Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

May 28, 2011

A Sportswriter Who Prefers Opera

Former New York Times columnist Robert Lipsyte shares memories from his career as a sportswriter who cares little for the games we pay to watch.

Andrew Golding

On a rainy May night in Manhattan, Robert Lipsyte is the featured speaker at the Barnes & Noble store on East 86th Street. Lipsyte is seated in the front of the room, a bottle of water next to him, and a crowd the size of an NFL team in attendance. Among those assembled are assorted family members, his agent, and Joseph Lelyveld, the former executive editor of the New York Times, where Lipsyte worked for a quarter century.

Robert Lipsyte
"I've always approached sports as something I cover. I don't really care about the outcome of games, who wins, who loses."

Robert Lipsyte

Lipsyte sits next to his son Sam, a successful author in his own right and the interviewer on this evening. Here to promote his book, An Accidental Sportswriter, the elder Lipsyte mentions some of the athletes he has covered in over 50 years in the sports world: Muhammad Ali, "the most beautiful creature any of us had ever seen—he glowed" and Mickey Mantle, who made a "rude and impossible suggestion" upon first meeting.

Lipsyte tells his life story in An Accidental Sportswriter, the personal and professional journey from bullied kid at school, to copyboy at the Times, to a respected columnist who mostly wrote about sports.

"My strength as a sportswriter was the same as my weakness," he explains. "I did not have the background."

Lipsyte is not a sports fan. He's not thinking about the Heat-Bulls playoff game later that Wednesday night, which is must-see viewing for some in attendance (including me). He makes no apologies for his stance. "It always was a summer job in my mind," Lipsyte said, in an earlier conversation. "I always had one foot out the door. I didn't have the background that a real fan would have brought to the job. A lot of sportswriters are real fans. And they come into sportswriting with an enormous background, not unlike a lot of other kinds of journalists—music critics who have been listening to opera since they were nine, for example. And so I came in without a lot of preconceptions, and a kind of fresh journalistic approach, but I also didn't know a lot of things, and I'm sure I made a lot of mistakes and missed things along the way. There are all kinds of ways to be a sportswriter, and this was just my way."

In the following interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Lipsyte tells Gelf why some Bill Bradley material got cut, why he rarely took his son to the ballgame, and why the war on performance-enhancing drugs needs to be expanded or dropped.

Gelf Magazine: This is your 23rd book, the culmination of your work in sports. Was this an easy book to write? Was it a smooth process, or did this take longer than your other books?

Robert Lipsyte: The first draft was very easy. It just kind of flowed out, and then I turned it over to my three readers—my wife Lois, who is a writer; my son Sam, who is a novelist; and an editor friend, Jay Lovinger—and they all kicked it back to me with the same feeling: that what I had written was basically my greatest hits, that it was kind of a regurgitation of the characters that I had written about in the past, rather than trying to really go deep and find out what those characters had meant to me.

The original seed of the book had been the idea that, just as a teacher learns from students, a journalist learns from subjects. It was kind of an interesting succession of subjects who really were meaningful with my growth, and the early drafts certainly reflected that, but I had not really gotten into the impact that they had on me.
What was interesting was that, in rewriting the book, some of the subjects actually changed. Bill Bradley, for example, had had a big role in the book, as we had become friends, I knew a lot about him, and it was easy to write about him. But I realized that he really was not a great teacher of mine, as such, not as important to me as the Indian chief Oren Lyons.
The succeeding drafts went a lot slower. It was sometimes raw and painful to really view stuff I had never really dealt with before, and I think that it became a different book and a better book than it would have been otherwise.

Gelf Magazine: From an early age—when you were, as you write, fat and unathletic—you considered yourself an outsider, and that continued into your sportswriting career. Would you have preferred to be one of the cool kids—one of the "hoods," as you called them?

Robert Lipsyte: It was never an option. First of all, it was the way I arrived. And second all of, once I really got a grip on what the sports world was like, I didn't want to be an insider. Being an insider would have meant giving up too much. My son once asked me why I never took him to ballgames while I was a sportswriter. And the answer was, I didn't want to be beholden for free tickets, for the access to the really great seats. I didn't want to take my kids to the locker room. I felt I would lose some freedom along the way. I think you just can't go around biting the hands that feed you. And I think that once I understood that, I also understood that the kind of sportswriting that I wanted to do, and probably the only kind I really could do successfully, required maintaining a certain distance.

Gelf Magazine: You joined the New York Times as a copyboy at age 19 after a city water-truck job fell through. If the water-truck job had worked out, what would you have done with your life?

