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My Sportsman: Robert Lipsyte
Sports Illustrated – 11/22/2011
Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 5. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.
During a year in which reality made countless nasty incursions into the world of sports, my Sportsman of the Year is the guy who saw it coming.
Robert Lipsyte always sees it coming. If you're not of a certain generation, his name may not be familiar -- Lipsyte began at the New York Times the year I was born, and I've pushed a notebook for more than 30 years -- but he took with him into the profession, and has never abandoned, a sensibility that serves both my business and sports very well. It's the sensibility of the outsider. And that point of view is what these times call for.
Examining what he called "SportsWorld," and later "Jock Culture," Lipsyte has always approached sports as an anthropologist would. When accused of being a cynic, he insisted he was a skeptic. Time has vindicated the Lipsytean approach, for today, if you're a sportswriter and not a skeptic, you're complicit in your own delusion.
Lipsyte follows a few simple rules. When you cover athletes, you don't "god 'em up." When you write about sports (not "sportswrite"), you don't "pipe" something even a half-step removed from the truth. And you always keep tabs on who holds power and how it's wielded.
Read his wise and wide-ranging memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter, a highlight of this year's crop of sports books, and you'll understand why: Lipsyte -- "Lippo the Hippo" -- was bullied as a kid. This year of all years, haunted by the image of some hapless child in a shower room in Happy Valley, the bullied deserve their spokesman and the powerful deserve to be called to account.
Since the late Fifties Lipsyte has filed dispatches from every frontline where the real world clashes with SportsWorld: franchise movement and free agency; racial and gender equality; the ramparts manned (and womaned) by the bearers of battle flags, from Muhammad Ali to Billie Jean King. Thanks to the time he spent around a Sixties hanger-on named Jack Scott, the Bill Walton-whisperer who spoke fluent Symbionese, Lipsyte earned the honorific of an FBI file. Would that every sportswriter had an FBI file.
Sometimes Lipsyte donned a pith helmet and set off from the Times' office on West 43rd Street into the Borneo of NASCAR. Sometimes, as with his groundbreaking portraits of gays in sports, he was the canary in the coal mine, so far out ahead of a story that years would pass before anyone else went near it. And sometimes he'd simply swap out the rose-colored glasses -- are they standard-issue in our business, handed out pre-game with the baked ziti at the press-room buffet? -- for a gimlet eye and point out, for instance, how appalling it is that pro football, of all pastimes, has such miserly disability protections for its former players.
Lipsyte's belief that "games are still presented as fantasies in a bubble, dissociated from the culture," hasn't made for the smoothest professional ride. He left the Times to do a turn with the devil TV, even if his perch tended to be of the loftier, PBS- and Sunday-morning variety. He freelanced and wrote books, including award-winners for young adults. Lipsyte returned to the Times for a second act, but the Alabama football fan who soon took over the paper wound up letting him go. (Consider the irony that this executive editor got see-no-evil'ed out of his own job thanks to a pipe artist named Jason Blair.)
Yet the stamp of Lipsyte's legacy is all over sports journalism today. There's Charles Robinson of Yahoo! Sports, and the clear-eyed work of ESPN's Tom Farrey. And my SI colleagues George Dohrmann, David Epstein and Selena Roberts continue to limn important pictures with painterly detail.
Beyond them, it's striking how many journalistic outsiders -- writers about sports -- are turning out work that drives our conversation. (Believe me, those of us nominally on the inside have noticed.) Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Lewis, Taylor Branch, Charlie Pierce, Dave Zirin -- we read them precisely because they regard the Pooh-Bahs, rituals and received wisdom of SportsWorld from a skeptical place. That's Lipsyte's legacy too.
Among sports media shot full of blogger's snark and anaesthetizing allusions to pop culture, Bob Lipsyte isn't a fan or an "insider." He's my Sportsman for his contributions to and influence on a craft that, as the man himself has put it, "isn't the oldest profession, although it's sometimes conducted that way."
Grantland Rice was a hagiographer, an overwrought writer, a reliable brother of the lodge, all things that Bob Lipsyte isn't. Maybe someday there'll be a Web site called Lipsyte.
On the Peninsula
by Bryan Curtis
April 25, 2011 | 10:54pm
How Robert Lipsyte, author of the new memoir An Accidental Sportswriter, stood athwart the sports page yelling, "Stop!"
When a young man on the make tells me he wants to be a sportswriter, I tell him to read one book. It's called SportsWorld by Robert Lipsyte. Starting next month, I'll tell him to read another: An Accidental Sportswriter, which is functionally Lipsyte's sequel. In sportswriting's cosmic baseball card set—Jimmy Cannon! Dan Jenkins! Charlie Pierce!—you can find men who wrote as pretty as the former New York Times columnist. But Bob is the five-tool sportswriter. His beat is the ballpark, the '60s, African-American history, women's lib, Muslim theology, sports as metaphor, and—most interesting for you, young sportswriter—the craft of sportswriting itself.
Article - Curtis Lipsyte Jemal Countess / Getty Images An Accidental Sportswriter: A Memoir By Robert Lipsyte 256 pages. Ecco. $25.99.
Lipsyte is the guy who makes us ask the pencil-stopping question: Are sportswriters wasting their careers?
Bob—a pal—is 73 now, with a pair of hearing aids and a strip of infield grass stubbornly clinging to the sides of his head. His voice gets positively gleeful when he's saying something counterintuitive, which he nearly always is. Lipsyte was born in Queens in 1938. He likes to say he went to exactly two baseball games as a kid, which he didn't much enjoy. He went to his next game as a New York Times reporter.
"I was as close to tabula rasa as a sportswriter can be," Lipsyte says. After he graduated from Columbia at 19, his plan was to pack off to California and write novels. But a summer job on a water truck fell apart. So Lipsyte answered an ad to be a copyboy at The New York Times. He was dispatched to the sports desk, where his first mentor was Gay Talese. It was like young Mike Tyson walking into the mountain lair of Cus D'Amato.
