An Interview with Robert Lipsyte
“I’ve come to realize that most jocks are really sissies – they roll over so quickly for uber-alpha males, they’re thin-skinned and they like to beat on weaker people, including the women in their lives. Most of them don’t grow up until their playing days are over. Even considering them as role models for anything but hard work and peak performance is hilarious.”
“I liked hardcore sports writing most covering hockey and Nascar where people were interested in explaining what they did and why, the gritty joy of digging the puck out of a corner or pancaking someone into the Plexiglas…Most of the rest is speculation and blah-blah to fill time and space.”
“Did tanking on the steroids story, which is sports writing’s shameful equivalent of the weapons of mass destruction story, come out of denial, laziness, lack of chops? The current catch-up, blaming editors or mild mea culpas or trashing A-Rod and fellow users, is even more pathetic.”
Robert Lipsyte: Interviewed on March 24, 2009.
Position: Free-lance writer, Young Adult fiction author, TV host.
Born: 1938, New York City
Education: Columbia College, ’57, Columbia Journalism School ’59
Career: New York Times 1957-71 and 91-2003; CBS 82-86; NBC: 86-88; WNET 88-90; Twin Cities TV 2008 –
Personal: Married to the writer, Lois B. Morris; two children, Sam and Susannah, two grandchildren, Alfred and Sylvia (Squidge).
Favorite restaurant (home): Home-cooking, including mine.
Favorite restaurant (away): Room service.
Favorite hotel: St. Paul Hotel, St. Paul, Mn. “Casually elegant”
If you’ve been listening to political candidates, you probably think that America is fragmented by religion, gender, race and ethnicity, as well as wealth, class, age and manual dexterity — do you text-message or are you all thumbs?
No wonder sports can seem comforting. In what I call Jock Culture, there are only two kinds of Americans — winners and losers.
The political season will be over in a few months (with its winners and losers), but the sports seasons will roll on, one after another, often concurrently, and the messages will be drilled into our minds: First place is the only place. Win or die a little. Losers slink home.
In sports, the pressure of those messages to win has given us recruiting scandals, academic cheating, helmet-spearing, bean balls, steroids and industrial espionage — the New England Patriots used video cameras to gain an edge. In real life, those messages about winning have been performance-enhanced to bring us dishonesty in banking, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, energy and foreign policy.
There’s a connection between cutting corners to win a football game and to start a war. For many Americans, certainly for the majority American boys, the most vivid and lasting lessons are learned in the sports they play and watch. Jock Culture is the incubator of most definitions of manly success.
Lessons about the rewards of discipline, playing fair and working hard compete against lessons about the punishment-free payoffs of cheating. Dads pour illegal additives into the quarter-midget race cars of their 7-years-olds. A Little League pitcher lies about his age. A coach winks when a teenage basketball star fabricates an address to join an out-of-town team. Kids who grow up seeing grown- ups shrug, if not actually pulling the strings behind the scenes, come to think it’s the way of the world…
Q. Why is disillusionment with Jock Culture a regular theme in your writing?
A. That’s an interesting thought since I never considered myself illusioned. Are you romanticizing my career? I was not an engaged fan as a kid and at 19 when I landed in the NYTimes sports dept as a copyboy I stayed because it looked like a terrific career move – lots of good stories and the freedom to write them.
I covered boxing early on and there was no way to avoid the hypocrisy, corruption and bullshit if you considered yourself a journalist instead of a Superfan with a license to score free tickets and jock-sniff. I fed off the response, positive and negative. I wasn’t the only one, it was a golden era for terrific young sportswriters – Larry Merchant, Stan Isaacs, Ira Berkow, Pete Axthelm, Pete Bonventre, Neil Amdur, Jerry Izenberg, Sandy Padwe, among others – but the pulpit of the Times was a great advantage.
In those days the Times didn’t care that much about sports so the pressure from Madison Square Garden or the Mets or the Tennis establishment to dump me didn’t have the impact it would have had at some other paper.
