Robert Lipsyte Roger Kahn - Essay

Roger Kahn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

No one reading "SportsWorld" will doze. Lipsyte's portraits of Muhammad Ali and Joe Namath ring beautifully. His political commentary proceeds from a decent respect for mankind. But in the end "SportsWorld" works as an entertainment, not as social commentary, which, indeed, may be true of sports itself.

"SportsWorld" is Lipsyte's newspeak for the hierarchy of owners, television executives and journalists who sell and propagandize spectator sports. He dislikes their collective view for its hyperbole, its cynicism and its preachment that watching games automatically ennobles the spirit. Then he asserts, "The 1972 Arab massacre of Israeli athletes was a hideously logical extension of SportsWorld philosophy." No. That was an extension of nationalism, which is part of the Olympics and nihilism, which is not. Hyperbole on one side is not well met with hyperbole from another.

He criticizes writers "who shed SportsWorld tears for the knees of Joe Namath and all our crippled heroes, playing through agony to teach us courage." He prefers to find bravery in "Jacqueline Susann and Cornelius Ryan writing through agony for us, dying of cancer." I am as anti-cancer as Mr. Lipsyte but if Miss Susann was writing that wretched book for me, she was not only suffering, but wasting her time. (pp. 4-5)

Sportswriters, Lipsyte asserts, have been the most harmful of newspapermen. Their puffery, their reluctance to ask unpleasant questions created the dreamland that so troubles him. I covered the Dodgers in 1952 and Barry Goldwater in 1964. Newspapermen traveling with the old Dodgers dug harder and, on the whole, wrote better, than political reporters assigned to the Goldwater debacle….

Great athletes are performing artists. My spirits lift when I behold Luis Tiant pitch a shutout. They lift, in different arcs, when I hear Claudio Arrau play Opus 111. After reading "SportsWorld" twice I am not convinced that Mr. Lipsyte has ever thrilled to Tiant's triumphs.

I admired his column and I wanted to like his book. But "SportsWorld" lacks a sense of joy. Tell me about the hacks, the sadists and the misers, but let me hear as well the tunes of glory. (p. 5)

Roger Kahn, "No Tears for Namath: 'SportsWorld'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 9, 1975, pp. 4-5.