxic? Or do you see a positive side to them?

Murray Sperber: I teach in the Graduate School of Education at Berkeley, in a program called “Cultural Study of Sport in Education,” so a lot of students are going for Master’s or Ph.D.’s, and quite a number of students have been intercollegiate athletes at the Division 1-A level. In fact, I had a guy, Chidi Iwuoma, he was a captain of the special teams for the Pittsburgh Steelers for a number of years. His shoulder is permanently disabled, and he lives in a lot of pain. But of course he had a very interesting perspective.

Construction: It’s funny that you mention him, because as a Pittsburgh native and Steelers fan, I always rooted for him and always liked him as a player.

Murray Sperber: Well, he’s a nice guy. Very modest, very shy, in a way, and he never said, “Hey, look, I was in the NFL eight years, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Only once did he . . .

A friend of mine who had been a college president came to my class and talked about how college sports didn’t make any sense—the rational argument. One of his examples was one of these early season games, where Central Florida goes to Nebraska for the payday and gets its head handed to it. My friend was decrying this, and Chidi said, “Look, if you play football at this level, you consider yourself a warrior. And, therefore, this is a challenge for you, and you’re not going to back down, and you don’t look at it, like ‘I’m being exploited.’ That doesn’t enter your head. Now, maybe it should, but the fact is, you’re a college kid playing football, you’re ready to run out the tunnel at Nebraska. And yes, you might lose, but it’s going to be a great thrill.”

At Hanover College in Indiana there was this week-long symposium for students on college sports, and the organizers invited various people. I went, and I shared a room with a guy named Derrick Ramsey, who had been the first black quarterback at Kentucky in the 1970s and then had played on the Oakland Raiders and won some Super Bowl rings with them. When I met him, he was the athletic director at Kentucky Southern, the historically black school in Frankfort. I asked him, “Is there any way to predict an outcome of an [NFL] game?” He said, “Well, only if you know the inside.” I said, “Well, what are the important factors?” and he said, “The team that’s willing to accept the most amount of pain will probably win.” He said that NFL football is so crazy that unless you’re really willing to accept it you’re not going to win.

I go to a certain number of 49er games, and I remember a late-season Saturday night December game. The 49ers were bad but the Cincinnati Bengals were not accepting any pain. They were just not interested in being tackled, being smashed, and the 49ers had a great game and won. I’ve never forgotten what Derrick Ramsey said. And I asked Chidi about that, and he said it’s absolutely right. One of his strengths as a player was that he was willing to accept a lot of pain.


The team that’s willing to accept the most amount of pain will probably win.


Construction: And now he’s a student again.

Murray Sperber: Chidi came back and finished his undergraduate degree and then went to graduate school and is working for the academic tutoring center and is a liaison between them and the football program. When he was in college, playing football was obviously the number-one priority. But he’s from an immigrant family, and they put a tremendous emphasis on education. He always knew that he would get an education, and it’s my understanding that Berkeley was more serious about getting him an education. They have a pretty good track record in that way. And I think part of what he does now is he tells athletes, “Think.” And because he wears a Super Bowl ring, he can speak to athletes in ways that you or I could never speak to athletes.

Construction: Now that a perspective like Chidi’s has made you see more of the athlete’s side, do you find yourself complicit in doublethink, the idea, appropriated from Orwell for Beer and Circus, that one can know all the shady stuff that happens in college sports but still root for a team on Saturday?

Murray Sperber: It’s easier to root for the pros because they’re being highly paid and they’re adults. They understand the pain, there’s no question about that; a guy I know very well named Michael Oriard who’s a professor at Oregon State and has written a book called Brand NFL, he explains it. He played football at Notre Dame and was a captain, and then played for the Kansas City Chiefs. He understands the pain . . . though I don’t think they understood what the concussions were all about . . . they’re just beginning to . . .

There is some doublethink. For instance, I can’t watch boxing. It’s too overtly brutal; they’re basically trying to kill each other. Pro football—you can suspend your disbelief. But college football is harder because they’re being exploited in many ways—or, you know, they’re participating in an exploitation. I wrote an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education about doublethink, how I bought season tickets to the Cal Bears. In fact, the tickets just came this week for the fall. [Laughs.] I share them with a friend of mine, go to quite a few games, root . . .