Q. How would you describe your sports media niche and your objectives?
A. I’ve begun writing my memoirs, so I am slowly figuring out that I did have a niche, or at least a pattern. I was interested in the nick between sports and the surrounding society more than in the games or even the personalities, particularly racial, political, health and pop cultural issues, most particularly how sports’ definitions of manhood have often become the larger society’s definitions. I think that’s why I’ve had a fascination with gay athletes, women athletes and the split between jocks and pukes (as one Columbia crew coach called non-jocks on campus).
I’ve come to realize that most jocks are really sissies – they roll over so quickly for uber-alpha males, they’re thin-skinned and they like to beat on weaker people, including the women in their lives. Most of them don’t grow up until their playing days are over. Even considering them as role models for anything but hard work and peak performance is hilarious.
Q. Tell us something of your emotional life as a writer and TV personage.
A. I’ve had a great time and a charmed life. I loved the travel and excitement of daily journalism back when newspapers were healthy and then when the TV networks still used limos, and now I love the combination of the solitude writing young adult fiction and the sociality in TV, especially my current gig as host of a PBS show on aging with the chance to interview the likes of Mike Huckabee and Martha Stewart, who are simply more interesting than A-Rod and Mannings.
I liked hardcore sportswriting most covering hockey and Nascar where people were interested in explaining what they did and why, the gritty joy of digging the puck out of a corner or pancaking someone into the Plexiglas, the romance of floating out of the corners or punching holes in restrictor plates. Most of the rest is speculation and blah-blah to fill time and space.
Q. What has the widening gap between sports media and its subjects meant to the product?
A. It’s totally changed the tone. When I started in 1957, writers and athletes tended to trust and protect each other. It made for an easy life, entertaining stories and bad journalism. The gap, which includes the racial and economic gulf as well as the lack of access, has probably improved the product but not quite as much as one would think.
Did tanking on the steroids story, which is sports writing’s shameful equivalent of the weapons of mass destruction story, come out of denial, laziness, lack of chops? The current catch-up, blaming editors or mild mea culpas or trashing A-Rod and fellow users, is even more pathetic.
Q. Sports media has increased in sheer volume from the time you broke in. What has this meant to the consumer?
A. As a consumer, I love it. More games to watch, more commentaries on them. Sports is entertainment. Who wouldn’t want more entertainment choices. And the surrounding babble is part of that entertainment.
Q. If you were named Czar of Sports Media, with unlimited power, what would you change?
A. I don’t know. I do believe that journalism is a calling and disseminating information in any form entails responsibility. I wish a lot of people were more responsible, but I wouldn’t want any rules in place to limit their freedom. Sports is important, though, as a definer of values and people need and deserve honest reporting here as surely as in arts, politics, business.
Q. Who and what do you read and watch in sports media? What non-sports media do you consume?
A. I watch and read everything, promiscuously and haphazardly, mostly on line. I don’t listen to much talk radio. There are only a few places I seek out, looking for a line of thought I’d never come to on my own. Dave Zirin’s Edge of Sports column on line is a must. Jason Whitlock always has something to say. Bryan Curtis when he deigns to say something. Bill Simmons because I think he has the pulse of the fan. Deadspin. ESPN.COM.
Non-sports? Again, mostly on line. NYTimes, Tomdispatch.com, The Daily Beast, MediaBistro, Romanesko, AlterNet, and various right-wing and left-wing blogs to keep my blood moving.
Q. Who were your sports media influences?
A. Starting out, I thought Jimmy Cannon was fun to read, over the top, had a social conscience. Gay Talese (I was his copyboy) was an enormous influence – he approached sports as a writer, a journalist, never as a “sportswriter.” My biggest influence as a young writer was John Steinbeck.
Q. What are your interview tactics or techniques? How do you approach a hostile subject as opposed to a friendly one?
A. I’m pretty matter-of-fact, neither bully nor waif, and if the subject thinks you’re open to giving him/her a fair shake you’re halfway home. It’s easier these days because people are media savvy and think they can maneuver the interview. They tend to forget you have the last edit. Even on TV, which I do more and more of lately.
Q. Red Smith in retrospect, warts and all?
A. Red replaced me as Times columnist when I left the first time in 1971 and when he won the Pulitzer, I told him I would have left earlier had I known. He was simply the most elegant writer I ever read on the sports page. His early years were spent using that incredible talent to spout the conventional wisdom – his attacks on Cassius Clay were embarrassing. But unlike almost anyone in the field, he just got better with age. Without losing his stylishness he put it into the service of smart, clear-eyed commentary. In his later years, he was the best.
