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A League of Fans Special Feature

Robert Lipsyte

Robert Lipsyte was an award-winning sportswriter for the New York Times. His book SportsWorld: An American Dreamland, published in 1975, is a seminal work in the field of sports journalism. It was one of the first sports books to not “god up” the athletes or view games as sacramental events.

Lipsyte grew up in Queens and graduated from Columbia with a degree in English. He then planned on heading to California to pursue his dream of writing novels and screenplays for a living. But in a rather flukey turn of events, a short-term summer job at the New York Times turned into a full-time gig as a sportswriter. As such, his recently released memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter is aptly titled. Lipsyte is the author of numerous books, including twelve acclaimed novels for young adults.

Lipsyte was interviewed by Ken Reed, League of Fans’ Sports Policy Director.

Ken Reed: Sports Illustrated’s Alexander Wolff nominated you for his magazine’s 2011 Sportsman of the Year. In his nomination article, Wolff said you “always approached sports as an anthropologist.” Do you think that’s an accurate description of your working style?

Robert Lipsyte: When I started writing about sports for the Times in the ‘50’s, I had no intention of being irreverent, or of being an anthropologist. I wasn’t writing to draw attention to myself. I just started writing feature articles without regarding athletes as sacred cows. I simply approached sports in an open way – not as a fan, and not as a cynic. I found that the least interesting aspect was the games themselves. The people and issues involved were intensely exciting. Covering sports really leads you into the world. It will take you anywhere you want to go.

KR: Why do you think there aren’t more sportswriters and broadcasters who approach sports the way you have?

RL: Well, increasingly broadcasters have become essentially partners with the sports organizations they’re covering because the companies these broadcasters work for are also presenting the games.

We’ve had some wonderful investigative exposes in sports, especially with the recent scandals in college sports, but what they’ve basically all said is “We’ve located the cancer, just cut out the tumor and we’ll be fine,” rather than saying, “The whole system is corrupt.”

Look at the Penn State situation. The feeling in the sports media seems to be “Just get rid of everyone and the thing will be whole again.” But it’s the system that’s the problem in college sports. The way individual football players have been treated — one-year contracts, no protection from physical injuries, etc. — it’s terrible.

Actually, some of the best work on sports today is being done by serious non-sports people, who are beginning to look harder at the system and its corrupting institutions.

KR: You’ve said throughout your career that when covering athletes its important not to “god ‘em up.” Could you elaborate on that?

RL: Basically, pro athletes are ordinary people with extraordinary skills. In many ways they’ve been socially retarded since they were 12. They haven’t had to take out the garbage, learn to be nice to girls, or do a lot of other things that non-athletes have to do growing up. They too often don’t have much real-world perspective.

They do tend to eventually gain that perspective after their careers are over. There aren’t many things as much fun as talking to former major leaguers who’ve gained a wealth of experience and perspective. Of course, at that point, not too many people are interested in what they have to say.

KR: Why do you think it’s so tough to get people’s attention and get them engaged when it comes to issues and problems in sports?

RL: It’s tough because when it comes to sports people basically want to be entertained. They just want this pleasurable escape from reality. Sports are the most valid form of reality TV going. It’s emotionally satisfying. It’s wonderful entertainment. It’s an easy way for members of dysfunctional families to talk to each other and express themselves.

Throughout my career, perhaps the sentence I’ve heard most from people is, “I turn to the sports pages because the news on the front page is too dreary.” Well, now the news in the sports pages is often dreary and most people don’t like that. They want their sports entertainment left alone. It’s that type of mindset that makes what the League of Fans is trying to do so difficult.

KR: What do you think needs to happen for significant sports reform to take place in this country?

RL: Actually, we should be thinking about insignificant sports reform! Change at the lowest levels. Each person who cares about sports – through acts of moral courage – needs to work for small changes locally, in their schools and with their community sports organizations. Everyone needs to think of all the small ways they can help protect our children in sports, and what they can do to make sports more pleasurable for young people, how they can increase positives like camaraderie and collaboration, etc.

Unless reform starts happening in a small way at the grassroots level with progressive, enlightened people, it’s going to be difficult to accomplish.

Reform at the highest, big-time levels of sports will be hard to do because these organizations are all doing so well financially and that’s what drives decisions.

KR: You definitely seem more interested in bottom-up vs. top-down sports reform efforts. Is that fair to say?

RL: Yes. Any revolution starts in the countryside, with the peasants rising up. The influence of the power holders in sports won’t change unless the peasants rise up. What’s needed is for moms and dads to stand up and demand that youth sports be safer for their children, especially when it comes to the issue of concussions in sports.

We need courageous individuals who are willing to take a stand with their local sports power brokers — the little league directors, school sports administrators, etc. We need excited individuals to start reform in every state, to build state-by-state grassroots organizations.

KR: What’s the biggest problem in American sports today?

RL: I think there are two. One, the most identifiable, is concussions and brain trauma in sports. The second, more abstract problem is that to a large degree our society’s definitions and values of manhood come out of sports and jock culture. That’s problematic.

KR: What makes you feel negative about sports today?

RL: In the sense of the conglomeratization of sports, the perceived agents of journalism – ESPN, Fox, NBC – have become so involved with the leagues that it’s hard to believe you can get honest journalism from them. The systemic criticism needed in sports is not going to happen as long as the same people that broadcast the games also report on the games.

KR: What makes you feel positive about sports today?

RL: More people are waking up and realizing that we need watchdogs in sports. I think the presence of the League of Fans is a very positive development. We need more individuals and groups like League of Fans making us aware of what’s going on. It helps make people courageous. I believe in preaching to the choir because you have to keep the choir brave. That leads to more individuals rising up.

KR: What one thing are you most proud of in your career?

RL: Oh, I think just lasting as long as I have and still enjoying what I do. What an amazing world sports is and what a tremendous window it provides on the rest of life. I’m happy. Anything I’ve done during my career that might be meaningful is up to other people to determine.

KR: Any last recommendations for those who love sports and want to work to make them better?

RL: Get started in your own community. Occupy Sports Street, if you will. Really get out there. You might have to give up something, maybe boycott something. Take on the local sports bureaucrats.

Most importantly, find ways to safeguard the children in sports, our young athletes. For example, if a local school or sports organization can’t afford doctors — or at least trainers — at games, maybe we can’t afford sports. We need safeguards in place at a very early age, especially with concussions.

If we focus on sports reform at the lowest levels there will be positive ramifications all the way up to the pro level.

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