Talese, the New Journalism maestro, would send Lipsyte on cocoa runs. "I don't want hot chocolate, Bob," Talese would say, "that's powder and water. I want milk, and that is how you tell them it should be cooked." Lipsyte soon got bored. He told Talese he wanted to quit the paper. "Bob," Talese said, "I will give you $5,000 in exchange for 10 percent of your earnings as a freelance writer for the next 10 years." Lipsyte was floored that Talese would place that kind of bet on a young writer, and he stayed at the Times.
In An Accidental Sportswriter, he revisits Talese, now in his elegant, legend-buffing dotage. Lipsyte asks, "Is there any possibility you could have been kidding around?" "Sure," Talese replies.
No matter, at age 21, Lipsyte was off the bench and contributing features and sidebars. The Times sent him to cover the 1964 title fight between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston, where he met the Beatles. ("Who were those little sissies?" Clay asked Lipsyte later.) When Clay held the world title aloft, Lipsyte saw in the gleam of the belt sports and '60s social upheaval and his own careerism. "I'm going to own this story," he remembers thinking. He still has the ideas he scribbled down on a notepad that night: "Muslims…Malcolm…Clay's early life in Louisville…"
"The infectious values and myths transmitted by bad sportswriters," Lipsyte once wrote, "may be the deadliest words in the paper."
Muhammad Ali was a vessel through which Lipsyte smuggled big ideas onto the sports page. Ali liked Lipsyte. They were just four years apart in age. Lipsyte was curious—the nice part about tabula rasa is you see everyone anew—and had co-written Dick Gregory's Nigger. Mostly, Lipsyte was patient. He could sit through the hours of comic doggerel, religious dogma, and old-guard sportswriters asking questions about the "moos-lums." Then, when Ali's jive began to bend toward something like truth, Lipsyte snatched those thoughts for his column. No less than Malcolm X told Lipsyte that his boxing writing was some of the fairest he had read anywhere.
As a sports columnist, Lipsyte was a swaggering sociologist. "Bob understood the difference between the owners and the players," says David Meggyesy, a dissident linebacker who became a favorite Lipsyte subject. Tabula rasa. Where writers compared Ali to an "unwashed punk" draft dodger, Lipsyte saw a renegade and comic genius. Jack Scott and Harry Edwards, troublemakers elsewhere, were in Lipsyte's column heroic figures trying to pull sports out of antiquity. Lipsyte wasn't a sports-hater (a badge back-page anarchist Leonard Shecter wore), but he lacked the innate streak of fandom we typically associate with a sportswriter. Lipsyte didn't want to be Phil Pepe. "I wanted to be Philip Roth!"
As a writer, Bob was "on the peninsula," his old Times sports editor Neil Amdur says. (He wasn't quite on the island—that was Hunter Thompson at the Kentucky Derby.) After a few years, the seasonal drone of sports began to wear on him, and fiction beckoned. After Joe Frazier beat Ali in 1971, Lipsyte quit the Times. One of my favorite bits of trivia is that kindly old Red Smith, the sportswriter readers once set their watches by, replaced Lipsyte at the paper. When he walked away from one of the most powerful perches in sportswriting, Bob was 33 years old.
It's not unheard of for a sports-page veteran (Stanley Woodward, Leonard Shecter) to produce a work that leaves burn marks on the profession. Stung by the poor reviews of his thriller Liberty Two, Lipsyte was lugging a bigger canister of dynamite. Taken together, SportsWorld (1975) and An Accidental Sportswriter are a sustained attack on the mythos encrusted on sports and the journalists who helped to maintain it.
SportsWorld, Lipsyte wrote, is 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." Moreover, it's a "pacifier, safety valve…a concentration camp for adolescents and an emotional Disneyland for their parents…a buffer, a DMZ, between people and the economic and political systems that direct their lives."
The sound you hear is Ken Burns' head exploding. And Lipsyte was just getting started. Baseball: "an incredibly complex contrivance that seems to have been created by a chauvinistic mathematician." College football: "America's grandest monument to national hypocrisy." Vince Lombardi was "football's frontman while it was promoting itself as a sadomasochistic weekly adventure show," and hallowed Halls of Fame were "eerie crypts." About the Mets: "It would take at least a grand jury to get at the origins of the New York Mets"—truer than ever in the Madoff Era.
The sportswriters—the older guys, especially—were co-conspirators, pumping up athletes even though they knew the truth. Their attitude, Lipsyte says, was, "We're all of the carnival, and the rubes"—aka, the readers—"are out there."
Lipsyte dug in the box and took his swings. On Grantland "Granny" Rice, the first celebrity sportswriter: "The writer who likens a ballplayer to Hercules or Grendel's mother is displaying the ultimate contempt—the ballplayer no longer exists as a person or a performer, but as an object, a piece of matter to be used, in this case, for the furtherance of the sportswriter's career... Rice populated the press boxes with lesser talents who insisted, like the old master, that they were just sunny fellows who loved kids' games and the jolly apes who played them."
More: "A sportswriter learns early that his readers are primarily interested in the affirmation of their faiths and prejudices, which are invariably based on previous erroneous reports."
Still more: "We were complicit in keeping women out of press boxes, much less locker rooms. … Women diminished the prestige of our tree house, the men-only access we gloated over to friends and neighbors."
Red Smith wrote the "the purest, most crystalline, most delightful fresh running prose in sports," but until late in his career Smith was "polishing the SportsWorld silver." Bob Costas, he of the perpetually unlined forehead, is "one of the Jock Culture's most treasured cheerleaders. … Just look how happy he seems bantering with those ex-athletes on pregame shows, a terrier playing with mastiffs and Great Danes."
"The infectious values and myths transmitted by bad sportswriters," Lipsyte wrote in SportsWorld, now rising to a crescendo, "may be the deadliest words in the paper." This wasn't just superb gun-slinging. It was, in the world of the pressbox, a crisis of faith. Lipsyte the sportswriter is like Cherry Jones in a nun's habit, standing center stage and yelling, "I have doubts!"