College sports is great spectacle, is great entertainment, certainly better than the pro level—the kids in college are trying really, really hard—but I have no illusions that your average college basketball player doesn’t make it to class a whole lot and is often in an easy curriculum. . . .

Jim Harbaugh, the new coach at of the 49ers, he was a quarterback at Michigan, and he said when he went there he wanted to be a history major and they wouldn’t let him; they made him be a sports management major. Michigan alumni and athletics officials don’t want you saying that; everybody at Michigan is supposed to be a great student-athlete. . . .

But no, I enjoy the spectacle, and believe me, if I were in Columbus, Ohio, where there’s not much to do, I’d go and check out the football team, although I’m a hockey fan, so I’d probably end up watching the hockey team. Of course, people there consider football a religion and this wonderful, wonderful thing.


The athletic departments know how to spend every dime that they get. You always need a bigger and better weight room, you always need a bigger and better private jet to ferry the teams around.


Construction: What do you think of the University of Texas’s $300 million deal to have its own ESPN network? That seems like a massive exploitation of college athletes.

Murray Sperber: The athletic departments know how to spend every dime that they get. You always need a bigger and better weight room, you always need a bigger and better private jet to ferry the teams around. They’ll use their imaginations, and they’ll manage. Now, they’ll probably give a million or two to the library, because it’s really good PR. Kentucky, for a number of years in the 1990s, after they had a really serious scandal where an envelope sent from Lexington to one of their recruits happened to break open and thousands of dollars of cash fell out, and Kentucky had to explain that—they gave to the library. But all that passed.

The athletic department at Texas will figure out a way. They might say, “Well, this stadium’s thirty years old—really need a new stadium.”

Construction: You really go after the athletic departments in Beer and Circus.

Murray Sperber: The athletic departments lose money, so they don’t bring in any money to the university.

Construction: But don’t the big-time sports programs help attract more undergraduates to the university?

Murray Sperber: There’s a whole body of literature on that. I’ve had the . . . I don’t want to say displeasure . . .

Twenty years ago, I wrote a book called College Sports, Inc.: The Athletic Department Vs. The University. It wasn’t the first book to talk about how much money athletic departments lose—the myth had been that they make money; my book showed how contrary to reality that was—but it came at the height of the ‘80s scandals, like the SMU one, where they got the death penalty. My publisher put a lot of money into the book, and one of the results was that reporters started doing follow-ups about their local universities losing money (and Indiana denied for a long time that it lost money before admitting it).

So, a good offense always prompts a good defense, and one of the rationales from the athletic departments was that “big-time college sports attract more students to the school, particularly when we win bowl games or the NCAA basketball tournament.” In fact, there have been studies—it’s called the “Flutie Factor”—that show that, indeed, if you do really well in big-time college sports, you get an extra crop of applicants. The admission’s office knows who these students are, because it’s all done through zip codes. If there are very few applicants from a zip code in suburban Detroit, but then the school’s teams win and there are a lot of applicants, there is a corollary there, and the logic connects.

When I was working on College Sports, Inc., I would call up admissions offices, and I would say, “Do you know who this cohort is?” and they would say, “Yes.” Then I would say, “Do they have worse, the same, or better SATs than your regular applicant?” And they would always say, “We’ll get back to you.” And they never would. It seems to me, what was happening was, when they looked at the scores, if they had been higher SATs, the admissions department would have gotten back to me that afternoon. But if they were the same, or lower—they didn’t want to admit this. So I called this cohort your “beer-and-circus contingent.”


Sports like baseball and hockey are immensely expensive. The NCAA requires that you spend millions of dollars to keep the teams running.


Construction: In College Sports, Inc., during a section about the 1984 Supreme Court decision that found the NCAA, which had tried to monopolize TV coverage of college football games, in violation of various antitrust laws, you refer to the NCAA as a “cartel.” What exactly does that mean?

Murray Sperber: A cartel acts in its own economic interest—artificially raises prices, artificially lowers salaries. There have been a number of books, including ones by economists, on this question—and I just sort of figured out some stuff for myself. But I think the main cartel thing is where you’re rigging prices, and the NCAA does that in a number of ways.