Q. Next project?
A. I’m hosting a weekly PBS show, LIFE(Part2) about the aging of the boomer generation. It starts airing in September 2009.
I’m also writing my memoirs for Ecco (HarperCollins) called “Lessons from the Locker-Room: The Education of an Accidental Sportswriter.”
I want to come back here after you’ve read it.
Robert Lipsyte, excerpted from Columbia Journalism Review, July 1, 2006:
In 1938, the year I was horn, Paul Gallico published his valedictory Farewell to Sport, a thoughtful meditation on the “wildest, maddest, and most glamorous period in all the history of sport,” which just happened to coincide with his fourteen years as a New York Daily News sportswriter. Gallico was no mere pressbox pundit. Long before the late George Plimpton’s showy turns as quarterback, pitcher, and boxer, Gallico pioneered participatory sports journalism. He swam with Johnny Weismuller, golfed with Bobby Jones, and lasted less than two minutes in the ring with Jack Dempsey.
I was about fifteen when I first read the book and readily absorbed its Galliconian pronouncements, such as “like all people who spring from what we call low origins, [Babe] Ruth never had any inhibitions”; Mildred (Babe) Didrikson Zaharias became one of the greatest athletes of the century “simply because she would not or could not compete with women at their own and best game – mansnatching. It was an escape, a compensation. She would beat them at everything else they tried to do”; and the reason basketball “appeals to the Hebrew … is that the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind and flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart aleckness.”
Even as a Hebrew without much game, I was swept along by Gallico’s confidence. He had a cool and cocky style leavened with just enough Great Books references to connect a young 1950s smart-aleck to the elitism, sexism, and faux macho of the 1930s sportswriters who had dipped their noses as well as their pens in other men’s testosterone. I felt manlier through his access to the Manassa Mauler, the Brown Bomber, the Iron Horse. And his dismissal of women athletes was reassuring; if a girl did manage to whip you, it was only because she was likely not truly female. Boys in my day were labeled “girls” and “fags” if they didn’t at least pay lip service to the emerging values of what I now call Jock Culture, that stew of honor, self-absorption, generosity, greed, bravery, emotional constriction, tenderness, domination, and defiance that commands so much of our national life.
I was, however, slightly uncomfortable with Gallico’s remarks about the “colored brother” who is “… not nearly so sensible to pain as his white brother. He has a thick, hard skull and good hands.” It smacked of racism; my parents worked in black neighborhoods and I knew better. But I was willing to give Gallico the same pass that most of my textbooks gave the slave-owning Thomas Jefferson. Gallico, too, was a man of his times. After all, he had written Farewell a decade before Jackie Robinson.
Four years after I read the hook, still a teenager, I landed in the sports department of the New York Times; I’d answered an ad for what I considered would he only a summer job before heading West to write hooks and movies, just like Gallico. But as much as I hated being a copyboy, I stayed on past that summer because I dreamed that someday, I, too, might be “at the tennis tournament at Forest Hills . . . drinking an ice tea . . . surrounded by beautifully dressed women and soft-spoken men in summer flannels,” and the next day be “in a frowsy, ribald tight camp, gagging over a glass of needle beer,” where I’d find “doubtful blondes . . . and blondes about whom there was no doubt.”
Eventually I got to both places, and they were as good as Gallico had promised, especially the fight camps. As a young boxing reporter, I kept two books handy, Gallico’s Farewell and AJ. liebling’s The Sweet Science, which was No. 1 on Sports Illustrated’s 2002 top 100 sports books of all time (Farewell was No. 82). Liebling was ultimately discouraging; no one else could eat and drink so much and still write so well, not to mention come up with eloquent quotes from grizzled corner men who were all but mute for me….
I was around thirty-five when I read Farewell to Sport cover to cover for the second time, as research for my own 1975 valedictory, SportsWorld: An American Dreamland. (Sports Illustrated made it No. 97, calling it “an angry screed.”) Now I saw Gallico as a prime example of what had been and was still wrong with sports writing: the jock-sniffing, the intellectual laziness, the moral cowardice.
