Tomgram: Robert Lipsyte, Goodbye to All That

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Though I was no athlete — or how would you explain all those grounders that went through the legs of second baseman Tom Engelhardt or why, when I got older, I so often ended up banished to, yes, right field? — I grew up in a world of sports. As a kid in the 1950s, so long before the online universe made more or less everything available, I can remember having one of those old wooden radios with the golden dials behind my bed. At night, I would keep my ear to the radio, so I could hear the Brooklyn Dodgers night games without my parents realizing I was awake. After all, I had to know what right fielder Carl “the Rifle” Furillo did, not to speak of Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Don Newcombe, Jackie Robinson, and so many other players of that distant era. And of course, I’d regularly check the box scores in the paper, probably the New York Post (since my mom drew political caricatures for that liberal rag of the 1950s).

I remember the thrill in high school, though still a Dodgers fan, of going to a New York Giants game and the next day finding myself in a sports photo on the back page of the New York Daily News. (Mind you, I was part of a large outfield crowd watching Willie Mays catch a fly ball and only I knew it was me in that shot.) And yes, when I got older, I read the sports pages of the New York Times, too. As the years went by, that was the place I regularly turned to in the morning before even paying much attention to the front-page news. (I mean, honestly, what could have been more important than the latest in sports, especially when it came to my teams?)

And somewhere in those years, I undoubtedly began reading Robert Lipsyte. After all, when, in 1957, the Dodgers announced that they were deserting the Big Apple for Los Angeles, I felt bereft, betrayed, and bewildered. Then, in 1962, when I was 18, the Mets came to town. I naturally Metified in a major way — and one of the New York Times sportswriters assigned to cover the team that first year was… yes, Lipsyte. And we met, first on the page and years later in person, and I’ve known him ever since. So, who better than that former New York Times sportswriter and columnist, TomDispatch regular, and author of SportsWorld: An American Dreamland to offer a fervent farewell to the sports section of the Times? Tom

Farewell to the New York Times Sports Department
Or Should It Be Good Riddance?

In the spring of 1957, in search of a summer job before heading west to graduate school, I answered a classified New York Times ad for an editorial assistant. The personnel clerk at the paper was condescending. Bachelor’s degrees are a dime a dozen, she told me. For their newsroom, she said, they were looking for Ph.D. candidates and Rhodes scholars. Still, sighing at her own generosity, she let me fill out the paperwork.

I did so, but not being much of a Times reader then, I quickly moved on. I spent the rest of that day filling out other applications around town. When I got home my mother said, “You had a crank call, Bobby. A man said that, if you show up tomorrow and pass a physical, you can start work immediately at the New York Times.”

The physical consisted of nothing more than showing up, and that editorial assistant post turned out to be for a copyboy (no girls allowed then) in the sports department. I hated the job — sharpening pencils, fetching coffee, filling pots of library paste from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. for a dyspeptic crew of “copy readers” (now, staff editors), who seemed to take joy in molesting the words of superb writers like reporter Gay Talese.

Sixty-six years later, I had a rush of mixed feelings when the Times recently announced that it was going to abolish its sports department. How could they part with such a critical piece of my life? And, by the way, what took them so long?

I had, in fact, long wondered whether the Times needed a sports department. Even back then, marketing polls showed that its readers who were avid sports followers mostly bought tabloids to satisfy their fandom. In-house, in fact, sports was known as “the Toy Department” and often provided a dumping ground for writers and editors who had messed up “outside” (as we sports types called the other Times departments we revered and resented).

Why Cover Sports?

As it happened, that summer job of mine would last 26 years (in two acts with a 20-year intermission) and, in that time, I came to love the majesty of the Times, its sense of mission, and the throb of the news flow. The sports section would be included in my new belief system. When I was anointed a reporter at 21, I felt as if I had been inducted into a knightly order dedicated to Truth and I’ve never been totally deprogrammed.

At the same time, during these past 66 years, even while writing on sports-related topics in genres ranging from art criticism to opera, I’ve continued to wonder about the true purpose of sports coverage. Is it to keep that industry profitable, critique and offer consumer reviews of performance, be that media platform’s most diverting section (like the comics in other papers), provide intelligence for gamblers, or offer real journalistic coverage of a compelling and useful window on society? Or maybe some combination of them all?