For one thing, Indiana University football needs to play a full schedule—well, whether IU should play football at all is another question—but it can’t play its schedule unless the school has 15 teams in seven sports. And most of those sports are called non-revenue, and they lose huge amounts of money, because this is in the NCAA’s self-interest. Now, you’ve got to see the way that works.

The NCAA, in its constitution, is a group of schools that come together for sports. But in fact, if you look at what it actually does, it’s a trade association. Its most influential people have been athletic directors and coaches, and what they are most interested in doing is employing as many athletic directors and coaches as possible. Therefore, if the NCAA followed rational economics, non-cartel economics, schools would be able to go to their profit base, which would be, in IU’s case, basketball. IU would go to its profit base and wouldn’t lose so much money and might even cut out football.

Sports like baseball and hockey are immensely expensive, and most athletic departments don’t break even, most lose millions of dollars per year. The NCAA requires that you spend those millions of dollars to keep the teams running, even at a time where running schools is rough. Will schools finally say to the NCAA, “Hey, look, we’re losing money on college sports. We’ve got to get control of it, and you’ve got to change these minimum requirements for sports and stop acting like a cartel”?

The other way that it acts like a cartel is, it artificially sets wages. When I buy my Cal Bear tickets, I don’t want to see Jeff Tedford, even though he’s making $2.5 million per year, I want to see DeSean Jackson. How much money did DeSean Jackson get from Berkeley? Zero. In a fair labor market, you pay what this particular person can deliver. DeSean Jackson should have gotten paid quite a bit of money from Berkeley, right? But the cartel says, “No, we don’t pay the athletes anything.”

Construction: But if athletes were paid, they wouldn’t be “student-athletes,” they would be professionals. How do you get around this? Or do you think the way to do it is to just pay college athletes?

Murray Sperber: That brings up a whole other question, and I basically think that college sports should be changed profoundly. Maybe they should be professionalized. Like my argument in Beer and Circus: you’ve got to rethink this whole model, and maybe if you hired athletes on staff positions, gave them four-year contracts, and—since, like at IU, staff people can take classes for a fee—told them, “If you want to take a course or two you’re welcome to it. We don’t encourage it, because you’re going to play sports full-time, but after your athletic career is over, if you want to come back and get a degree, we’ll guarantee it.” I mean, there are various ways this could be structured.

Construction: A model like this could be helpful for college athletes, given how a lot of them, even those who play football and basketball, don’t make a living at the professional level.

Murray Sperber: Right, and the professional football career is something like 2.1 years (which is part of the argument about how dangerous concussions are). Many athletes after their careers are over would like to come back and get a degree and focus on going to school . . . Some of the female athletes realize that there’s no money in the pros. A lot of the males, certainly in football and basketball, see big-time college sports as minor league training for the NFL or the NBA. And it’s been my experience—and I have a student doing a Ph.D. on this—that female athletes are more concerned with getting their degree, and part of the reason is that they have no illusions about making a large amount of money from their sport, so they value their free education more.


Most graduate students today have writing problems, particularly if they’ve gone to public universities.


Construction: Do you think that it’s now impossible for all but the most serious students at the Big-Time U’s to get a good education?

Murray Sperber: Well, you know, just this year a number of studies came out, and in one . . . it’s a book published by the University of Chicago . . . I’m blocking on their names . . .

Construction: Academically Adrift. Arum and Roksa. I just looked it up.

Murray Sperber: Yeah, there you go. In a sense, the authors prove Beer and Circus; they track college students and show how little learning goes on and how devoted students seem to be to beer-and-circus. Now, one of my criticisms of their research concerns writing. They equate good writing—a good writing education, I should say—with the quantities of papers. They said students often wrote less than twenty pages per semester. Obviously writing a lot helps, but the key is quality. I’m studying graduate students, and often they say they wrote over a hundred pages per semester. But the next question is, Describe the comments put on your paper. And very often they’ll say the instructor put a grade at the end and wrote “Really good paper” or something like that. That’s my only quibble with Academically Adrift. But the rest of it seems to prove what I said. . . .

