Sports

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

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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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