Robert Lipsyte Paul D. Zimmerman - Essay

Paul D. Zimmerman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For fourteen years, as the most original and elegant writer on the sports staff of The New York Times, Robert Lipsyte served as a high priest of that secular religion he now calls SportsWorld. He promoted its mythologies, helped enshrine its gods—but with a growing disaffection that has given birth to this persuasive volume of dissent. "SportsWorld" is more than Lipsyte's record of his own loss of innocence and growing apostasy. And it is more than a peppery chronicle of the changing sports ethos of the '60s and '70s, although the book sparkles with insightful portraits of figures ranging from the self-protectively spaced-out Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Muhammad Ali, Lipsyte's premier subject throughout his journalistic career.

The book is a culmination of that gathering body of radical, wised-up sports writing that has tried to view sports as the principal disseminator of the American way. (pp. 120, 122)

Lipsyte's SportsWorld is a state of mind, a constellation of sentimental standards, a universe of invented heroes who are cast by the press to satisfy and act out our fantasies. "A sportswriter learns early," he writes, "that his readers are primarily interested in the affirmation of their faiths and their prejudices…." So Sonny Liston plays the role of the Black Heavy. Mickey Mantle, in private often arrogant and abusive, is cast publicly as the Golden Boy. Yogi Berra, gratuitously rude to fans, succumbs to the cuddly-clown image invented for him by Joe Garagiola. And Vince Lombardi, because he wins, is cast as a saint. (p. 122)

Lipsyte's book, for all its keen theorizing, is not a tract, but a collection of essays with a common theme. Along the way, he leaves himself room to include a marvelously self-disparaging account of his narcissistic flirtation with tennis; a capsule history of sports writing with clearly drawn dynastic lines, and a wry obituary on pro basketball, which the national media have stopped promoting as the "Sport of the Seventies," he charges, because it is so dominated by blacks.

For all his disaffection, Lipsyte still loves sports. He only laments our transformation into a nation of sideline fantasists…. Read him, and you will never look at a sports event in quite the same way again. (p. 125)

Paul D. Zimmerman, "Cold Shower," in Newsweek (copyright 1975, by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LXXXVI, No. 21, November 24, 1975, pp. 120, 122, 125.