But one thing I learned that is really interesting and rather fascinating: most graduate students today have writing problems, particularly if they’ve gone to public universities.

Construction: Why is that?

Murray Sperber: The public university has neglected basic composition. There’s an article I wrote about this. Basically, you need someone to line edit your work. Private schools can still do it. I have a guy who played basketball at one of the Pomona schools in Southern California, McKenna, and he can write fine. I have a guy from Rice who was great, same with a guy from Hamilton College and from Carlton College in Minnesota.

Construction: All people from small schools.

Murray Sperber: Some students are shocked at this level. You know, they get into Berkeley for graduate school, and then somebody like me gives back their first paper. It’s all marked up, and I say, “Look, this doesn’t make any sense, I just can’t understand what you’re trying to say here.” This was particularly true when I taught graduate courses at Indiana. Often the graduate students would have some basic writing problems, and they would be very pissed off at the criticism.

Construction: Why do you think students have these problems?

Murray Sperber: Well, the nature of how writing is taught has changed. I mean, when I went to grade school and high school and Purdue, it was grammar-based. You did sentences—noun, verb, object, adjective, adverb, and all of that. In the 1960s, high schools shifted to what’s called “holistic” writing, where you grasp the whole sentence, in a sense, and, supposedly, if the students do it enough, they’ll learn how to do it intelligently. But it’s kind of hit-and-miss. How did you learn how to write?

Construction: Repetition, passion. But I had a very similar experience, where in my first graduate class I handed in a paper that my teacher really marked up and pointed out good things but also pointed out the bad things.

Murray Sperber: Yeah, I’m glad to hear that. Even when it’s sometimes hard, I always start with the good things, and I tell tutors to do this. Don’t be a smart-ass, don’t be snide, work with the student. And what you just told me is an illustration—that’s how you learn to write.

But here’s what’s really interesting. The students who were former athletes take the class and are really good at handling criticism. Athletes have been so criticized, but because they’ve worked with coaches, they’re willing to work with you more than English majors who are in graduate school.


The whole dumb jock rap is basically not true.


Construction: These are points from Beer and Circus, that athletes become some of the best students once they don’t have to practice all the time.

Murray Sperber: The whole dumb jock rap is basically not true, certainly not in my research. I have met some athletes that clearly just did not belong in university, but by and large they’re people who could have gotten in on their own, only they got in on athletic scholarships. They’re often exhausted from training forty or fifty hours per week, and then if they’re taking a serious major, they’re full-time students. It’s very hard to balance that. But indeed, often after their athletic careers are over, either through injury or using up their ineligibility, they’re terrific students.

Construction: Beer and Circus reveals a lot of unflattering things about students at large, public universities, but you taught at one for thirty-three years. What did you think about the students at Indiana?

Murray Sperber: My students at Indiana were very interesting.

Construction: What do you mean?

Murray Sperber: I did a lot of research at Notre Dame, did a book-and-a-half about the history, and knew a lot of the faculty there, and spent a lot of time there, and the school sort of approached me about whether I’d like to teach there, and I’d done classes for people or visited in classes . . .

The average ND student, for instance, is a good student who does the homework and does the assignments and is motivated, because to get into Notre Dame’s pretty tough . . . but just was not very interesting. Whereas at IU you would get this huge range of students, poor students from the region, students from inner-city Indianapolis or suburbs, but even the suburban tended to be interesting, and totally unmotivated, but that was an interesting challenge, trying to engage them in courses and such.

Construction: Did you ever have other offers?

Murray Sperber: Over the years I had offers from various places. You give a lecture, you do an informal interview—getting hired in universities is a very complicated process that’s getting more complicated. Brown was interested in me, and I felt that this was a terrible fit for me.

Construction: Why?

Murray Sperber: Well, because I went to Purdue, I went to Berkeley, I taught at IU, so it’s all public institutions, and I believe deeply in them. If you’re on the faculty there at Brown, you’re supposed to bow down and say, “How lucky I am to be at an Ivy League school!” and I could never do that. [Laughs.] Obviously.

Construction: How close did you come to going elsewhere?

