An Accidental Sportswriter: A Memoir
By Robert Lipsyte
246 pp. $25.99
The Athletic Revolution
By Jack Scott
Free Press, 1971
Unlike so many Americans, longtime New York Times sportswriter Robert Lipsyte never wanted to be a jock. He has his reasons. As his memoir An Accidental Sportswriter shows, since growing up pudgy, academically gifted and mercilessly teased in late 1940s and early 1950s Queens, Lipsyte understood athletics as the place where bully coaches and athletes ruled, and where being different, thinking different or looking different meant exclusion and ridicule. So, over 40 years of columns, features and beat reports covering and in some cases befriending athletes ranging from Joe DiMaggio to Greg Louganis, Lipsyte consistently spoke in the voice of the contrarian, the view of the bullied, a doubter of athletic mythologies. In that, Lipsyte mostly succeeded. It wasn’t always pretty, and was rarely appreciated.
This is principally because America loves her sports heroes more than nearly anyone else. It’s not at all surprising that our political leaders are so often jocks and would-be jocks. Guys like Lipsyte, who appear to have a bone to pick with even our most sacrosanct icons, insist on shining a light on manipulation, hypocrisy and bullying in athletics. That they are often right doesn’t make them any more popular. Sports stars and the games they rule over remain cherished, even after the exposés run. Many times it’s not the fallen hero who receives the brunt of public disgust, but is rather the exposer of bad behavior, the writer and raker of muck, who gets a cold reception. After all, it’s much easier to hate a faceless scribe than to accept the failings of a beloved star.
The whole concept what really constitutes an American sports hero is the central question in An Accidental Sportswriter. The personalities that interest Lipsyte the most, and thus who fill his memoir are not just the glorious and the decorated, although most of his subjects very much were. Instead, they are athletes who broke from the norm, who lived individual and often highly public lives, but who thought for themselves and acted accordingly. They are radical questioners, troublemakers and anti-hero heroes. There’s jock worship here, yes, but in Lipsyte’s telling it’s not about their athletic achievements as much as about their inner strength in the face of opposition from the status quo. Consequently, the subjects of An Accidental Sportswriter are a mix of well-known cultural icons like Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King and the less known or the mostly forgotten like Jack Scott and Billy Bean. In choosing to champion the underdog, the misfit, the wrench in the massive gears of what Lipsyte dubbed SportsWorld – and what we now know as Jock Culture — Lipsyte gets to tell his story and the misfit stories of the sports figures he covered all at once.
It’s a bit ironic then that it’s actually Yankee legend Mickey Mantle that earns the book’s first tale of Lipsyte’s sportswriting career. Mantle, we understand now, was a colossally flawed and tormented man. But in his heyday he was an avatar of sports mythology, a hero to many millions of people, and he was never any sort of counterculture figure. Being that Lipsyte isn’t interested in another book of insider tales of locker room hijinks, his story of his first introduction to Mantle is a telling one, a rather troubling if not all that unbelievable display of the often two-faced nature of star athletes. After Mantle spits a crude dismissal of the then-22-year-old writer’s question and then proceeds to intimidate him by whizzing baseballs inches past his skull, Lipsyte doesn’t just let it go:
I didn’t want to admit to myself I had been bullied, that I was once again a junior high school victim … it was painful to realize that it was all too close to the feelings that women have when they are sexually harassed and made to feel it was their fault… (p. 35-36)
In hindsight, we learned that Mantle, while otherworldly gifted in athletics, was unimpressively human. But exposing base humanity in jocks isn’t Lipsyte’s point. What’s most remarkable about this tale isn’t that Mantle is a bad guy, or even a jock acting badly, but rather that he is Mickey Mantle acting badly. As Lipsyte writes, “I had heard such words before, but never from an American hero.”
This is part of why making heroes out of sports stars is so often problematic. We project onto them our own needs, morals and desired attributes. Just because someone can dunk a basketball or hit a baseball 450 feet or clear a hurdle at superhuman speed doesn’t mean he or she is a kind or a grounded person. In fact, it doesn’t mean that he or she is anything other than supremely athletically gifted. The more we know about our sports heroes, the less we usually like most of them. Most of this is due not to them being bad people, though some certainly are: it is due to our own inaccurate projections onto what are essentially normal human beings.
As Lipsyte put it, here in regards to reconsidering his original anger at Mantle’s behavior, “Mickey was Mickey. The sports media that godded him up were the guilty parties. I had covered plenty of heroes in those twenty-three years, even come to admire a few … But I knew they were humanly flawed and that totally embracing or rejecting a hero was silly.”
But if we simply allow that sports stars unnaturally hold our affections and suffer from our faulty projections, the really interesting ones are the prominent sports figures that haven’t been shy about letting us know who they really are and what they really believe, response be damned. The largest and most important example of this is arguably the most recognized athlete of the 20th century — and the one with the healthiest ego — Muhammad Ali.
