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An Accidental Sportswriter

By ANN LEVIN For The Associated Press
May 2, 2011 (AP)


"An Accidental Sportswriter: A Memoir" (HarperCollins), by Robert Lipsyte: In more than 50 years covering sports, the longtime New York Times columnist Robert Lipsyte prided himself on being a sportswriter who wasn't a fan.


A fat, brainy kid who got beat up in grammar school, Lipsyte majored in English at Columbia University and wanted to be a novelist. "Truth was in the sweep of fiction, I thought, not in a string of little facts," he writes.


But after college, he lucked into a summer job as a copyboy in the Times sports department and fell in love with daily journalism as it was practiced at the Times.


There, with Gay Talese as his mentor, he developed a singular voice that, by temperament and life experience, invariably sided with the underdog. Alert to the social and political changes convulsing the era, he befriended Dick Gregory, eventually collaborating with him on his autobiography. Gregory's scabrous humor about the corrosive affect of racism left a lasting mark.


When Lipsyte was rewarded with a column after 10 years of chasing daily news, including his biggest story, Muhammad Ali, he gravitated to stories with a sharp racial or political edge: lacrosse on an Indian reservation, gay athletes coming out.

"I could enjoy the Kentucky Derby ... as a great horse race, a splendid party and a vignette of Americana only the first couple of times I covered it before issues of class, race and equine exploitation became impossible to ignore," he writes.

Even though he interviewed the greatest sports stars of his era — Ali, Mickey Mantle, Billie Jean King, Lance Armstrong — he never wanted to "god up" the players.


He perceived a bigger story beyond the game scores — something he dubbed Jock Culture, which he saw as a defining aspect of American society. That might sound like a good thing because aren't professional athletes known for hard work and sacrifice? Yes, but people get old and bodies fail, and although athletes may be able to postpone the inevitable with performance-enhancing drugs, eventually they, too, will be used up and discarded.


Jock Culture glorifies the young, the strong and the beautiful, and Lipsyte, the would-be Chekhov, gets the tragic implications. That's why his columns, and this marvelous memoir, "An Accidental Sportswriter," are so affecting.


When readers would hector him about why his work was always so political, at first he put it off on his liberal parents. "Then I thought — now I always think — why isn't everyone else's work more political?"