* * *
Don't you, too, young sportswriter? What's riveting about Lipsyte's indictment is that it rings as true in the age of ESPN as it did in the days of the New York World-Telegram and Sun. As the sports page has gone digital, its "free advertising" has tentacled out even further. Mock drafts. Predictions columns. Notes columns. Arguments about who gets the next crypt in the Hall of Fame. (Whoops, I did that.) The endless Horatio Alger profiles, which Lipsyte calls "quasi-racist features about fatherless delinquents who rose from ghetto hellholes to become vicious linebackers who, off the field, played bass guitar, surprised Mama with a house, and ran a foundation for kids they had been."
It's not that modern sportswriters lack passion. But what passes for transgressive sportswriting today is mostly hot-stove news, where writers truck in deep background sources, where "trade rumors" (few of which come true) are hard currency. I still think of the scene in Moneyball when Billy Beane calls up Peter Gammons, tells him a fib, and savors the idea of Gammons disseminating it to the rest of the league. In this scoop-driven context of no context, I'm not sure even Gammons thinks he did anything wrong.
Most sportswriters aren't noxious. They're adrift. They haven't solved Lipsyte's riddle, which is: What is a sportswriter supposed to do? (They may have been waylaid by another mystery: What do website-clicking sports fans want?) Without a compass, they become unwitting comic players—Jimmy Cannon's "vaudevillians of journalism"—or, worse, prove the enduring libel of the sports section as the "toy department." With exceptions like the Times' indomitable Alan Schwarz, Joe Posnanski, and a minyan of magazine writers, old-media sportswriters are as questing as when Lipsyte left them in 1971. "There are all kinds of sportswriters," he writes in his new book, "simply because we are not sure if we are supposed to be reporters, critics, analysts, investigators, fabulists, moralists, comics, or shills for the games that make us possible."
Lipsyte updates his media critique in An Accidental Sportswriter. The dyspepsia is right, but some of the particulars are off. He goes in for the easy metaphor that writers missing steroids in the 1990s was like writers missing Iraq's WMD. Only the print-the-legend naïveté is the same, and conflating a misdemeanor with a felony serves to make sports look like a far bigger deal than it is.
In An Accidental Sportswriter, Lipsyte pays too little attention to the rebel band that appeared on the sportswriting fringe and has effectively become the white-hot center of the industry. Commandant Daulerio at Deadspin is not invested in throwing garlands around the necks of pro athletes so much as putting plastic bags over their heads. Lipsyte sees fantasy sports as fans transferring onanistic energies from the players to management. "You're not jerking off to Warren Beatty anymore," he tells me. "You're jerking off to the studio head." OK, but I see fantasy as a Timothy Leary drop-out that Lipsyte should be proud of—the ultimate undermining of SportsWorld.
"Sports," Lipsyte writes in An Accidental Sportswriter, "has lost almost all its moral cachet and is accepted as a branch of the entertainment industry." Indeed, the Web's sportswriters treat sports like action movies: See the way that Bill Simmons toggles between a dissection of the Red Sox and a dissection of The Town. These new writers may rarely delve into the murky waters of race and politics and gender. But nor do they go for the dime-novel fabulism like Lipsyte's Times battery mate Arthur Daley. The new writers haven't inherited Lipsyte's moral muscle but they have inherited his hipness, his suspicion. Which is something.
Another way of saying this is that, these days, we may not know what kind of sportswriters we should be, but we know what kind we shouldn't. Proof comes from a wonderful scene in An Accidental Sportswriter in which Bob Costas takes Lipsyte to lunch. Bob C. always thought Bob L. was a sourpuss, too "corrosive." (Lipsyte wrote about Mickey Mantle's organ-transplant line-hopping while Costas was eulogizing The Mick into Mitch Albom's version of heaven.) Be happy, Costas had told Lipsyte, and your readers might like you more. Lipsyte: "I was flattered that he had taken the time to mentor me—he was 14 years younger…"
Costas says something revealing during that lunch: "Now, the prevailing tone [in the sports media] is so mean you have to play it straight. … There's more of a need to celebrate." On the one hand, this is self-serving jive, since Bob Costas is going to celebrate sports as surely as Chef Boyardee is going to celebrate ravioli. But on the other, what Costas calls a new "meanness" is really the kind of sportswriterly hard-headedness that Lipsyte pined for. A communal pirate spirit. A Lypsitism, flowering all over the blogosphere and beyond.
* * *
Though he raced away from the Times at 33, Lipsyte never managed to get away from sports. He interviewed Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle for CBS News Sunday Morning and wrote several young adult novels about sports. His yellowing columns and features had a nice afterlife, too. When David Remnick wrote King of the World, his book about Muhammad Ali, he installed Lipsyte—not Red Smith—as the Greek chorus.
In 1991, Lipsyte began a second, 12-year tour as a New York Times sports columnist, his socially conscious ears twitching once again. He reported on gay athletes and learned to love NASCAR. He later materialized on ESPN.com's Page 2, John Walsh's magic cornfield where accidental sportswriters David Halberstam, Ralph Wiley, and Hunter Thompson showed up to take a few final swings. (Bill Simmons was Ray Kinsella, the young guy looking around in wide-eyed wonder.)
Today, young New York lit'ry people know the name Lipsyte because of Bob's son, Sam, a crack novelist—the career Bob set out for in 1957. That points to the hole in these memoirs. Lipsyte gave five decades to sports when he had (hell, has) the literary talent to write about anything. You can write about race and class and gender through the prism of sports, but you can also, you know, write about race and class and gender.
I almost wince when I ask him the question he taught me to ask myself: Is sportswriting worth it?
"I honestly don't know how to answer that question," Lipsyte begins. "I'm very happy with my life, particularly now. It's led me into a lot of wonderful places. I've gotten an enormous amount of pleasure writing the teenage books which are sports related."
"I do remember an emotional feeling on Election Nights, when for some reason or another I'd have to go into the paper. Everybody was wired into really momentous events in the life of the democracy. I was going back to, I don't know, check on a score in my column. There was always a lot of free food—great-looking sandwiches and coffee and buns. But I could never bring myself to take one. It was like I didn't deserve it."
"At 73, do I sometimes think, What am I going to do when I grow up? I really do. Maybe that's one of the reasons I get so much vicarious pleasure out of Sam's career, which is what I thought I would be doing."