Lipsyte actually owes much of his own climb up the journalistic ladder to Ali, or at least to his own good fortune in getting to cover what would become one of the seminal events in boxing history: Ali-Liston I. Nearly everyone expected the fearsome champion, Sonny Liston, to mop the floor with the flamboyant but untested Cassius Clay. So much so that the New York Times regular boxing reporter wasn’t even sent to cover the bout, assuming it wouldn’t be worth his time. The Times decided instead to send as his replacement Lipsyte, then a green feature writer just happy to be there. As Lipsyte appropriately begins his tale of Ali awe, “The first time I ever saw [Clay], I was standing with the Beatles.”
How Lipsyte comes to see Ali, and thus what we are here privy to, is only partially the magnificent caricature he was to the rest of the world. From Lipsyte’s proximity to Ali we learn more about how Ali came to be so controversial. Of course, Ali was unafraid of criticism, and even welcomed it. Ali’s real genius was his ability to know what buttons to push and when, how to feed into the larger than life persona of Muhammad Ali. But Ali also had personal convictions and bravery that went beyond simply making money and enjoying being famous.
Asked about what responsibility he had to act like a champion while courting the Nation of Islam, Ali replied, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be, I’m free to be who I want.” While petulantly immature on the one hand, the statement is refreshingly honest and intelligent mostly because it’s true.
Ali wasn’t a saint, far from it. Like Mantle, we ultimately learn that Ali at his worst moments is just another jock who retreats facilely into the old trappings of Jock Culture – homophobia, racism, sexism, philandering and meaningless bravado. Unlike Mantle, however, Ali had real substance and wasn’t afraid to show it. Ali at his most interesting was the protégé of Malcolm X and the draft dodger, not just the heavyweight with the big mouth. Inconsistent? Sure, but never empty.
Unlike Mantle, though, the real tragedy of Ali isn’t that he was at some basic level just an inconsistent man. It’s rather that the Ali type – willingly controversial, self-assured, unafraid to be radical – is so utterly foreign to us now. One of the more confounding elements of three decades’ unfettered growth of sports is that while athletes have grown even more prominent, their images and branding more ubiquitous and their payouts ever more fantastically large, their desire to be critical, to be abnormal in any meaningful public way, has seemingly diminished accordingly.
Sports as an entity has evolved from a peripheral, if popular, pastime into a central pillar of our social existence. Yet even as it’s become more a part of our daily lives, and we’ve gotten more and more serious about it, Sports itself has actually gotten less political. Our political leaders are usually jocks themselves or try to be. Even the guys who’ve run for president and lost made a point to display their jock bona fides; although it’s likely windsurfing has seen its last presidential campaign. But those aren’t political motivations as much as attempts to mingle sports mythology with the ballot box. Because most everyone, athletically inclined or not, has likely at some point wished he or she was a jock.
How much so? In just a couple of generations we went from jock friendly to downright jock obsessed. Total revenue from the sports industry has skyrocketed, well into the hundreds of billions of dollars. Likewise, the clout and media penetration of today’s athletic stars have also ballooned. More high school students play organized sports than ever before  . Each weekend, millions of ordinary people transform into athletes themselves, especially and increasingly Baby Boomers. During the 1990s, sports injuries among Boomers rose 33% and in 1998 alone, those injuries amounted to roughly $18.7 billion in health care costs . Even those who can’t or choose not to experience the thrill of running down a sideline have discovered ever more available ways to join in on the fun, most prominently with fantasy sports, a cottage industry whose estimated participants now exceed 32 million people and whose financial imprint surpasses $4 billion annually . Collectively, we hunger to worship and feel a part of Jock World, from the White House to the house down the block. It’s our outlet, our oasis, our life away from life; indeed it is our fantasy existence.
Even as our consumption of sports continues unabated, the players themselves shrink, shying away from being anything more than an athlete. For many, it’s a simple financial calculation, for a few something subtler in internalizing how athletes are supposed to act. Too many athletes have mastered the art of the insipid interview, spouting platitudes about teammates and humility before walking away to whatever they really do with their lives. Too few prominent athletes are willing to risk their endorsement dollars, much less their careers, for the sake of potentially objectionable public stances. Logically, what’s the upside for them? As the Godfather of all brand-athletes himself, Michael Jordan, was reported to have said when declining to endorse a black Democrat running against Strom Thurmond: “Republicans buy shoes, too.”
Jordan himself was and is, in many ways, the archetype for the modern athlete-brand. His own profile while flying in for a dunk is now his corporate logo. ‘Mike’ made his image synonymous with sneakers and fast food, and his public image never waded into politics or human rights or anything beyond corporate flogging. Jordan’s career-long affiliation with Nike has been notoriously devoid of mention of either the shoe giant’s oft-questioned overseas working conditions or his own role in enriching himself by outfitting a generation of inner city kids in massively overpriced athletic gear while providing little to nothing in the way of reciprocal support.
