Throne of Games

SportsWorld: An American Dreamland BY Robert Lipsyte. Rutgers University Press. Paperback, 296 pages. $22.

The cover of SportsWorld: An American Dreamland

I’m pretty sure Robert Lipsyte was the first to make the insolent-yet-logical suggestion that the World Series be referred to by a more appropriate name: the North American Baseball Championships for Men. This was back in 1975, when Lipsyte’s SportsWorld: An American Dreamland was first published. It was also the year of perhaps the most riveting of those men’s baseball championships ever, between the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox. Superlatives were common in sport that year, which also presented for history’s consideration the epochal third heavyweight championship bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, aka the “Thrilla in Manila”; the first of the decade’s four Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl wins; Jack Nicklaus’s spine-tingling, immortality-clinching Masters final round; and Arthur Ashe’s unexpected and historic Wimbledon victory.

Published in the midst of that enchanted year for sport, Lipsyte’s sustained and ingeniously layered display of grouchiness came across to fans like a rodent running amok at a wedding reception. (Lipsyte was hardly the only grump at the party back then; his friend Howard Cosell did as much knocking as he did boosting during his unparalleled ’70s heyday as huckster-gadfly-in-residence at ABC Sports.) Recently republished, Lipsyte’s prickly observations can still be extracted and administered to contemporary phenomena, whether it’s the latest mania by baseball teams for shifting their defensive infields to stifle runs or professional football’s stumbling, bumbling efforts to deal with the long-term effects of their violent sport on players’ brains. The names may have changed in forty-three years, but the hubris and hysteria have swelled to even greater dimension in what I’ve come to call the Sports Industrial Complex.

Which still may not be as cool a tag as “SportsWorld,” a puckishly Orwellian brand name practically crying for its own irony-infused TM symbol. Lipsyte’s label is used to characterize “a sweaty Oz you’ll never find in a geography book . . . sold to us like Rancho real estate.” He describes its principal merchandise as “a dangerous and grotesque web of ethics and attitudes, an amorphous infrastructure that acts to contain our energies, divert our passions, and socialize us for work or war or depression.” Rather than exalting the joy of competition and what Lipsyte often refers to as the “pleasures of the flesh” found in athletic pursuit, SportsWorld distorts, demeans, and exploits both its participants and its clients, “limit[ing] the pleasures of play for most Americans while concentrating on turning our best athletes into clowns. It has made the finish more important than the race.”

Lipsyte’s book was the apotheosis, or at least one of the peaks, of what connoisseurs of the craft label the “Aw Nuts” school of sportswriting, populated by gimlet-eyed skeptics compulsively inclined to puncture overinflated reputations. This is yang to the yin of the “Gee Whiz” school, personified by Grantland Rice, the sometimes hyperbolic but widely influential dean of sportswriters during the so-called Golden Age of Sports of the ’20s and ’30s, with its larger-than-life galaxy of superstars that included Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Bill Tilden, Red Grange, and Joe Louis.

Lipsyte was a sports reporter and columnist for the New York Times throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, an era that had its own glittering iconography of Nicklaus, Ali, Mickey Mantle, Billie Jean King, Joe Namath, and “Marvelous” Marv Throneberry. Who? Right. You wouldn’t know him unless you were following the New York Mets’ calamitous first season of 1962. His dependably inept fielding, base running and . . . yes, I think, hitting, too, made him a kind of camp antihero figure to the tristate area’s National League fans looking for a team to love after the Dodgers and Giants abandoned them for the left coast. Lipsyte resisted beguilement, knowing that hype, however ironically framed, is still hype: “As bad as [the ’62 Mets] were—and they were the worst—they might have been buried without so many witty epitaphs had they died in, say, Pittsburgh or Milwaukee or Minneapolis, cities that do not even rate full-time bureaus of the national media.”

Hype is SportsWorld’s main engine—and Lipsyte’sprincipal target. As perhaps the most trenchant and incisive media critic sports journalism has ever produced (you see how hard it is to avoid superlatives in this land of Oz, even when dealing with its apostates), Lipsyte blows open media-created myths and even the myths within those myths. Joe Namath, drafted to quarterback the New York Jets in 1965 for a then-unprecedented $400,000, was depicted by turns in the city’s tabloids as overpaid and, thus, overrated at the start of what would be a wildly erratic yet transfiguring career, during which he engineered a momentous upset of the Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl that hastened the expansion of the National Football League into the global brand name it is now.