I asked him why he kept returning to sportswriting when he'd so painstakingly documented its flaws. "Was it comfort? Was it fear? I sometimes thought I could make my will prevail as a sportswriter in ways I couldn't… I thought I would be free to say what I wanted to say."
He thought about his readers. "Sports journalism is probably the first portal into journalism for many people—younger readers, for sure. And the lies they are told probably will be longer lasting and more powerful. It's like getting steroids at a young age or getting concussed in peewee."
"I never stopped believing that sports is the most fun you have with your body in public," Lipsyte continues. "But this shit we're covering, it's not sports."
We may no longer go in for mythic junk like the Four Horsemen, young sportswriter, but we submit ourselves to other mythic structures, like a three-day, 16-hour televised NFL Draft. We confuse sports with a sportscast. There are still a whopping number of great stories to be written on the sports beat. But most of them must be delivered from on the peninsula, where Bob is standing, casting a rueful eye on the whole show. I'd like to call him the most important sportswriter of the 20th century. Bob convinced me that pompous declarations are for lesser mortals.
LANCE ARMSTRONG for The New Republic
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Ps I don't know your problem with Christianity , but you seem to have a lot of hatred towards it. What's you problem ? I probably support Israel more than you do think about it. MA
Is not ok the the people who play by the rules don't cheat ? What kind of inverted logic is is that. Cheating is. NEVER right Except, for people who do not believe in right or wrong except by their definition. Sound familiar bob
you make me sick
When the most recent cycle of witch-hunting began, I dug into drawers until I found my old bright yellow LIVESTRONG rubber bracelet, one of some 84 million sold for $1 to finance Lance Armstrong’s cancer foundation. I slipped it on. I felt snarly and mean again. We’re going to be okay. We are going to, as Lance instructed us, “take responsibility for ourselves and be brave.”
In July, 1999, after Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France for the first time, I had run out and bought my first good bike. I chanted LanceArmstrong, LanceArmstrong to help me push up hills. I felt a kinship. We shared the same kind of cancer (fittingly, his case was much worse). A few years later, when mine recurred, I chanted LanceArmstrong, LanceArmstrong to push me through chemotherapy.
He became the closest I’ve ever had to a hero in sports, and so I was anxious when we finally met ten years ago; would he turn out to be yet another dumb boy or distracted celeb?
Lance had asked me to moderate a panel at Stanford on athletes and cancer with him and several other athletes. It was lively and candid. On our way out of the arena, a woman stopped Armstrong and asked him to address a topic that hadn’t come up - how had his faith, his belief in God, helped him as a cancer patient.
In his direct, borderline chilly way, Lance said, ''Everyone should believe in something. I believed in surgery, chemotherapy, and my doctors.''
The questioner looked disappointed but I felt a surge of relief. Armstrong had stood his ground. He and I had agreed earlier in the day that the intrusion of faith-based treatment can be pernicious, almost like blaming the victim, and Lance had pointed out that ''Good, strong people get cancer and they do all the right things to beat it, and they still die.''
As we left, Lance grinned. ''I guess I won't be able to go into politics when I stop bike racing.''
I guess he was right about that.
I’m not worried about Lance. In the private time we spent together in Palo Alto (that was the fee I charged to come out and moderate the panel), he was engaged, warily friendly, twitchy with energy. When I brought up his rumored drug use, he was quick to express anger (more of an intimidating technique, I thought, than emotion). This was a hardcase, still the emotionally abused kid who smothered his psychic pain with real pain on a bike.
Two years ago, in my memoir, I interviewed myself about Lance. I asked, How would you feel if all the rumors about his use of performance enhancing drugs turned out to be true?
I answered, I’m willing to live with it. Let’s assume that Lance’s doctors have been so skillful that he never tested positive. Can we move on?
I still feel that way.
Last week, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which had stripped Armstrong of his seven Tour de France championships and banned him for life from professional cycling, released more than 1,000 pages of testimony from 26 people, including 15 cyclists, about Armstrong’s persistent and highly organized use of blood transfusions and banned drugs.
(A far better, and equally persuasive, read is “The Secret Race,” by a former team-mate, Tyler Hamilton, and Daniel Coyle.)
In response, Armstrong tweeted his lack of concern and his lawyers floated the possibility of him taking a lie detector test. It’s easy to believe that Lance could beat the test – his icy control is legend. It’s also possible that Lance, beyond delusion or denial, doesn’t really consider himself a cheat. After all there was a level playing field on the Pyrenees – wasn’t everybody juicing?
And that, of course, may be the point that takes us beyond pro bike racing – a sport that even I, like most Americans, can raise little passion for – and beyond Lance Armstrong, who has done more good than harm in his life but should be penalized for breaking the rules for which he signed up.
There is something faintly sinister about the Anti-Dope Party, whether it’s campaigning through cycling, the Olympics, baseball, or football (where it seems to have pretty much decided to fail). Wasting funds, energy, and the attention of citizens, the anti-dopers generally stay a half-life behind the dopers, who are driven to keep giving us the bigger, faster, more spectacularly vicious thrills we demand. By now, even fantasy leaguers understand that performance-enhancing techniques don’t promise success, only the chance to heal faster from harder and more frequent workouts.
As one who shoots steroids (a result of three cancer operations, a la Lance), I still can’t crush a fastball, much less ride up mountains at speed. (Typically, Lance sniffed at my fifteen-mile cycling routine as barely worth getting on a bike for.) But I do understand what doping can do, and done carefully it can be useful. In American sports, it has been generally available at least since the early Sixties. The promised reefer madness trail of death and twisted lives has never materialized, and certainly not on a scale of the damage caused by the conventionally encouraged violence of football.
Don’t cry for Lance Armstrong. That bully can take care of himself. Watch out for the righteous, wrong-headed anti-dopers, distracting us from more immediate and perilous concerns. Pedal hard. Take responsibility for yourself and be brave.
