Meet Robert Lipsyte, A Pro-Steroid Sportswriter and ESPN's New Ombudsman

wikipediawikipediaChances are you've read something by Robert Lipsyte, the revered sportswriter, novelist, and cancer memoirist, even if you have no idea who he is.

His 1967 young adult novel about a black kid with hopes of becoming a boxing champeen, The Contender, quickly became a widely assigned book in junior highs around the country and introduced generations of kids to vodka-soaked fruit. He co-wrote Dick Gregory's searing 1964 autobiograhy Nigger, which opens with an archetypal "black rage" set piece that is the equal of anything written Richard Wright or even Frederick Douglass (Lipsyte's role in Nigger and other works about the experiences of African Americans led me to start wondering if one of the greatest living black authors of the 20th century wasn't a Jewish white guy from Rego Park, Queens). His early appreciation of Muhammad Ali as a cultural change agent whose influence ranged far beyond sport (summarized here) is representative of his thoughtfulness and insight (as is his 1966 book, The Masculine Mystique). His account of dealing with testicular cancer, In the Country of Illness, stands out in a crowded field of tomes covering similar experiences.

In June, Lipsyte will become the ombudsman for ESPN, the cable sports channel that's done more than its share to de-sacralize not just sports coverage but broadcasting and news-gathering in general. His appointment is fully in keeping with an organization that was never about good, old-fashioned jock sniffing, which is what 99 percent of sportswriting still tends to be: a virtually uncritical, at-face-value take on one of the most fascinating and exploitative markets in human flesh imaginable (years ago, in an ESPN debate about paying college athletes, he asked, "explain to me...why the players, the unpaid professionals, shouldn't get an honest, over-the table piece of their own action?"). Long before it became accepted or even tolerated to seriously interrogate the industry you cover, Lipsyte was on the beat asking tough questions about a sports culture that simultaneously mythologized "the level playing field" while stacking the deck in an infinite number of ways. It's fair to say that without him, ESPN wouldn't have been possible, much less newer outfits such as Deadspin, which blend a fan's intense, insane devotion with an unflinching critical apparatus.

Lipsyte is one of the journalists who has made all of us better, both as writers and readers. As he told The Nation, his job at ESPN will include "happily wading through the e-mail bag to find out what that audience is concerned about, complaining about, loving, questioning. Then I will try to explain the background of what happened, demystify the process (through reporting) and offer my take. Transparency. ESPN is the world’s great window on sports. I’m the window washer."

Here's a taste of Lipsyte, writing about Lance Armstrong:

Lance Armstrong...has done more good than harm in his life but should be penalized for breaking the rules for which he signed up.

There is something faintly sinister about the Anti-Dope Party, whether it’s campaigning through cycling, the Olympics, baseball, or football (where it seems to have pretty much decided to fail). Wasting funds, energy, and the attention of citizens, the anti-dopers generally stay a half-life behind the dopers, who are driven to keep giving us the bigger, faster, more spectacularly vicious thrills we demand. By now, even fantasy leaguers understand that performance-enhancing techniques don’t promise success, only the chance to heal faster from harder and more frequent workouts.

 As one who shoots steroids (a result of three cancer operations, a la Lance), I still can’t crush a fastball, much less ride up mountains at speed....But I do understand what doping can do, and done carefully it can be useful. In American sports, it has been generally available at least since the early Sixties. The promised reefer madness trail of death and twisted lives has never materialized, and certainly not on a scale of the damage caused by the conventionally encouraged violence of football.

Don’t cry for Lance Armstrong. That bully can take care of himself. Watch out for the righteous, wrong-headed anti-dopers, distracting us from more immediate and perilous concerns. Pedal hard. Take responsibility for yourself and be brave.

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  • robc||

    Hopefully he is better at it than previous ombudsmen, who seemed to pay far too much attention to who wrote their paycheck.

  • ||

    Nick, it's not very nice to write a sports post. You know that's the only thing Matt has these days.

  • Ted S.||

    How about Robert Lewandowski?

  • Caleb Turberville||

    Can you really be an ombudsman for a Disney-owned network? I mean, this is an organization that recently shoehorned an Iron Man 3 ad into it's coverage of the NFL Draft.

  • Tim||

    The way the NFL is headed, soon they'll all be done up head to toe like Iron Man but with none of the cool flying or blasting.

  • Ted S.||

    They should be done up like rugby players. It might give them cause to tackle more safely.

  • Caleb Turberville||

    By the way, Buffalo is taking a QB in the first round, right? I mean, Fitzpatrick wasn't a franchise player, but he was good enough that you don't release unless you're planning on taking replacement in the draft.

    Now, the question would be: Smith or Nassib?