Such thoughts only intensified when I first saw the announcement that the Times was dropping its sports department.

Initially, I felt angry and sad, as if it reflected unfavorably on how I had spent so much of my life. But that was silly. And after several weeks without a formal sports department, I’m not totally convinced it was such a bad idea.

After all, so much of sports news is indeed trivial, a genuine waste of time and space, and continually updated reckless speculation (most of it soon to be discarded). Of course, that’s a description of a lot of news, some of it wrongly reported. At least in sports, no one dies from rumors of a coming baseball trade that never happens.

And yet… the sports department was also something of a newspaper within a newspaper with its own deadlines, stand-alone pages, and version of standards. For instance, sports figures (like felons) weren’t referred to with the normal honorifics (Mr., Mrs., and Miss) as they were then in other sections of the paper, while a certain lack of rigor in the editing may actually have contributed to greater readability, individuality, and humanity.

Times’ Sports Goes Abroad

For several years now, the Times has been chipping away at its sports report, dropping stand-alone sections (most notably on Sunday) and cutting back on the number of daily pages of coverage. Covid’s effect on sports spectatorship affected some of those decisions, as did the paper’s campaign to become the Global Times, with stories about local teams replaced by European soccer news.

Even my own interest faded. After all, I could get basic hard-core sports results any time online from ESPN or at a new site called The Athletic, even as my own old paper was focusing ever more on the Tottenham Hotspurs and ever less on the Yankees. I was born in the Bronx, so that mattered to me, at least on some level of hometown pride. But maybe the paper was trying to wean me from sports, so that I could concentrate on trendier revenue streams like recipes and word games (its newest toy departments).

Then, last year, the Times tipped its hand by purchasing The Athletic, an online prose sweatshop of sports-content providers, for a mere half-billion-plus dollars. It was planning to outsource sports coverage, while displacing its own department’s unionized workers along the way. I felt genuine outrage! Wasn’t sports worthy of the paper’s standards and resources? Weren’t its workers worthy of protection? Next stop, they’ll gut the Culture Department! (Why do all those smarty-pants critics have to be NewsGuild members anyway? Why not pick them up on the corner like day laborers?)

Admittedly, The Athletic is good enough at what it does, covering games, human-interest stories, and some sports-related social and political issues with Associated Press-style detail and clarity. Yes, its reportage is far better than anything artificial intelligence could produce (so far), but it hardly has the panache displayed by the Times’ regular sports writers. The Athletic was, in fact, originally staffed by culling faltering regional papers for some 400 reporters theoretically devoted to covering every pro and college team imaginable (an ambition that has since been relaxed).

Many of its staffers are up to scratch, even excellent, but most don’t have the depth of knowledge and sense of style of a hand-picked Times’ sports lineup. While, in the past 66 years, its sports department wasn’t always collectively the best in the nation (the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Newsday had their glory days, too), its roster of writers was invariably the deepest and most capable of explaining, say, the intricacies of pro football, as well as the medical disasters its plays could cause. In my time, the daily likes of Harvey Araton, Ira Berkow, John Branch, Steve Cady, Joe Drape, Gerald Eskenazi, Robin Finn, Jere Longman, Buster Olney, and William Rhoden would have been hard to match, and that’s not even to mention its superb columnists. Now, that team has been disbanded.

The New Game Plan

Nevertheless, the Times’ current plan seems workable enough. Readers who have scaled the paywall will have access to The Athletic and once again be able to read about their favorite local teams. Meanwhile, the former department staff of about 40 writers, editors, and videographers will do sports-related feature stories, analyses, and investigations from new perches in departments like business, international news, and culture. So far, so good, although the jury is still out.

An encouraging example of the new neo-sports department came out on a Sunday in late October. There were five packed sports pages at the back of the first section, while the lead story, which began on the front page, was a brilliant dive into the latest trend in the professionalization of college sports by Billy Witz, a seasoned varsity starter from the old sports department, and David Fahrenthold, an acclaimed investigative reporter acquired from the Washington Post. Then there was the kind of European soccer column I’ve come to expect from the entertaining Rory Smith and an excellent piece by jack-of-all-sports reporter Victor Mather on Native Americans being squeezed out of what was once their own game, lacrosse. (Consider it the latest inglorious chapter of colonization and oppression.) Meanwhile, major articles by Athletic reporters Doug Haller and Vic Tafur on the durability of basketball superstar Kevin Durant and the day’s National Football League games proved adequate fanboy fare.