Robert Lipsyte: The life that I saw for myself is pretty much the life that my son Sam is living. Sam is a professor at Columbia and he has published four books. The last one, a novel called The Ask: A Novel, was a Times bestseller and had an enormous amount of acclaim. He's a darkly comic writer and I think he's great. He worked very hard: He was a frontman for a rock band after college and he went through some really hard times, but now he's living this great kind of middle-class existence as a renowned novelist with two great kids and a wonderful wife, and he never sold out. His stuff has always been difficult for a lot of people. I don't think that I have his talent so I don't know that things actually would have worked out quite the same way, but I think I would have been a writer of some kind if the horse-watering truck had worked out. And if it actually had worked out, maybe I would be still driving it; I would be a city employee of some stripe.

Gelf Magazine: The section of the book involving Howard Cosell stands out—your relationship with him, your analysis of his personality, and your conversations with his grandson. What would Howard—if he were alive now—think of the book, of your career, of how it evolved?

Robert Lipsyte: He was pretty much a booster of mine, which did not endear me to other writers and sportscasters, because he could be really nasty. I think he would have been happy—happy with his chapter, even with the criticisms of him. I think that he liked being taken seriously, and I certainly took him seriously.

Gelf Magazine: You present such nuanced, colorful portraits of these top athletes—Ali, Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, and Lance Armstrong. You really detail their imperfections. Did you like them at all? Did you want to like them? Did it matter?

Robert Lipsyte: I could have enormous affection for Ali without being really sure how much of it had to with the great career moves he made for me. I mean, if he hadn't beaten Liston, we wouldn't be talking.
I despised Mantle until the mid-'80s, when I saw that kind of glimpse of him and began to understand what other people might have seen in him; I still didn't like him.
Lance Armstrong is really not likeable, as such. I admire him enormously, I think he's terrific, and in many ways he is the closest that I've ever come to a sports hero or role model (as a fellow cancer survivor). But I don't think we ever clicked emotionally.
I like Billie Jean King—I really like her a lot.

Gelf Magazine: Your stance on performance-enhancing drugs stunned me. You argue that the war on drugs was lost a long time ago, so we should forget about it and stop making it such a big deal. How much does your own battle with testicular cancer and using testosterone drugs impact that view?

Robert Lipsyte: I don't know. It is very possible that anybody who has taken a lot of chemotherapy and a lot of adjuvant drugs would have a more liberated attitude toward putting shit in your body. I think we're also not serious about this stuff. If we were, we would be making a really major effort to see that anybody under the age of 20 can't get near this stuff, because that's where the damage is done. It's like the concussions that cause a former NFL player to have dementia—it probably didn't happen in Green Bay, Wisconsin, playing for the Packers, it happened in the pee-wee leagues and all the way up, all that constant minor trauma.
I think that taking steroids early on—when your brain and bones are still in the process of maturing—is extremely dangerous, so we should really be testing and keeping them out of middle school, high school, and college. As far as pros, I don't think it fucking matters. These are celebrity entertainers and I want to be entertained. I don't care what they do. I think that the NFL is probably out of control—the league tests during the season, and then they don't test in the offseason, when the players could be on drug cycles. I think most baseball players and football players who want to take drugs are taking drugs, and that they're doing it in a more expensive and sophisticated way, with chemists who really know how to mask and cycle. So, I really think it's like the war on drugs in the larger society—it's been lost.

Gelf Magazine: If you were commissioner of any sport, a decision maker who could institute change, what would you do to make that sport better?

Robert Lipsyte: I don't really have any complaints. I enjoy the games. Make them faster? Make baseball games shorter? Why? What exactly do you have to do? The idea of sprawling on the couch with a drink and kind of watching or not watching a baseball game—that's terrific.
And also, trying to change a sport is what a fan thinks about, and I'm not a fan. I mean, what am I fan of? I'm an opera fan. I could talk about the Ring Cycle and Verdi, I could take 10 to 15 minutes out of every Puccini and Donizetti opera, and I could tell you which singers I don't really much like. I don't have the same feelings about sports. I've always approached sports as something I cover. I don't really care about the outcome of games, who wins, who loses. I'm still wedded to the idea of what I really cared about when I was watching a game: how I could write about it. I cared about which outcome would be better for my story, and how soon did I want the game to be over because I had a plane to catch.

Andrew Golding

Andrew Golding works in the television industry in New York. He twitters at

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Article by Andrew Golding

Andrew Golding works in the television industry in New York. He twitters at

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