SportsWorld: An American Dreamland,” by Robert Lipsyte
The anger voiced by a segment of American sports fandom this past year—directed at, among other targets, players kneeling during the national anthem to protest inequality and police brutality—reminded me of a line from the sportswriter Robert Lipsyte: “the fans are getting meaner every day.” He wrote this in 1975, in “SportsWorld,” a semi-Marxist critique of American athletic culture that remains fresh and essential today. (Long out of print, a new edition will be published in May.) Of those mean fans, he continues, “All that repressed assembly-line rage, those fears of foreclosure, fears of premature ejaculation, fears of occupational cancer, those orchestrated fears of women, blacks, the young, the old, are spilling out of the grandstand onto the field, the ice, the hardwood.” One might be tempted to hail this as prescience—a foreshadowing of Donald Trump’s use of sports as a distraction and political wedge—if it weren’t, instead, evidence of just how little the culture has changed since the seventies.
In his book, Lipsyte identifies the paradox of a country that was obsessed with professional sports but that also seemed—owing to issues regarding race, gender, class, and envy—to hate many of the people who excelled at them. The paradox lives on. It’s there in the way certain fans gripe constantly about players’ high salaries, siding somehow with the billionaires who own their favorite teams against the millionaires who perform on the field. It’s there in the talk of how athletes ought to be grateful to be where they are and make as much as they do. It’s there in the way someone could wear a jersey with a player’s name on it and not want to hear what that player might have to say. It’s in the fact that New England could boo the wide receiver Brandin Cooks, the son of a marine, when he kneeled before a game in September, and then cheer for him wildly a few hours later when he caught the game-winning touchdown.
“SportsWorld” gives the lie to any notion that sports and politics ever occupied separate spheres in America. Lipsyte writes about Richard Nixon’s minor career as a college football player, an anecdote that seems particularly apt when considering the current occupant of the White House, and the political movement that he represents. Nixon, he writes, “had never gotten over missing the varsity cut, and I suddenly understood that his only goal had been getting his letter, not playing the game. He was more interested in being known as a winner than in playing.” It is in that other thing, the simple and wonderful act of playing, that Lipsyte, despite his withering analysis of the country’s sports obsession, finds hope: “Yet for all the cynicism and oppression and betrayal, the rhythms of sport, the sensations, and the emotions, are often the most intense and pleasurable ever experienced.”—Ian Crouch