All in all, no terrible loss of standards. (Meanwhile, The Athletic has been bulking up its staff, even adding a respected former Times sports editor, Jason Stallman.) Yet with the exception of the Mather and Witz-Fahrenthold pieces, neither trees nor bandwidth needed to be wasted on those other four Sunday stories in the Times itself, when you could read them at The Athletic, saving space for Donald Trump, Gaza, Hamas, Ukraine, the latest mass murders, biblical House Speaker Mike Johnson, and the rest of all-the-news-that’s-fit-to-print.

Once you start thinking like that, however, you’ve left the zone of sentimental sports writing and it’s time to start considering what we really need to know about our fun and games.

A New Sports World or a New Scam?

That front-page piece by Witz and Fahrenthold is a fine (if somewhat tardy) example of what any sports page should be focusing on in 2023. The latest key to successful college athletic recruiting, they report, is forming a “donor collective” of ultra-rich boosters. They then act as recruiting agents for the coach, who can assure an incoming star player of a package of no-show jobs and top-notch endorsement deals that, for a future starter on a major college team, could easily become the equivalent of a $100,000 annual salary (or more). To add a little spice to the funding group, that collective can be created as a charitable organization so its donors can claim tax deductions. (If you wanted to add another wrinkle to that story, as Jason Fuller of National Public Radio reported, you could include the creation of “transfer portals” that allow disgruntled players to switch schools without the old penalty of losing a year of eligibility.)

It was great that the Times covered the latest round in the professionalization of amateur sports so effectively, but the question remains: under the new regime will they stay with it? In the years to come, will it even seem like an Athletic kind of story?

Keep in mind that such investigations aren’t what hardcore sports fans tend to enjoy in their time outs from real life or what usually attract non-sports fans to the subject. And such reporting is expensive, too.

Only recently, however, we saw the sports version of journalism at the highest level in a blockbuster news piece by two of the Washington Post’s biggest stars, David Maranis and Sally Jenkins, writing about then-Republican House Speaker wannabe Jim Jordan. “As an assistant wrestling coach and graduate student at Ohio State from 1986 to 1994,” they reported,

“he was on campus during the most grievous scandal in the school’s history. Over two decades, Richard Strauss, an athletic team doctor, molested scores of male students and athletes, especially wrestlers, with abuses ranging from excessive fondling of genitals during supposedly routine examinations to anal rape, according to a university report. When the crimes belatedly surfaced in 2018, Jordan insisted that he had been unaware of Strauss’s behavior.“

However, wrestlers from Jordan’s time at Ohio State told the Post that they recalled team members complaining to Jordan and insisted that there was no way he didn’t know what was going on.

Theirs is another story that should be a model for the new neosports department at the Times, along with the role of gambling in the current sports world (including the NFL’s once unthinkable official betting sites), and how women’s sports is faring in a time of transgender athletes (and how those transgender athletes are faring, too). And don’t forget what’s new in sports writing itself, including the two highest-priced practitioners of the trade today, 54-year-old Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and his one-time protégé, 29-year-old Shams Charania of The Athletic. They might not have been considered real sportswriters over much of the past 66 years of my service. Both are transactional reporters who cultivate inside sources in order to be the first to break the news — often, in this distinctly online sports world of ours, by seconds — that some basketball player is being traded or manager fired. Admittedly, it hasn’t yet been explained why the timing of such information is important to anyone but gamblers — and if that’s true, consider it one measure of where we are right now in Sports World 2023.

Woj reportedly makes $7 million a year, while his rival Shams makes less. Arguably, he’s now the most important sports reporter at the Times. The question remains: Is he its future or proof of its ongoing decomposition?

Maybe answering that question could be the Ph.D. thesis I was headed toward 66 years ago when I answered that ad for copyboy in the late, lamented sports department of the New York Times.

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