This ran in the The Nation's Aug. 15/22, 2011 Sports Issue
JOCKS VS. PUKES
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In the spring of that hard year, 1968, the Columbia University crew coach, Bill Stowe, explained to me that there were only two kinds of men on campus, perhaps in the world - Jocks and Pukes. He explained that Jocks, such as his rowers, were brave, manly, ambitious, focused, patriotic and goal-driven, while Pukes were woolly, distractible, girlish and handicapped by their lack of certainty that nothing mattered as much as winning. Pukes could be found among “the cruddy weirdo slobs” such as hippies, pot smokers, protestors and, yes, former English majors like me.
I dutifully wrote all this down, although doing so seemed kind of Puke-ish. But Stowe was such an affable ur-Jock, 28 years old, funny and articulate, that I found his condescension merely good copy. He’d won an Olympic gold medal, but how could I take him seriously, this former Navy officer who had spent his Vietnam deployment rowing the Saigon River and running an officer’s club? Unsurprisingly, he didn’t last long at Columbia. He had helped lead police officers through the underground tunnels to roust the Pukes who had occupied buildings during the anti-war and anti-racism demonstrations.
As a 30-year-old New York Times sports columnist then, I was not handicapped by as much lack of certainty about all things as I am now. It was clear to me then that Bill Stowe was a “dumb jock,” which does not mean stupid; it means ignorant, narrow, misguided by the values of Jock Culture, an important and often overlooked strand of American life.
These days, I’m not so sure he wasn’t right; the world may well be divided into Jocks and Pukes. Understanding the differences and the commonalities between the two might be one of the keys to understanding, first, the myths of masculinity and power that pervade sports, and then why those myths are inescapable in everyday life. Boys - and more and more girls – who accept those Jock Culture values often go on to flourish in a competitive sports environment that requires submission to authority, winning by any means necessary and group cohesion. They tend to grow up to become our political, military and financial leaders. The Pukes – those “Others” typically shouldered by Jocks in high school hallways and, I imagine, a large percentage of those who are warily reading this issue – were often turned off or away from competitive sports (or settled for cross-country). They were also more likely to go on to question authority and seek ways of individual expression.
This conditioning was possible because of the intrinsic joy of sports. Sports is good. It is the best way to pleasure your body in public. Sports is entertaining, healthful, filled with honest, sustaining sentiment for warm times and the beloved people you shared them with. At its most simple, think of playing catch in the lake with friends.
Jock Culture is a distortion of sports. It can be physically and mentally unhealthy, driving people apart instead of together. It is fueled by greed and desperate competition. At its most grotesque, think killer dodgeball for prize money, the Super Bowl.
(The clash between sports and the Jock Culture version is almost ideological, at least metaphorical. Obviously, I am for de-emphasizing early competition and re-distributing athletic resources so that everyone, throughout their lives, has access to sports. But then, I am also for world peace.)
Kids are initiated into Jock Culture when youth sports are channeled into the pressurized arenas of elite athletes on travel teams driven by ambitious parents and coaches. A once safe place to learn about bravery, cooperation and respect becomes a cockpit of bullying, violence and the commitment to a win-at-all-costs attitude that can kill a soul. Or a brain. It is here in PeeWee football, for example, that kids learn to “put a hat on him,” to make tackles head-first rather than the older, gentler way of wrapping your arms around a ball-carrier’s legs and dragging him down. Helmet-to-helmet hits start the trauma cycle early. No wonder the current concussion discussion was launched by the discovery of dementia and morbidity among former pro players.
There is no escape from Jock Culture. You may be willing to describe yourself as a Puke, “cut” from the team early to find your true nature as a billionaire geek, Grammy-winning band fag, wonkish pundit, but you’ve always had to deal with Jock Culture attitudes and codes, and you have probably competed by them. In big business, medicine, the law, people will be labeled winners and losers, and treated like stars or slugs by coach-like authority figures who use shame and intimidation to achieve short-term results. Don’t think symphony orchestras, university Philosophy departments and liberal magazines don’t of ten use such tactics.
Jock Culture applies the rules of competitive sports to everything. Boys, in particular, are taught to be tough, stoical, and aggressive, to play hurt, to hit hard, to take risks to win in every aspect of their lives. To dominate. After 9/11, I wondered why what seemed like a disproportionate number of athletic women and men were killed. From reading their brief New York Times memorials, it seemed as though most were former high school and college players, passionate week-end recreationists, or at least passionate sports fans. When I called executives from companies who had offices in the World Trade Center, I discovered it was no coincidence; stock trading companies in particular recruited athletes because they came to work even if they were sick, worked well in groups, rebounded quickly from a setback, pushed the envelope to reach the goal and never quit until the job was done. They didn’t have to be star jocks, but they did have to have been trained in the codes of Jock Culture, most importantly the willingness to subordinate themselves to authority.
The drive to feel that sense of belonging that comes with being part of a winning team – as athlete, coach, parent, cheerleader, booster, fan – is Jock Culture’s grip on the male psyche and on more and more women. Men have traditionally been taught to pursue their jock dreams no matter the physical, emotional, financial cost. Those who realized those dreams have been made rich and famous; at the least they were waived right through many of the tollbooths of ordinary life. Being treated like a celebrity at 12, freed from normal boundaries, excused from taking out the garbage or from treating siblings, friends, girls, responsibly, is no preparation for a fully realized life. No wonder there are so many abusive athletes, emotionally stunted ex-athletes and resentful onlookers.
At a critical time when masculinity is being re-defined, or at least re-examined seriously, this sports system has become more economically, culturally and emotionally important than ever. More at service to the Empire. More dangerous to the common good.
Games have become our main form of mass entertainment. (including made for TV entertainment contests using sports models). Winners of those games become our examples of permissible behavior, even when that includes cheating, sexual crimes, dog torturing. And how does that lead us to the cheating, the lying, the amorality in our lives outside the white lines? It’s not hard to connect the moral dots from the field house to the White House.
The recent emergence of girls as competitors of boys has also raised the ante. Boys have traditionally been manipulated by coaches, drill sergeants and sales managers by the fear of being labeled a girl (“sissy” and “faggot” have less to do with homophobia than misogyny). Despite the many ways that males can identify themselves as “real men” in our culture – size, sexuality, power, money, fame – nothing seems as indelible as the mark made in childhood when the good bodies are separated from the bad bodies, the team from the spectators. The designated athletes are rewarded with love, attention, perks. The left-overs struggle with their resentments and their search for identity.