Murray Sperber: The one job I almost took, I was offered a really good senior professorship at the University of Iowa. That’s a school a lot like IU—it’s UI instead of IU—suburban Chicago Jewish kids, plenty of them, very high drinking rates, lot of beer-and-circus, and I just didn’t take it.

Construction: So why teach again, now at Berkeley, especially since you retired?

Murray Sperber: I’d gone to Berkeley as a graduate student—my wife’s from Oakland—and we retuned to the San Francisco Bay area. I was fortunate enough to get a position there. It’s interesting, I’m on one-year contracts. I’ve gone from the world of full professor and tenure to visiting professor. There’s a certain insecurity, although they’re very happy with my work. It’s the real world of academia. Tenured professors are kind of shrinking in numbers, less than 30 percent of all college teachers; tenure may even be gone in another generation or so. . . .

But I’m teaching in a building where I had class many years ago as a student.


Ginsberg would say, “Drop out of graduate school. Tell ‘em you’re queer, tell ‘em you’re a homo, that’s what I did.”


Construction: I imagine you saw some interesting things as a graduate student at Berkeley in the ‘60s.

Murray Sperber: I have a few Allen Ginsberg run-in stories. I guess I’ve never written them down.

Construction: Well, I’ll tell you, I’d love to hear them.

Murray Sperber: Well, all right. Let me just think about the chronology. [Pauses.] Okay. Ginsberg came to San Francisco in the 1950s and was part of the Beat Generation and lived in a part of the city called North Beach. And he also, for a brief period, was a graduate student of English at Berkeley, and just couldn’t handle the academic thing or just wasn’t used to it. Actually, he worked in an advertising agency for a period in San Francisco, but he became one of the few people in America who could make a living from writing poetry at that time, especially one of the people not connected with a university.

So I lived in Berkeley, and my wife and I moved to San Francisco, to a street near Buena Vista Park in the Haight. It was a very run-down neighborhood, which is why young people like us moved there. That apartment had about six beautiful old rooms, wood floors, and you could see the Golden Gate Bridge. We paid all of $95 a month. I commuted to Berkeley. It was the time of the Vietnam War, and you had to stay in graduate school—you were either drafted or, in my case, since I was a Canadian citizen, I would have had to leave the country.

Anyway, the Free Speech Movement happened, and Ginsberg sort of came around. He kind of recognized me by sight and knew that I was a graduate student in English. And a couple of times when I met him in the street in the Haight, he would say, “Drop out of graduate school.” And I would say, “Well, Allen, I can’t, there’s a war going on.” And he’d say, “Tell ‘em you’re”—he wouldn’t say gay because that word wasn’t used—“tell ‘em you’re queer, tell ‘em you’re a homo, that’s what I did.” And of course, if you were a homosexual and you went before your draft board for the draft induction and said you were a homosexual, you were immediately thrown out.

The funniest story takes place outside a Safeway, the big California grocery chain. I used to shop there. I had a sheep dog with hair over her eyes, a very sweet dog named Phoebe. One day I went to Safeway and tied her up outside. I did my shopping and came back, and sitting on the pavement doing Tibetan chants with those little bells where you put one on each finger was Ginsberg. Phoebe was jumping around, because she wanted to get released from being tied up, and Allen looked at me and said, “She’s the twenty-third reincarnation of . . .” and he named a Tibetan monk or something. So I said, “Well, that’s, um . . . well, Allen, I’ve got to go home, I’ve got to eat.” And he just sat there and kept chanting.

I told the story to my wife and friends from Berkeley, but what was interesting about it was that nobody thought this was a totally weird experience. This was sort of the way life was at that time, with Allen Ginsberg and other people—because there were other people sitting on the ground chanting, too—and you went about your business and they went about theirs.

Construction: It was, as you said, an interesting time.

Murray Sperber: I’ll tell you something else. It’s about music. A friend of mine from graduate school named Peter Sharkey was the kind of guy who always had various angles going, was always on the edge of things. You know the Woody Allen movie Zelig, about the fictional person who somehow appears in photos with the Pope, somehow he knows everybody? Peter Sharkey sort of was like that. He knew Bill Graham, the great rock promoter of the ‘60s who started the Fillmore. I didn’t know anybody who knew Bill Graham, but Sharkey did, and so my wife and I used to go because we’d get in free. And this one night . . . well, I’ve got to preface this story.