  • dave b.||

    Tebow

  • Caleb Turberville||

    Doug Marrone is bringing his pass-heavy offense to Buffalo, so Tebow is out. Geno Smith is the best quarterback in the draft, but Nassib is arguably the second best, and he's familiar with Marrone, having gone to Syracuse.

  • John||

    Maybe the familiarity is why they won't take the Syracuse guy.

  • John||

    I would think Gino Smith will be there. The new CBA makes taking a chance on a marginal QB prospect in the top ten much easier than it was. Before, the salaries were so high that you were stuck with the guy for four or five years, which is a complete disaster if he is a dud and a quarterback. Now the contracts are low enough that if he doesn't pan out, you can him after two or three years just like you would any other position.

    I think if you are Buffalo, you have to draft a QB. You have no chance in this league if you don't have a quarterback. Kansas City had five pro bowlers and still went 2-14 because they had a horrible quarterback. I don't care how good of a guy you draft at number 8, you are still going to be horrible if you don't have a QB. Such are the effects of changing the rules so it is impossible to play defense.

  • Ted S.||

    Kansas City had five pro bowlers and still went 2-14 because they had a horrible quarterback.

    It also speaks to the Pro Bowl being a joke.

  • John||

    yes and no. Their pro bowlers were deserving. If Adrian Peterson hadn't had the year he had, everyone would be talking about Jamal Charles' miracle come back.

    The Chiefs were fifth in the NFL in rushing and had one of the top five running backs in the league in Charles. Yet, they were 32nd overall in offense and 31st in red zone offense (even though teams that run well are never that low in red zone efficiency. Their defense was a bit above average in yards given up per game but close to or at last in points given up. That is what happens when you have a quarterback who constantly turns the ball over and gives the opposing offense good field position. The Chiefs are almost a double blind experiment in the effects of poor quarterbacking play.

  • Ted S.||

    His appointment is fully in keeping with an organization that was never about good, old-fashioned jock sniffing,

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

    How quickly we forget ESPN covering up for Ben Roethlisberger.

    ESPN is all about sucking up to certain athletes, and pushing the bien pensant political message.

  • John||

    ESPN has been all about jock strap sniffing for years now. Most of their on air talent are former jocks. Whoever wrote that sentence doesn't watch much ESPN.

  • Ted S.||

    I don't watch much ESPN either, and even I know they suck up to jocks.

  • John||

    Being in business with all of the major sports leagues sans the NHL will do that.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    I don't know if Lance Armstrong is a bully or not, but you don't put up a record like that by incessantly deferring to the needs or wishes of others.

  • KDN||

    There is something faintly sinister about the Anti-Dope Party, whether it’s campaigning through cycling, the Olympics, baseball, or football (where it seems to have pretty much decided to fail). Wasting funds, energy, and the attention of citizens, the anti-dopers generally stay a half-life behind the dopers, who are driven to keep giving us the bigger, faster, more spectacularly vicious thrills we demand. By now, even fantasy leaguers understand that performance-enhancing techniques don’t promise success, only the chance to heal faster from harder and more frequent workouts.

    Agreed, fuck the anti-dopers; just another set of Puritan scolds and Luddites. But "even fantasy leaguers"? Come on now, you're better than that. The fantasy junkies are usually the high knowledge sports fans out there, not the ones that are last to know what the insiders are watching (the latter are typically old guard sportswriters and commentators like Mike Lupica and their readers). That's what happens when you're in a competitive environment and you have skin in the game.

    That applies less to fantasy football than other sports, though. Much like in real life, the condensed schedule and brutal nature of the sport make the exercise little more than a crapshoot.

  • robc||

    The lack of an auction also makes fantasy footballers much more "low information" fans.

  • John||

    ^^THIS^^ And the explosion of the passing game has made fantasy leagues damn near impossible to run. The two or three teams that have on of the top producing quarterbacks are basically unbeatable. And if you don't have an auction, it is just whoever wins the draw and gets a top pick to take a QB.

    The only way to do it is have an action and a salary cap. That way the guy who has Aaron Rogers has to spend his most of his money on him and is stuck with dregs for everything else, thus giving other teams a shot.

  • Jam||

    I wish the fans would allow and push for the athletes to roid up. I want to see Clemens pitch to Bonds. Uni-nut Armstrong ride for yellow. Large hairy Eastern block woman and now Chinese swim for gold.

  • BelowTheRim||

    "His appointment is fully in keeping with an organization that was never about good, old-fashioned jock sniffing"

    I stopped reading shortly after that and had to hold back laughter in the office.

    Apparently Nick Hasn't been exposed to ESPN in about 10 years since Disney took over.

  • John||

    Nick really lives in some sort of strange alternative universe and it comes out in some strange ways sometimes. I wish we could all live in Nick's universe. It seems like a nice place.

  • ||

    ESPN hiring an Ombudsman is like Marvel Comics hiring a physics consultant.

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