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Posted: Tuesday November 22, 2011 1:32PM ; Updated: Friday December 2, 2011 12:36PM

My Sportsman: Robert Lipsyte

Story Highlights

The stamp of Lipsyte's legacy is all over sports journalism today

Said Lipsyte: When you cover athletes, you don't "god 'em up."

His sensibility served both journalism and sports very well

By Alex Wolff

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Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 5. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.

During a year in which reality made countless nasty incursions into the world of sports, my Sportsman of the Year is the guy who saw it coming.

Robert Lipsyte always sees it coming. If you're not of a certain generation, his name may not be familiar -- Lipsyte began at the New York Times the year I was born, and I've pushed a notebook for more than 30 years -- but he took with him into the profession, and has never abandoned, a sensibility that serves both my business and sports very well. It's the sensibility of the outsider. And that point of view is what these times call for.

Examining what he called "SportsWorld," and later "Jock Culture," Lipsyte has always approached sports as an anthropologist would. When accused of being a cynic, he insisted he was a skeptic. Time has vindicated the Lipsytean approach, for today, if you're a sportswriter and not a skeptic, you're complicit in your own delusion.

Lipsyte follows a few simple rules. When you cover athletes, you don't "god 'em up." When you write about sports (not "sportswrite"), you don't "pipe" something even a half-step removed from the truth. And you always keep tabs on who holds power and how it's wielded.

Read his wise and wide-ranging memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter, a highlight of this year's crop of sports books, and you'll understand why: Lipsyte -- "Lippo the Hippo" -- was bullied as a kid. This year of all years, haunted by the image of some hapless child in a shower room in Happy Valley, the bullied deserve their spokesman and the powerful deserve to be called to account.

Since the late Fifties Lipsyte has filed dispatches from every frontline where the real world clashes with SportsWorld: franchise movement and free agency; racial and gender equality; the ramparts manned (and womaned) by the bearers of battle flags, from Muhammad Ali to Billie Jean King. Thanks to the time he spent around a Sixties hanger-on named Jack Scott, the Bill Walton-whisperer who spoke fluent Symbionese, Lipsyte earned the honorific of an FBI file. Would that every sportswriter had an FBI file.

Sometimes Lipsyte donned a pith helmet and set off from the Times' office on West 43rd Street into the Borneo of NASCAR. Sometimes, as with his groundbreaking portraits of gays in sports, he was the canary in the coal mine, so far out ahead of a story that years would pass before anyone else went near it. And sometimes he'd simply swap out the rose-colored glasses -- are they standard-issue in our business, handed out pre-game with the baked ziti at the press-room buffet? -- for a gimlet eye and point out, for instance, how appalling it is that pro football, of all pastimes, has such miserly disability protections for its former players.

Lipsyte's belief that "games are still presented as fantasies in a bubble, dissociated from the culture," hasn't made for the smoothest professional ride. He left the Times to do a turn with the devil TV, even if his perch tended to be of the loftier, PBS- and Sunday-morning variety. He freelanced and wrote books, including award-winners for young adults. Lipsyte returned to the Times for a second act, but the Alabama football fan who soon took over the paper wound up letting him go. (Consider the irony that this executive editor got see-no-evil'ed out of his own job thanks to a pipe artist named Jason Blair.)

Yet the stamp of Lipsyte's legacy is all over sports journalism today. There's Charles Robinson of Yahoo! Sports, and the clear-eyed work of ESPN's Tom Farrey. And my SI colleagues George Dohrmann, David Epstein and Selena Roberts continue to limn important pictures with painterly detail.

Beyond them, it's striking how many journalistic outsiders -- writers about sports -- are turning out work that drives our conversation. (Believe me, those of us nominally on the inside have noticed.) Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Lewis, Taylor Branch, Charlie Pierce, Dave Zirin -- we read them precisely because they regard the Pooh-Bahs, rituals and received wisdom of SportsWorld from a skeptical place. That's Lipsyte's legacy too.

Among sports media shot full of blogger's snark and anaesthetizing allusions to pop culture, Bob Lipsyte isn't a fan or an "insider." He's my Sportsman for his contributions to and influence on a craft that, as the man himself has put it, "isn't the oldest profession, although it's sometimes conducted that way."

Grantland Rice was a hagiographer, an overwrought writer, a reliable brother of the lodge, all things that Bob Lipsyte isn't. Maybe someday there'll be a Web site called Lipsyte.

 
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