Robert Lipsyte on ESPN, Muhammad Ali, And Why Billie Jean King is the Most Important Sports Figure of His Lifetime

Come June 1, the renowned sportswriter and novelist Robert Lipsyte will become the newest ombudsman for ESPN, the network that strives to cover professional sports journalistically while making big-dollar deals with all sorts of major leagues. The ombudsman is supposed to help keep ESPN's coverage of sports and society honest despite what Lipsyte himself says is a major conflict of interest.

The septugenarian scribe is the perfect man for the job. As a reporter for The New York Times in the 1960s, Lipsyte made a career of being a smart straight shooter who always discussed sports in the contexts of race, class, and gender. Where typical sportswriters defined athletics as a place free of social and political meaning and tension, Lipsyte understood that sport mirrors the society that revels in it. He was one of the first journalists to recognize that heavyweight champion Cassius Clay was not just a fighter but a cultural change agent who would transform America. He co-wrote Dick Gregory's searing 1964 memoir, Nigger, and he helped invent the genre of young adult fiction with novels such as The Contender. For the past half-century, he has been a keen observer of all aspects of American life, producing thousands of columns and a shelf of books on everything from male identity to cancer. Go here for Lipsyte's site and classic stories about Ali, The Beatles, and much more.

Reason's Nick Gillespie spoke with Lipsyte about the ESPN gig, why he thinks Muhammad Ali is at least partially responsible for the murder of Malcolm X, that The Nation has the best sportswriter in the country, that performance-enhancing drugs are OK (though Lance Armstrong is a liar), and that tennis great Billie Jean King is the most important figure in all of sports over the past 50 years.

About 1 hr. 

Produced by Anthony L. Fisher. Camera by Jim Epstein and Fisher.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Maybe I'll tune to ESPN if they ever come to the realization that professional ice hockey exists.

  • Ice Nine||

    Is that that deal with skates and the stick thingies?

  • Austrian Anarchy||

    I has something to do with global warming I think.

  • dikyfuqazoniA2||

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    (Go to site and open "Home" for details)

  • ||

    You mean they didn't broadcast the Ice Hockey World Championship from Stockholm and Helsinki?

  • ||

    They finally have gone all-in on college baseball. Every single regional game is on at least ESPN3/WatchESPN this year. My Owls won in extra innings on an embarrassing dropped fly ball. I'll take it.

  • Timon 19||

    ESPN has so many channels and ways of distributing content (they were smart and got into streaming early in the game) that you've seen ESPNU turn into the Lacrosse Channel in the early spring.

    But the real secret is that the NCAA basically has a huge and binding contract that ESPN is to show late-round playoffs and championships of a large set of college sports (that aren't already on other broadcasters, like football and men's basketball).

  • ||

    Yeah but before they would show a the games from one or two regionals and about half of the super-regionals. You didn't get full coverage till they got to Omaha. Now you can see every single game.

    Your right about getting into streaming early. They've been showing stuff on ESPN3 for years.

  • Timon 19||

    I never had the time other people put into watching sports, so I didn't get to partake of much of ESPN3's content, but it has been awesome to have it available in case I missed something.

  • robc||

    The odd thing is, the golf match play final 8 is probably the most exciting thing going on right now and they are showing baseball and softball instead.

  • robc||

    Speaking of which, in the semis, GT is ahead of Bama in 1 match, AS in 2, and 2 havent teed off yet.

    So, from a total of 5 of the 90 holes to be played, we are clearly superior. Yeah, uh, maybe.

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    NHL coverage is okay but international coverage of tournaments is abysmal. Hockey and soccer are the two sports Americans care for the least I guess but have great international tournaments worth watching.

    But hey, I'm just a hoser, eh?

  • Timon 19||

    FoE, take it from soccer fans: ESPN is (or rather was) OK and even essential for spreading a non-Big Three sport to a wider audience; it's no longer necessary or desirable and that started to change when SportsCenter started taking itself REALLY seriously (coincident with it going way downhill) to the point of being an end unto itself.

    Better that you move on and accept that there will be bidding wars if your sport is desirable and you may have fragmented broadcast deals on an increasingly fragmented cable spectrum. Hell, hockey is already way, way ahead of soccer on the regional network score.

    ESPN got out-bid for the next couple of World Cups (after 2014) by Fox, NBC for some reason and somehow managed to outbid EVERYONE for the BPL for the next few years (even Al Jazeera), and MLS is on an amalgam of national second-tier networks (Fox Soccer, the occasional Fox national, NBC Sports, ESPN/ABC), where it used to be a given that ESPN was THE only network that conferred legitimacy. Fox Soccer is turning into a mainstream sports network that will feature a lot of soccer, partly because they lost the BPL, but also partly because they've had huge ratings running the UEFA Champions League Final on the Fox mothership. Al Jazeera (BeIn) is already in the game for the lesser leagues and is looking at more as they take over Al Gore's network. Wouldn't be surprised to see them start another sports channel eventually.