Of course, the final score is not always a sure thing. There are sensitive linebackers and CEO’s, domineering shrinks and violinists. Who will win between the Facebook Puke Mark Zuckerberg and his fiercest competitors, the Olympic rowing Jocks Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss?
“I don’t follow that stuff these days, “ says Bill Stowe, now living in Lake Placid, New York, after retiring as crew coach and fundraiser for the Coast Guard Academy, a more comfortable fit than Columbia. “And I have to tell you, I don’t remember separating the world into Jocks and pukes, although it sounds good. I liked good brains in my boats, as long as they were willing to concentrate and pay the price.”
Stowe, at 70, is still a conservative Republican. but he doesn’t like to talk politics. “It’s time to give up the torch,” he says. “People are still living in ignorance, but I’m not running it up the flagpole anymore. Life’s too short to fight.”
He surprises me when we talk sports. “The big league thing, that’s a circus. I don’t understand how anyone could look up to those guys. But the real issue is with the kids. Did you read where they’re building a sixty million dollar football stadium for a high school in Texas? Just for the Jocks. Have you got any idea how much good you could do, even just in athletics, for all the other kids with that much money?”
I dutifully write all this down, which doesn’t at all seem Puke-ish now. We’re on the same page, the coach and I. There’s hope.
The Masters (did they mean Masters of the Universe?) is played at the Augusta National Club, in Georgia, which was founded in the early 1930’s for northeastern businessmen. Under pressure, the Club finally admitted at least one African-American member in 1990. Thirteen years later, it gave up millions in TV sponsorships rather than give in to a campaign to admit at least a token woman member.
But there’s far more to golf than mere lack of equality. Golf is an environmental nightmare, a waste of space, of fertilizer, of water. Think of the vegetables that could be grown on those useless lawns. Think of the lovely meadows, walking trails, wildlife sanctuaries.
Bernard Madoff was a golfer. There was even a links-linked red flag for his victims, according to a CNBC report that found his golf scores oddly consistent, too good to be true – just like his reported investment returns. And even the attempt to desegregate Augusta was really about making money – opening the higher levels of corporate deal-making to business women. Want to play a round with a Bernadette Madoff?
In these hard times, with fewer new golf clubs expected to open this year than old ones closing, according to the National Golf Foundation, while country clubs lower their dues and some sponsors on the 2009 PGA tour re-think their costs, I’ve been hoping this useless sport was finally in the rough. We’ll have to watch the scoreboard.
Meanwhile, I must disclose there’s a personal issue here.
April is the cruelest month for me because so many of my friends here in the northeast disappear. They’re out playing golf. When I complain, they tell me to come along, to take up the game.
Right. I’ve really thought about the joys of thrashing at a small object that’s not moving, then complaining about my performance to sympathetic listeners. Golf is not even a game, it’s a socially acceptable way to avoid your spouse, do business while pretending not to do business, or imagine you have a purpose in life.
I say all this to my friends and they either laugh or look at me with the pity that true believers reserve for sad cynics.
Randy Rothenberg, a digital trade executive, explained to me that golf is his way of trying to better himself without having to beat someone else. He defines his weaknesses and improves. Improves what, I ask? Your capacity to drink after you are done driving your little geezer cart up and down tiny hillocks?
Gary Paul Gates, most recently co-writer of Mike Wallace’s biography, tells me how I’ll make some new pals on the course. Like who, I snarl? Some guy who wants to sell me derivatives?
Tim Sullivan, a TV producer, describes the mysterious changes that golf has led him through, how it has healed his spirit and softened his temper. He even has a website (Sullivanwords.com) in which he writes about all this. Golf, I snicker, sounds like religion. He pats my head.
My friends are slipping off my social radar screen as we speak. The economy has given some of them more free time than usual, and we live near an inexpensive course. I know from past years I will feel a little pang this spring as I bicycle past my cold-weather friends driving their little wagons over the hills, laughing and discussing their lack of improvements and their spiritual handicaps while wearing their Tiger gear. It’s not the pang of feeling left out, but the pang of watching guys with some life left measuring it out in strokes they meticulously record.
It’s symbolic. I’m not expecting any major national turn-arounds as long as good people keep deluding themselves that chasing a little white ball is something as grand as hunting a great white whale. Our national denials will take us down as surely as Moby Dick drowned Captain Ahab. Who looks for terrorists, crooked politicians, greedy stock traders on a golf course? Who is trying to reform health care, regulate the markets, clean the air while putting?
If, however, you are among those trying to face reality these days and thus unable to sleep, I suggest you take advantage of golf’s single gift – watching any tournament on TV, including the Masters, is safer than taking sleeping pills.
This is from ESPN.COM
This is what I learned in high school this year: The kids are not all right, and some of them even know why.
I've been talking to high school kids, especially jocks, on my book tour for "Raiders Night," a controversial new young-adult novel about the aftermath of a brutal training-camp hazing incident. In the book, the coaches, the school and the town try to put a lid on the incident. On the tour, coaches, schools and towns have been trying to put a lid on the book.
"Raiders Night" has become a banned substance in many places. It is clearly R-rated. I've been told that the hazing scene is too graphic, and that the language, sex, recreational drugs and steroid use will offend the kind of parents who put locks on their computers. I can understand that. But I think something else is going on. I have been invited by librarians and teachers, the usual gatekeepers of language, then disinvited by athletic directors and principals.
This has happened now in such places as Austin, Texas, and Raleigh, N.C., which I can understand. High school football is a righteous church in Texas, and the apologetic librarians who met me in a Raleigh bookstore one night wondered if the troubles at nearby Duke might have rubbed everyone raw.
But Washington, D.C.?
The librarian of an upper crust boys school that educates the sons of senators and media bigfoots had invited me before. She was enthusiastic this time after reading "Raiders Night" reviews and a letter to her in which I wrote, "I'm also interested in creating a national dialogue about Jock Culture, its impact on kids and families and how some of its worst values and definitions – exclusivity, sexism and homophobia, domination, winning at any cost – have become ingrained in our national psyche. It's not hard to connect the dots from the field house to the White House."