One time, when I was Indiana, this guy from the Folklore Department called me up and said, “I’m doing a dissertation about rock bands in the 1960s, and I understand you were there and I would like to talk to you.” And because it was somebody who didn’t want to talk about college sports, I said I’d talk. When he came, I said, “You’ve got to give me your thesis before I answer your question.” He said his thesis was that the rock groups in Berkeley were highly political, whereas the ones in San Francisco were free, and then he said, “What do you think?”

And I said, “I don’t think it’s correct,” in the sense that one of the most political bands was Country Joe and the Fish, which was a Berkeley band, but “Country Joe” McDonald lived in his parents garage in Berkeley, that’s why they were a Berkeley band. Back then, there was no place for these bands to play. For instance, my wife saw what became the Jefferson Airplane in a tiny, tiny little club in San Francisco, and they were a garage band in Daly City. So the San Francisco rock bands had to play in a park, mainly in the Haight. There was this area called the Panhandle, and that’s where they played—for free, outdoors. Nobody was going to pay them anything; they would pass the hat.

Anyway, this one particular time that my wife and I went to the Fillmore, it happened that it was the first time the Grateful Dead played there. How that came about, I didn’t really even connect. I didn’t really even know the band. It was before the Internet, so all you’d have were hand bells or posters. So the folklore student is asking me about the first appearance of the Grateful Dead. I said, “Yeah, I was there, I remember it,” and he lit up—it turned out he was a Dead Head—and said, “What happened?” And I said, “I went home.” And he said, “You went home?” And I said, “Yeah,” because I had a German translation exam the next day and I wanted to go home and look at flash cards. And he looked at me and said, “Let me get this straight, you went home the first time the Grateful Dead played the Fillmore?” And I went, “Yeah, and I gotta tell you, I wasn’t overly impressed.” There was no way you could tell that this was going to become the great cult band. And he just couldn’t believe that someone could do such a thing . . . it was the most sacrilegious thing he had ever heard. It was as if I had been at the Sermon on the Mount and split before Jesus finished.

But, you know, what it really showed me was that you can live through momentous events in history and not even realize it. I mean, when I first heard the Grateful Dead, I couldn’t . . . there was no way! . . . they weren’t that good, I can assure you. And they were not instantly hailed as a great rock band; it took them many years on the road, many years of plugging into the whole drug scene and such, and also improving as a band, and they just hung in there. Moby Grape was a much better band, but because the main guy ended up living in a box on a street in Seattle, the band disintegrated. And this guy interviewing me had this idea that I should have know that the Grateful Dead playing the Fillmore was this huge thing and that I was a lesser person for not knowing it.

I knew San Francisco in the ‘60s was unusual, although it was my great hope, as it was most people’s, that the world would become much more open and free and hip, and of course that was a foolish thought. And then there started to be the stuff about wearing a flower in your hair, the Summer of Love, and it quickly became very self-conscious.

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[pinit]


Nathan Schiller is a founding editor of Construction magazine.

View all posts by Nathan Schiller →


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3 Comments

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    […] a funny Allen Ginsberg story from the ‘60s, scroll to the end of an interview with Murray […]

  2. In Conversation with Joan Acocella | CONSTRUCTIONMarch 31, 2012 at 10:27 amReply

    […] The Man Who Stood Up to Bob Knight: Author Murray Sperber on the problems with the NCAA, the decline of the public university, and memories of Allen Ginsberg. From the Assassination of Sadat to the Birth of Brooklyn’s Empire: Steve Hindy talks about his time as an AP War Correspondent in Egypt, his run-in with the mob, and the creation of the Brooklyn Brewery. […]

  3. In Conversation with Joan Acocella | LitMagJune 17, 2012 at 10:03 amReply

    […] The Man Who Stood Up to Bob Knight: Author Murray Sperber on the problems with the NCAA, the decline of the public university, and memories of Allen Ginsberg. From the Assassination of Sadat to the Birth of Brooklyn’s Empire: Steve Hindy talks about his time as an AP War Correspondent in Egypt, his run-in with the mob, and the creation of the Brooklyn Brewery. […]

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