    Hockey will be OK. It doesn't need ESPN.

  • ||

    NBC taking over BPL is AWESOME. They will have every single game and you don't even have to pay extra for a piece of shit like FS+. They even said they are going to show about 20 games on regular over the air NBC.

    The big question is what they are going to do for in game commentary. Fox Soccer made the decision to mostly just pass through the Sky Sports broadcasting, who are the best in the world.

  • Timon 19||

    I have no doubt they're going to put a shit-load into it (and what do you want to bet they've done this because of their experiences with Univision), but it was a major surprise.

    And you'll have to forgive some of us who remember what NBC has done in the past with soccer (commercials in the run of play, using complete idiots for commentary, etc.) if we're a tad skeptical.

    Not having to buy a $15/month channel will be sweet, too.

  • Ted S.||

    Until they brought in GUS JOHNSON AND HIS GODDAM NON-STOP SCREAMING for the two semifinal matches on FX and the Final on Fox broadcast.

  • Timon 19||

    Yeah, I really hope their attempt to "groom" Johnson ends up blowing up big time so they abandon the experiment. He's obnoxious. I like the enthusiasm, but Christ Almighty he sucks.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    I was never a soccer fan, but this year I have started watching FC Barcelona on Bein, and have really enjoyed their coverage. They have a Scottish announcer (never caught his name) who is amazing at describing the action and is pretty hilarious to boot.

  • Timon 19||

    Ray Hudson is Geordie (from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England). Don't confuse him with a Scotsman. The funny thing is, he's actually an articulate, semi-intelligible Geordie; outside of Ray, it's like listening to Billy Connelly (who IS Scottish) after a fifth of Glenfiddich.

    Ray is a mostly annoying gimmick. He's got a hard-on for Spanish football (and recently, he's been right in that), but what may appear to be a romantic, passionate embrace with the game is more and more looking to me like a schtick - yeah, he's effusive, but half of it or more seems forced.

    I listen to SiriusXMFC and he just keeps it up on the radio, making it sound all the more manufactured. Sometimes it's fun, but most of the time it's tiring.

  • General Butt Naked||

    Ray Hudson is Geordie (from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England). Don't confuse him with a Scotsman.

    I'm a citizen of The Goddamn United States of America, and I'll do whatever I damn well please, and if that welsh asshole doesn't like it he can suck an egg.

  • Timon 19||

    See, I can understand you confusing Geordies and Welsh: they both love sheep.

  • Ted S.||

    Thomas Müller says fuck you, Ray. :-)

  • ||

    The British announcers really put Americans to shame. On Fox Soccer they have a weekly show called Premier League Review from Sky Sports. Over an hour they go through every game of the weekend, the just show the important sections of the games, just showing the original broadcasts. No over the top crap from the guys in the studio like on sportscenter.

  • Timon 19||

    American announcers cannot resist the temptation to fill airtime with words. It's fucking irritating.

    JP Dellacamera used to be decent, especially when he did UCL matches for ESPN in the late '90s-early '00s, but with an overwrought "excited voice". He rarely got chatty and slung around stats. Then he started doing more US Women's National Team games, where he always seemed to be trying ever so hard to make it exciting by RAISING HIS VOICE for every random long ball. Seems that thereafter, he's gone to the "unnecessarily talkative American" side. He's great as a radio host, though.

    Outside of that, it's pretty hard to think of a competent American commentator with an American accent. The former players they keep trotting out there as color guys are anywhere between decent and Marcelo Balboa disaster, but no play-by-play guys I can think of.

    Ian Darke was the best import ever and came at just the right time for US Soccer, because he was amazing during the 2010 World Cup.

  • RBS||

    I always thought Pat Hughes did a good job broadcasting Cubs games, especially considering he was paired with Ron Santo for so long.

  • ||

    Soccer is solely responsible for the demise of American civilization. It is the NUMBER ONE contributor to the pussification of America.

    Our chilrenz used to play sophisticated and thinking sports like football and baseball. Now the little ADHD monsters run around in circles kicking a silly white ball that they are not allowed to touch with their hands. All so mama's little snowflakes won't get hurt and have constant stimulation.

    And it extends into adulthood. Grown men in their baggy shorts and pulled up socks, who instead of after a game grabbing a dog and a beer, sit down to a little picnic of wine and cheese. It's gayer than that time that Gay came to Gaytown. And it's undermining our way of life!

    That is all.

  • Timon 19||

    Football is about as sophisticated as Kraft Singles.