She liked the idea that the protagonist, a steroid-using, Vicodin-popping wide receiver, struggles with his conscience; as a captain, he wants to do the right thing but also wants to do the best thing -- get a scholarship far away from his driven, abusive father. The librarian said making moral choices is a major topic at her school.
Not long afterward she sheepishly got back to me. The director of athletics had wondered why I wasn't also going to "talk about music" and the headmaster wondered if I couldn't talk about "violence in our society with jock culture as one of its manifestations." They didn't seem all that concerned about the language in the book, the sex and the drugs. I think they got the yips from the hard look at the dark side of high school sports, the arena in which they controlled their boys and whipped them into shape for the big time.
I wasn't going to change the message, and so I was disinvited.
As it turned out, the high school kids I did get to, in New York, Illinois, Michigan and California, weren't all that concerned about the language, the sex and drugs in the book, either. It was what they lived with every day. They said they could handle that. What they did want to talk about was something they obviously couldn't handle – betrayal by adult society.
At one suburban Chicago high school where more than a hundred juniors and seniors had read the book before I came to speak, the football players I talked to privately wanted to vent about their profound and sophisticated mistrust of coaches.
"There's like one coach I might talk to," a senior lineman told me, "an old guy, maybe 60, who doesn't have anything to prove. He's retired, he won a championship in another district, and he volunteers with us. But the head coach and the other guys, all they care about is winning. Play you hurt, mess with your head, they don't really care about us."
His friends agreed, although some of them weren't so sure about the old guy, either. When I brought up the tacit complicity of their parents, there was some eye rolling among themselves, but otherwise they got busy with the water and cookies the librarians had set out for us. As a group, they didn't want to go there. Alone, some players talked about how excited their dads and moms got at games, how important success at football seemed to be at home. It was clear that talking about it made them uneasy. Talking about it makes Dr. Michael Miletic mad.
"We're seeing an escalation of what is pure and simple child exploitation," he said. "Coaches and school administrators are doing it for personal – sometimes financial – gain and parents are doing it for emotional gain. In some cases it becomes child abuse."
Dr. Miletic was my coach and partner in the creation of "Raiders Night." Most of the book's best insights came from his medical practice and athletic experience. He is a Detroit-area psychiatrist who played high school football before majoring in weight-lifting and becoming a Canadian heavyweight champion and a member of the Olympic team.
"It's very seductive when adults promise a kid fame, power, glory. But what they are really doing is derailing and skewing his development, taking away his chance of having healthy relationships, moral values, of a grounded control of his own life."
He wasn't at all surprised about my tales of athletes' distrust of adults. "They see what's going on. How can they trust authority figures? What's interesting is in the past 10 years or so, the moral authority of coaches has eroded and parents are taking over, using the coaches as vehicles for their kids' advancement, threatening their jobs if they don't win. The parents are putting pressure on the coaches as well as the kids. No wonder there's steroids and abusive behavior."
All this is happening right now because high school sports is the next gusher in the jock entertainment complex. The ground is already rumbling. It took H.G. Bissinger's classic, "Friday Night Lights," 14 years to make it from the page to the big screen, but now it's a network TV show as well. Its time has come. Hoover High of Birmingham, Ala., arguably the best prep team in the country, has its own MTV show, "Two-A-Days." Last year, an ESPN reality show, "Bound for Glory," featured the football team of Montour High in McKees Rocks, Pa., trying to return to its state championship days with Dick Butkus as coach, Reebok uniforms and a new $40,000 scoreboard.
Meanwhile, ESPN and Fox Sports will be televising 21 high school football and basketball games nationally. Nationally. Sports Illustrated has joined USA Today in publishing high school rankings (they already proliferate online) and stories of high school and college scouts at Pee Wee games are no longer strange but true. It may be the reason the shoe companies are phasing out their meat-market summer camps – the college coaches know who the blue chips are by the time they get out of junior high. Two years ago, Judith Thompson, then marketing director for the National Federation of State High School Associations, told the New York Times, ''Corporate involvement at the high school level is about to explode nationwide. It's an unlimited, untapped market and it is in places companies often can't easily reach. But on any given Friday night, in all those middle-American flyover states, sitting in high school football stadiums are millions of people.''
By the next day, she later told SportsBusiness Journal, "Cell phone companies, quick-serve restaurants, pizza – they were all calling. Fortune 500 companies with big budgets."
But nothing much happened because the federation has no real power over its member state associations who could not agree on a national system of championships that could be underwritten by giant corporations. While almost every state needs the money, most of them were not ready to give up local power and/or make deals with the devil.
So that's how close the high school sports biz is right now to becoming a commercial minor league for colleges in much the way the college sports biz is a commercial minor league for pro sports. All it needs is a charismatic leader, a Baron de Coubertin, a Bill France, a Peter Ueberroth.
That commercialization may already have happened in Texas, where naming rights for high school fields go for a million or more and Friday night games have traditionally not been televised in real time to protect the live box office. Dave Stephenson of Titus Sports Marketing, who brokered the $1.9 million naming deal in Tyler, Texas, told SportsBusiness Journal, "Every superintendent in Texas has in his files a contract for Coke or Pepsi or Dr Pepper that runs 10 years for seven figures. Now they want to know what else is out there."
Everything's out there, and once it comes in anything goes. The pressure on high school kids to perform will be even more intense than on college kids, who tend to be less vulnerable to coaches and dads (especially if they're not living at home), and more aware that this will probably be their final level of play.
High school boys, those immortal risk takers, seduced and excited by Showtime arriving along with hormonal tsunamis and a driver's license, will put their souls, bodies and neurons on the line to make men proud.
Steroid use will escalate, of course. While it may be, as Dr. Miletic believes, only a symptom of exploitation and abuse, it is the most vivid window on just how insidiously adults betray children.
Here is a common scenario, from jocks on the road and from Dr. Miletic's case histories.
In late spring, before the end of classes and the start of the "voluntary" captains' weight-lifting sessions, one of the assistant football coaches will take a junior aside and casually say, "You know, if you could put on 30 pounds this summer, you could get a I-A ride."
