An Accidental Sportswriter | by Robert Lipsyte | Ecco | 256 pages, $25.99

Robert Lipsyte’s An Accidental Sportswriter doesn’t leave the impression that sportswriting is incompatible with journalism, per se. Rather it’s that journalistic skepticism and independence are too often discarded by quasi-fans who report from inside locker rooms. What makes Lipsyte’s new memoir such a plum, especially to us scribes who have written for the odd sports section, is Lipsyte’s ability to core his own profession with the same antagonistic bent that got him through an on-again, off-again career writing sports and features for The New York Times and sundry network television work. Whatever your bone about the quality of sports media, Lipsyte likely has the same gripe, in trump suit.

While he chides himself for missing big stories during his career—not uncovering a fifteen-year-old Tiger Woods was one—he upbraids his colleagues for ignoring real news on their beats, for “godding up” jocks, and for reacting with feigned moral outrage when someone outside the “the lodge brothers” (Lipsyte’s term for sports journos) punctures the culture with something so outrageous as outside perspective.

On the deafening silence following Woods’s Cadillac-crashing marital meltdown: “Most golf writers tended to be quiet at first, soaking in their shame, I’d like to think. What a crew of house pets!”

On the reaction from NASCAR writers once he left the beat and published a book: “I sensed begrudgment. Did they think I had crossed to the other side, did they resent me as a scorpion who’d gotten out of the barrel?”

On the decay of the business as a whole: “Mass media conferences are tightly controlled now. One-on-one interviews are negotiated with agents and public relations advisers. Sportswriting has become another department of celebrity journalism. As it should be. I may feel nostalgic about interviewing Namath at the pool or Casey Stengel at the bar, but those memories seem like tribal legends.”

And then there’s this hypodermic jab at the ghost of The Sweet Science author A.J. Liebling, which itself demonstrates Lipsyte’s penchant for butter-smooth wording: “It would be some time before I began to figure out why so many of the boxing trainers and cornermen who seemed all but mute to me were masters of aphorism for him. Liebling was a superb writer.” Note that he didn’t say superb reporter. In Lipsyte’s hands, elision, that staple of look-the-other-way celebrity coverage, can also be used to un-god a subject.

Unlike most sportswriters, Lipsyte was never what you’d call a fan. To him, sport was never an end to itself but instead a conduit for life at large. Muhammad Ali was beautiful, brash, casually racist, relentlessly libidinous—and, yes, a boxer. Billie Jean King was “a mind in motion, one of the smartest athletes I’ve known.” Lipsyte extols her effect on femininity in sport while barely mentioning the Battle of the Sexes, which he attended.

Apart from exceptions like those two and Joe DiMaggio, whose other-ness from the jock circus did appear to move Lipsyte, the admiration the author feels for his subject seems inversely proportional to a given athlete’s fame. Mickey Mantle was pushy, brusque and vain. Bill Walton, at twenty-three, “seemed kind of goofy and didn’t have all that much interesting to say.” He dotes on pioneers—the high school football star who came out to his teammates with bravery and grace, the Onandaga chief who bridges cultures through lacrosse—and on the occasional Gay Talese or Howard Cosell or DiMaggio, who, like Lipsyte, never quite embraced the sporting lives they came to inhabit.

Lipsyte is justifiably hard on the lodge brothers, sparing himself least. He calls an inner tantrum sparked by a lackluster Ali interview “my egoshit.” He excoriates himself for not standing up to administrators who refused to offer his daughter’s favorite sport, soccer, to the girls in her high school: “In retrospect, I feel ashamed. And stupid. What a chance to put into practice all that abstract reporting, that pose of liberated macho, make a fuss, challenge the school, create a soccer team. Be useful.” If there’s a thread of regret running through the book, it may be Lipsyte’s cool regard for his own sporting oeuvre. He seems happiest when smuggling topics of heavier social import (gender discrimination, racial turmoil) past the metal detectors of the sports page.

There’s a great case to be made, and he makes it, that sports journalism was a worm-eaten craft even before athletes’ ballooning salaries goaded writers from boosterism to cynicism. If anything, Lipsyte may be too rough on sports pages, which are beloved by readers who otherwise might not so much as scan a newspaper. You can’t fault him for holding sportswriters to the same standards as other journalists. But I would posit to him that the simplicity of sportswriting as a whole is in fact its appeal. I would also suggest to any self-aware reader that beyond a certain age—fourteen seems about right—you should be skimming game coverage and spending real time on sports coverage, like Lipsyte’s, that attempts to engage your prefrontal lobe rather than your brain stem.

Lipsyte mentions the first several novels he has written for young adults, The Contender, released in 1967: “The times were right for the book … [T]here was a generation of librarians and teachers dedicated to getting realistic fiction into the hands of boys. That’s been a mission of mine, too.” The wry implication, in my reading, is that sportswriting is largely realistic fiction for boys (and girls). As snide as that could seem, it’s not unfair. Sports—not politics, business, policy or even the arts—is that thing you can follow with a relatively high degree of sophistication before you understand much of anything about adults. Considering adults’ record on those other matters, you may be the better for it.

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Sam Eifling has won national and regional awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for his sportswriting.