What an old whore he was, always begging Babe Ruth or Gene Tunney to show up at some event he was promoting. How did that affect his coverage? His line about your circulation falling off if you destroy too many illusions began to sound like a justification of all those years he spent, to borrow a phrase of the great Herald Tribune sports editor Stanley Woodward, “Godding up the ball-players.”
Gallico wasn’t bashful about Godding up himself either. Take his line about Babe Didrikson honing her championship hurdling and jump-shooting skills to compensate for her man-snatching defeats. In his autobiography, The Tumult and the Shouting, the sportswriter and sportscaster Grantland Rice describes a little joke he played on his pal Gallico. During a golf match, he talked Gallico into a foot race with Didrikson, and she left him for dead. Babe tells the same story in her autobiography, This Life I’ve Led. After that race, Gallico suddenly noticed Babe’s Adam’s apple. Of course, if a woman beats you, she can’t really be a woman…
But I couldn’t stay away from Gallico’s Farewell. What drew me back to it for the third read was the steroids story, particularly the anguished cries of the baseball wonks that Barry Bonds’s chemically aided statistics had made a mockery of the game’s history and should be erased or footnoted. Who cares! I thought. (Unless you want to asterisk Babe Ruth’s records: *Never batted against colored brothers.) What matters is the discrete joy of tonight’s game, pitch by pitch, inning by inning. I remembered how touched I’d been at fifteen by Gallico’s lyrical passages on baseball as theater, the beautiful geometry of it, the small dramas, the looming threat of a home run, the liberation from everyday life.
And so it was Farewell again, from the beginning.
This time I laughed out loud when Gallico described international figure skating as “joyously crooked” and the judges as “scamps and vote-peddlers.” He knew this even before the French judge sold out to the Russians at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. I was thrilled by his paean to cars at speed and to the auto racer as athlete. In the closest I’d come to Gallico’s participatory journalism, I’d driven a stock car at 130 miles an hour while covering NASCAR in 2001. Drivers were certainly as athletic as “the stick-and-ballers.” Gallico and I also agreed that horse racing was basically gambling, and that “college football today is one of the last great strongholds of genuine old-fashioned American hypocrisy.” Gallico was railing about Yale selling its broadcast rights for $20,000.
One of the areas I reread with interest and trepidation was about women. I winced when Gallico wrote, “No matter how good they are, they can never be good enough, quite, to matter,” but in a way he was right. How else explain why women’s records, accomplishments, and attendance figures are always measured against men’s? Why does Billie Jean King beating that old clown Bobby Riggs, or Michelle Wie, the Tigress Woods inching her way into the men’s game, get so much more coverage than the revolution that Title IX has wrought in the everyday lives of girls and their families?
I think Gallico, if he were around, could have some fun in his column with the vulnerable veneer of our macho heroes – if it didn’t interfere with booking them for his TV and radio shows. He’d have to deal with jock girls calling each other “fag” for intimidation or motivation. He’d also have to explain why male pro athletes are terrified of having open gays in their locker rooms lest their relatives, friends, and fans think they are gay, too.
Gallico would have flourished in today’s atmosphere, been a multiplatform star like Mike Lupica, Stephen A. Smith, Sally Jenkins, Frank Deford, Tony Kornheiser, Christine Brennan, Jason Whitlock, and John Feinstein. Gallico would know the territory, be smart enough to navigate Jock Culture and snipe at it, be enough of a believer to never attack it systemically. While the new diversity of the current press box has sensitized coverage, the biggest problem remains the widening distance between reporter and subject – except where ex-jocks playing reporters on TV manage to straddle the gap. I have no doubt that Gallico would find a way to walk the line with style, confidence, and residuals.
I probably won’t read Farewell again cover to cover, but the presence of Gallico’s papers at Columbia University teases me. Maybe I should write about him since, after all, this piece was about me. But then I’d have to deal with Gallico’s best piece of advice: Your circulation begins to fall off if you destroy too many illusions, especially if you yourself have created them.
(SMG thanks Robert Lipsyte for his cooperation)