But even after he proved himself a winner, SportsWorld didn’t get the point about Namath, with spectators and writers regarding him, either bitterly or blithely, as a proto-hippie individualist opting for white shoes, long hair, and a devil-may-care attitude that made him both a counterculture role model and a radical subversive dangerous enough to be placed on the Nixon White House’s “enemies list.” Both views, Lipsyte writes, were delusional at best. “He was just another worker, after all,” with a lifestyle that wasn’t Radical Hippie so much as “a kind of Drugstore Cowboy Cool clothed as Sixties Single-stud Chic.” Richard Nixon, since we’ve brought him up, is positioned in the book as “an extreme example of the SportsWorld politician, a truly great competitor who rose and fell muttering Hustle, Desire, Guts.” A scrub footballer at Whittier College who never made the varsity team, Nixon, Lipsyte writes, “was always more jock sniffer than jock, more manipulator than gladiator,” who was so impassioned about the block-and-tackle game that he drew up plays for Don Shula and George Allen, competing coaches in the 1973 Super Bowl, neither of which worked.

Though regarded at the time as a screed, SportsWorld was also, paradoxically, celebrating the audacity of players who openly challenged the narrow-minded presumptions of owners, promoters, and their enablers in the media. Lipsyte reveled in tennis champ Billie Jean King’s blunt candor and bare-knuckled feminist assault upon the all-male power structure in her sport and extoled Harry Edwards’s leadership of an all-black boycott of the 1968 Summer Olympics, a movement that led to the black-gloved-fist salute to the American flag that subsequently got medal-winning sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos sent home prematurely from Mexico City. Broadcasters and sportswriters at the time denounced Smith and Carlos, whose silent protest is now memorialized in a statue within the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture—and remembered by Lipsyte as “a courageous personal gesture and the mildest, most reasonable display of black power all that year.”

If Lipsyte’s book has a hero, it is Muhammad Ali, whose rising and falling fortunes throughout that turbulent decade were chronicled by Lipsyte from the aftermath of Cassius Clay’s own Olympic glory as a 1960 light-heavyweight gold medalist. Even then, Lipsyte writes, the future heavyweight champion of the world and global culture hero “was different in ways it took a white middle-class sports press steeped in its own fakelore too long to find out and understand.” A brash, articulate, supremely confident and proudly black champion wasn’t easy for those preferring the relative humility of a Joe Louis or a Floyd Patterson. After beating Sonny Liston twice and converting to the Nation of Islam, Ali became a lightning rod for those on either side of SportsWorld’s socio-political divide. “I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” Ali declared to the world at large. “I’m free to be who I want.”

And just in case the world at large still didn’t understand what he said, Ali refused military induction in 1967, during the Vietnam War, on religious grounds, which compelled boxing’s commissars to strip him of his heavyweight title and ban him from the sport at his professional peak. Writes Lipsyte, whose critical composure seems as shattered by Ali’s defiance as Patterson’s jaw was by Ali’s punch: “Here was a man willing to give up . . . the richest prize of SportsWorld for something as abstract as religious principle. Who else had as much to lose?” Even those who don’t follow boxing know how that story turned out: Ali successfully sued to get back in the ring where he lost, regained, lost, and regained the heavyweight crown. When he died two years ago, he was widely beloved and respected by a sports universe that had been so starkly polarized decades before by his very existence.

The prevailing irony to be found when reengaging with Lipsyte’s tract in the post-millennium is that the courage and swagger displayed by such varied renegades as King, Ali, and Namath helped pave the way for the mega-billion-dollar, multi-platformed monster that sports media has become. In the introduction to the new edition of SportsWorld, Lipsyte writes that “sports journalism has devolved into too much provocation and/or boosterism, as has journalism in general, just when our lives depend on knowing what’s really going on.” Fans’ obsession throughout the internet over ranking teams and players seems all too redolent of what Lipsyte identified back in 1975 as SportsWorld’s tendency to exalt final scores over the process of gamesmanship. (I mean, once you’ve declared Tom Brady and LeBron James as GOATS—greatest of all time—in their respective sports, what’s the point of watching football or basketball ever again?)

Also, as I’m writing this, members of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys are prohibited by their owner from doing anything but stand at attention during the pre-game performance of the national anthem. This at best constitutes a First Amendment violation aided and abetted by the incumbent president of the United States, whose attitude toward players protesting excessive police force against unarmed African Americans is a perverse, even malign echo of Nixon’s impositions on football coaches’ game plans. The good news is that however egregious such behavior gets, there are more players willing to speak out against injustices both within and outside the “white lines” of game play. As Lipsyte writes, there are now many more sports journalists besides him—Dave Zirin, Jemele Hill, Howard Bryant, and Bryan Curtis among them—who are as hep to SportsWorld jive as he is. And I’d like to believe that all of us, even overserved, media-saturated fans, are more willing to follow Lipsyte’s example in believing that “sports matters even if there is something the matter with sports.”

Gene Seymour is a writer living in Brooklyn.