The kid is no dummy; he knows what that means. The andro and creatine aren't enough anymore. He's seen older kids put on muscle over a summer and start hitting like trucks. They'd spring pimples on their backs and some nasty moods, but those who stuck with the lifting program along with the juice often got their scholarships. On the other hand, he knew that 30 pounds worth of anabolic steroids could cost $5,000.
At dinner that night, the kid repeats what the coach said to his dad, who nods and says, "You better hit the weights this summer."
"What about my job?"
"Maybe I can help you out."
The kid goes upstairs and Googles anabolic steroids, which he has done before, but this time he is trying to absorb enough information so he doesn't look like a newbie when he goes into the market. He roams the suppliers who promise good gear and no scams and no chance of "sweater melons" or raging acne. He checks the ads for additives called Velocity and Thermocharge. He pauses in the chat rooms where lifters discuss stacking and pyramiding and how only a fool doesn't take a break after eight weeks. Nobody is talking right or wrong here, just the right way and the wrong way to cycle properly and grow big. He's nervous, but it's obvious that thousands of guys have done this before.
As expected, dad leaves his wallet out, with enough cash for a start. Soon enough, he'll leave out a debit card.
The kid is wary of mail order, so he talks to some lifters who played ball in past years and eventually finds his way to an ironhead gym on the highway and a friend of a friend who deals out of his trunk in the parking lot. Nice guy. He takes the time to show the kid how to inject into a thigh muscle. They practice on an orange.
This is based, I repeat, on anecdotal evidence, not scientific surveys. Which amazes me. With all the leaked BALCO papers, the reefer madness warnings from anti-doping officials and the media moralizing about big-league enhanced performers, there isn't much hard information on steroids and sports, especially its effect on the fastest-growing population of users, high school athletes. No one wants to deal with it, I think, because all that entertainment money is beginning to cascade down to the high school level and everybody wants a taste.
Even more dangerous than steroid use, I think, will be the widening gap between Jocks and Outsiders (also known as Pukes). It started in elementary school, of course, choosing up sides, dividing the already insecure into good bodies and bad bodies, and then took off as the littlest leagues started skimming their cream into traveling teams, some of whom roam the world with sneaker contracts.
The Jock-Outsider gap became a Sunday morning discussable after the 1999 Columbine massacre. I weighed in with a New York Times column on the shootings as a response to the arrogant, entitled behavior of high school athletes, as encouraged by the adults who lived vicariously through them. The e-mail was overwhelming. It became an Internet forum that wouldn't quit as middle-aged men exposed the emotional scars of high school.
This was typical:
When I attended high school, I had so much built-up anger from being treated unfairly that, if I had access to guns or explosives, I would have been driven to do a similar thing to take revenge on the bastard jocks who dominated the school and made those four years miserable for me. After high school, I was not surprised to hear that a handful of these jocks had either died as a result of drunk driving and drug overdoses, or had spent a little time in jail for violence or drug possession. As for the dead ones, I would probably pee on their graves.
Here's one from a jock:
We really did get special attention both from the students and from the teachers. We also did cruel things to other students. I have a 20th school anniversary this summer and plan on seeking forgiveness from the people I know I helped terrorize.
When I read those e-mails to high school kids on the "Raiders Night" tour, I expected eye rolling and snorts. Instead, they gave each other knowing glances. Two football players who had feet in both the Jock and the Outsider camps told me separately about other athletes "trash-canning" band geeks in the cafeteria or stuffing them into their lockers. Not a lot had changed from John Hughes' teen flicks of the '80s.
One of the biculturals seemed more like a character than a real kid. He was a Goth, tattooed, dressed in black with studs through his eyebrows. He looked quick and wiry. He said he was a receiver and cornerback. He took out the jewelry for games. The other football players gave him some crap for his clothes and piercings, but he could deal with it. The Goths couldn't understand at all how he could play. He seemed to be getting off being both a Jock outlaw and an Outsider outlaw. Eventually he was going to have to make a choice between the one created by adult authority and the one created to flout adult authority.
Just a few years ago, I went to Massachusetts to cover the coming out of an American icon, a high school football captain. His parents and teachers already knew Corey Johnson was gay, but now he had to tell his teammates. One freshman freaked. He ran to the other football captain and squeaked, "How do you expect me to shower with a gay guy?"
The captain said, "You're a football player, suck it up."
That seemed to turn the tide. They all sucked it up, got past it, and after they won the next game they presented Corey with the ball and on the bus ride home sang "YMCA."
I told that story on the book tour, and while I had to explain in some places that "YMCA" was considered, in the '90s, a gay theme song, the jocks liked the idea of sucking it up, of being tough. The macho thing.
Not all of them bought it. The other bicultural, an immense lineman with none of the muscle definition, Cro-Magnon jaw or acne you associate with juicers, told me he was president of the Science Club and was known around school as Captain Geek. He didn't expect to play college ball (actually, he said, he hoped he wouldn't have to, that he would get into MIT on a physics ride) and he was late to practice so we could talk privately. That surprised me. Didn't coach have rules? Sure, Captain Geek told me, but they didn't apply to 325-pounders who couldn't care less. He said he mostly played football so no one would mess with him or his friends. He told me that the sex, steroids and recreational drugs in the book were real, and that he had a better story.
A couple of years ago, he told me, his school's quarterback dumped his girlfriend just before Homecoming and took the replacement to the postgame parties. The ex followed them with her cell phone. She e-mailed the pictures she took of the backfield drinking and smoking pot to the coach and the principal. They were suspended.
We laughed about that and I promised him credit if there was a sequel.
Then he got serious. I don't think what he said was aberrational, that he was the only one who thought of it, but I do think he was a kid whose unusual situation gave him a rare emotional freedom, if not fearlessness.
"You know," he said, lowering his voice, "even the kids who drink the Kool-Aid know what's going on. The coaches are getting over on us. The school looks good when we win. Nobody's giving up his body for the coach or the school – it's for your teammates, your buddies. I guess Iraq is like that."
The Following appeared on my favorite political site TOMDISPATCH.COM