    Soccer isn't responsible for the pussification of America; the Spawn of the Greatest Generation is. They just abused a foreign sport to achieve their ends. Fuck them and their bullshit keeping soccer from evolving further and faster in this country.

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    Soccer doesn't need ESPN more than hockey doesn't need it because of its massive global audience. If anything, ESPN is shortsighted for not going harder into it.

  • ||

    and that tennis great Billie Jean King is the most important figure in all of sports over the past 50 years.

    Yeah, I think I'll skip this one.

  • John||

    Yeah. To say that is to assume that women's sports is actually important to most sports fans. BJK was a fine athlete and by all accounts a fine person. But what she did was about women's sports. And that has a pretty low ceiling.

    I don't care how important King was to women's tennis and all of women's sports, she could never be as important as Ali or Jordan

  • RBS||

    Pretty much. I can't express how sick and tired I am of these squishy, feel good puff pieces.

  • ||

    It also smacks to me of having a wacky, offbeat opinion merely for the sake of it. Which I find tedious, I encountered enough of those people in college.

  • John||

    Exactly. And it is an off beat opinion that doesn't really have much of a basis in fact. Sometimes an off beat opinion can make an interesting point even if you don't agree with it. For example, I saw Bob Ryan on TV a while back say that if he had to pick one NBA player to play one game in his prime it would be Bill Walton. His point was that for the short period of time Walton was healthy, he was the best Ryan had ever seen, and Ryan has seen them all. It is an off beat answer, but one that makes sense in its own way. This in contrast, doesn't really do that.

  • ||

    We used to live in Portland and go see the Trailblazers all the time back when Walton was in his prime, and the stadium seated like 10,000. My Dad is still a diehard fan although we've not lived there for 40 odd years.

  • Generic Stranger||

    Wait...the Blazers have actual fans?

    I had always thought the people in the stands during their home games were advanced 3d holographs, given that you'd have to be a freaking masochist to root for them.

  • Eric Johnson||

    His point was that BJK was important to the overall culture of sports, male and female, by threatening to quit women's tennis if her contract wasn't changed.

    He argues that BJK paved the way for male athletes, and that led to free agency, different contract structures, the ability of athletes to change teams, etc.

    He wasn't saying she was important because she was a woman, or as a feel-good piece. He's saying she did something that changed the relationship between players and sports leagues, and that impacted male sports too.

  • Goldwyn Smith||

    Is Curt Flood chopped liver?

  • Eric Johnson||

    Let's see. In 1969 Curt Flood filed his lawsuit protesting his forced trade to another team.

    In 1967, BJK held a series of press conferences criticizing how the organizers of tennis exploited the players.

    Lipsyte's argument that BJK helped pave the way for Curt Flood and others is at least supported by which one brought up the issue first.

  • KPres||

    She wasn't even the most important tennis player. Hell, she wasn't even the most important female tennis player.

  • Eric Johnson||

    Not his point at all.

    It's more about how her re-negotiating her contract with tennis promoters led to changes in the athlete / sports league relationship for male players as well.

  • Eric Johnson||

    Actually, his point is an interesting one.

    He said that Billie Jean King broke the sports culture where a teenage kids signed with a team, then basically was owned by the team for the rest of their career.

    BJK could threaten to stop working and actually make it stick, and have an impact on her sport. Since female tennis players were paid less, she could actually afford to "strike".

    Lipsyte's argument is that BJK made a stand that set a precedent, and eventually would lead to free agency and greater ability for players to negotiate terms.

    That is pretty big. Lipsyte does have an legitimate point.

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    Eric, I certainly don't dismiss his point which is a valid one despite my apprehension on that one. It was interesting about how amateur tennis was run.

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    Yeah, I'm gonna have to go ahead and disagree with Mr. Lipsyte on that one.

    She represented 50% of the world? Bah.

    By that logic, so did any male athlete who fought for whatever rights they were fighting for.

  • RBS||

    Speaking of college baseball, Clemson managed to continue their uninspired post season play yesterday.

  • robc||

    Liberty isnt a powerhouse?

    Tech lost to Illinois, which, ugh. Not Liberty, but still.

  • RBS||

    Hahaha, no:

    The Liberty Flames went 34-27 and just 13-11 in the Big South; winning the conference tournament sealed their entry into the NCAAs. Liberty is #59 in the RPI and faced the #48 schedule. They are 7-3 in their last 10 games. Liberty is 9-18 on the road this year.
  • RBS||

    As a reporter for The New York Times in the 1960s, Lipsyte made a career of being a smart straight shooter who always discussed sports in the contexts of race, class, and gender.

    This is everything that is wrong with sports "journalism".

  • ||


  • John||

    Leftists are such totalitarians. For the totalitarian everything is politics, because everything is the state.