There is of course no obligation for athletes to be activists, or to even be, as Charles Barkley once noted (in an advertisement no less) “role models.” That so very few ever choose to be anything but corporate spokesmen is depressingly uninteresting.
Like Ali, there was a time when other athletes were willing to step into the limelight with unpopular stances. Wilt Chamberlain supported Richard Nixon and decried the Black Panthers. Arthur Ashe and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar put their reputations on the line for causes they believed in. Even Bill “Spaceman” Lee ruffled feathers as a leftist lefty hurler in 1970s Boston by full throating on the hot-button issue of busing.
A few of the most radical athletes even sought a fight within their own world. In his memoir, Lipsyte admits a soft spot for the leaders of the movement to reform the institution of athletics, or The Athletic Revolution as it came to be known – figures like Rich Lapchick, Harry Edwards, Jack Scott and Dave Meggyesy. Like Lipsyte, they saw athletics as fundamentally oppressive and unduly rigid. Unlike the outsider Lipsyte, these were all athletes or former athletes making the charges. They were also revolutionaries bent on reforming or blowing up the system.
Among these figures, Scott stands out as a singular example of a bygone era. Scott’s flamboyance and flair for the dramatic statement led to a brief notoriety – even earning negative mention by then-Vice President Spiro Agnew – and his intentionally inflammatory rhetoric was a perfect avenue to get his message, and himself, front and center.
“The conservative, militaristic nature of intercollegiate athletics as dictated by the NCAA and its supporters has made sport one of the most reactionary enterprises in our society,” Scott wrote in his landmark 1971 book The Athletic Revolution. Other sections decry the prevalence of violence by coaches and of the arbitrary nature of discipline within a team. In an era where crew cuts outnumbered goatees in locker rooms, this was heavy stuff. Scott’s views, and those of his contemporaries, on the empowerment of athletes and the inherent sadism and oppression of the existing sports culture were landmark, and highly controversial.
Whether one agreed with his premises or not, there was no doubting what Scott’s take was. It’s almost impossible to imagine now someone like Jack Scott coming from within the athletic community. Scott was a radical and very much relished the role, down to the beret. Scott was someone bent not only on challenging the system, but also upon altering it beyond all current recognition. And he lived his life as an extension of that desire for real change.
Scott’s run of prominence was short but prolific. Hired as liberal Oberlin College’s athletic director, he set into motion structural changes that were unheard of at the time, and he paved the way for such landmark changes in athletics as Title XI. Even the grand poobah of television sports journalism Howard Cosell came by campus to cover the goings-on. Scott’s hubris was his downfall, and his reactionary style eventually ran its course. He was fired, along with the school president that hired him, after just two years. He is perhaps most notable today for what happened a year later when he helped shepherd Patty Hearst from Los Angeles to New York City after a gun battle with police.
The epoch that gave birth to Scott and Ali and so man other reactionaries was so vastly different from the one our sports heroes exist in today it seems unlikely we will see a figure as hell bent as Scott, nor something as outrageously taboo as Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’ Olympic Black Power salute any time soon. There’s simply too much for athletes to lose.
There are a few exceptions, of course. NBA MVP Steve Nash has spoken out against Arizona’s controversial immigration law and was vocal in opposition to the invasion of Iraq. NBA veteran Etan Thomas is a well-established activist-athlete and poet. In 2008, then-Cleveland Cavaliers guard Ira Newble, outraged after seeing a news item about the massacres in Darfur, drafted an open letter to the Chinese Government and tried to get his teammates to sign it with him publicly. All but three did.
Megastar LeBron James, however, did not. Though he did later speak on the issue, decrying human rights abuses and supporting his teammate’s efforts, he never signed the letter. At the time, many observers in and out of professional basketball acknowledged that the big business nature of the NBA made athletes, particularly highly visible ones, cautious about speaking out. Some even feel the leagues themselves discourage players from speaking out publicly, lest their opinions put a dent into the leagues’ earnings.
Howard Cosell famously once said, “Rule Number One of the ‘Jockocracy’ is that pro-athletes and politics should never mix.” Cosell may well have been right, but that didn’t stop some major figures from crossing streams. It’s not just that major athletes are increasingly less likely to be publicly provocative, it’s that so many have chosen not to be thus for such craven reasons. Much of it may just be our times. But with information and education about our world as readily available as it’s ever been, ignorance these days has to be nearly willful. So if players are inside a bubble, it may be because they choose to be. And that’s a shame. Perhaps the real issue isn’t that jocks rule now as never before, but rather that they do so blandly.
Originally from Kentucky, Joshua Lars Weill has written for GQ, Yahoo! Sports, The Classical and The Awl. He lives and writes in Washington, DC. Follow him on twitter @AgonicaBoss.
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 “Fantasy Sports Participation Sets All-Time Record, Grows Past 32 Million Players”. Fantasy Sports Trade Association. 2011-6-10. Retrieved 2011-06-11.