  • Let Me Ride||

    If you watched the interview, you'd see Lipsyte confess that he's a long-time reason subscriber.

  • Mint Berry Crunch||

    I remember an incident a few years ago, when liberals made a big deal about "discuss[ing] sports in the contexts of race, class, and gender," but it didn't turn out so well for them.

    I believe it was known as the "Duke Lacrosse Scandal."

  • Let Me Ride||

    This interview was 1-hour long. Mentions of Duke Lacrosse or anything even vaguely related? Nada.

    You people are tilting at windmills if you think that Lipsyte is a mindless PC drone. That's not his bag.

  • General Butt Naked||

    Who's Billie Jean King?

  • Mint Berry Crunch||

    Billie Jean is not my lover.

    She's just a girl who says that I am the one.

    But the kid is not my son.

  • ||

    You misspelled chair.

  • General Butt Naked||

    I don't see how Micheal Jackson's chair is of any import to the history of sports. This is the sloppiest muddled thinking I've seen on this blog; Postrel wouldn't of put up with this nonsense.

    For a magazine called REASON they sure don't use a lot of it.

  • ||

    But this is still the best chatroom ever.

  • John||

    Either DOJ thought Rosen is a criminal or they lied for the warrant. Interesting article.

  • RBS||

    There really is not a good way to spin this for the Obama administration. Thats goes for the other scandals too. It's either gross incompetence or flat out criminal/unconstitutional, or both.

  • John||

    There is always the Brookings Institution/Reason spin, which is that the real problem is the system. Obama was just a victim of the system. Amazing how anyone who lives and writes in Washington of either political side is terrified by the thought of anyone in government being held accountable. No leave those poor bureaucrats alone. They are just victims of bad laws and a bad system!!

  • Michael S. Langston||

    I tend to agree though, don't you?

    For instance, I haven't personally met an LEO I didn't like - however given that if the good ones want to, they can easily abuse their power with no consequences, and bad ones continue to do so - I can say things like "I hate the police" while simultaneously saying I like most individual officers I've met (though my sample size is small).

    IE - I can understand how a decent cop put in very bad situations around a great deal of other corrupt cops may end up doing things they might not have ever done outside of this situation.

    But that doesn't mitigate any damages caused and they should pay - with jail time or whatever else is appropriate - but they should pay based upon their damages - not their intention or whether the system pressured them towards illegal activities.

    So, can I understand how a President, given war powers, the patriot act III (or whichever version we're on), and likely people actively telling him "we need to kill lots more people and there's no reason we have to consult anyone else - you are the man afterall" - might be able to directly target Americans abroad and be in such denial about what that means as to tell college students "shouldn't you trust yourself and your government with these powers since the founding fathers trusted us to vote?"...

    Yeah - given the isolated world, it's completely possible.

    IMHO though, none of that should mitigate punishing what is essentially murder.

  • Calidissident||

    I'm not sure how a Reason writer thinking that the system is the central problem (and it is. Things like this scandal will continue to happen as long as it is in place) means they think nothing should happen to any bureaucrats or that Obama bears no responsibility for anything. In fact, I'm pretty sure they've argued the opposite of those points.

  • ||

    But unfortunately the timing means Obama doesn't have to give a shit. If these scandals broke in May 2012 you could have bet that Holder, more IRS guys, and State Department officials would have found their heads on spikes on the White House lawn.

    But since he's Obama 2.0 he can just bullshit his way thorough it with no consequence. They know they don't have a prayer of winning back the House and Senate races are more based on candidates than anything national.

  • ThatSkepticGuy||

    Obama has a mandate to commit scandal because he was reelected with infinity percent of the vote.

    So, in conclusion, Mitt Robme.

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    So make him lame duck in November 2014. Won't that neuter him?

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    You ungrateful nimrods, not one thanks to Nick for this interview? I for one appreciated it. I like how he inserted that Jewish-Italian athletes also faced stereotypes. Overall, it was informative.

    Not enough talk about Youppi! but that's okay.

    I do lament the loss of suave, smooth, sarcastic and ironic humor in sports writing. I just can't take Simmons or Reilly. Everything gets so formulaic and predictable.

    By the way, how long do I have to be part of the Reason community before I can be on a threaded first-name basis with a Reason writer?

    Do I have to shine shoes? Treat leather? Comb hair?

  • Hawkman||

    Billie Jean King? Watching women's sports is like watching a spelling bee with retarded kids. The only reason to watch women's sports is if they're hot (beach volleyball).

  • WomSom||

    I think I like the sound of that dude. Wow.

  • carolacosta1||

    my buddy's aunt makes $76 every hour on the computer. She has been out of a job for seven months but last month her check was $14817 just working on the computer for a few hours. Read more here...

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