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Column: Island Bookshelf

Island Bookshelf

SportsWorld: An American Dreamland

Whether you love sports or simply relish some of the larger-than-life characters in the world of sports, you are sure to have enjoyed Robert Lipsyte’s brilliantly written and insightful books and articles over the years.

He’s an award-winning sportswriter for The New York Times and was the Emmy-winning host of the public affairs show “The Eleventh Hour.”

He also appears disguised as “Codger” once a month on the OpEd pages of the Reporter.

The bold-faced names who have populated his columns and this lively book are giants not only in professional sports but the culture that swirls around them.

Think Muhammad Ali, Joe Namath, Billie Jean King, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and you’ll understand the level at which Mr. Lipsyte plied his craft. Their names have endured because of their impact on human rights and our national discourse, not just their undeniable prowess. For readers like me, more interested in the stories of the athletes’ lives than their scores or stats, there are jewels to be mined in this book, first released in 1975 and recently re-released with a new introduction.

Mr. Lipsyte serves his readers well by pulling back the gauzy, glitzy curtains surrounding our sports legends, and revealing that the back story we thought we knew was often not the real story at all. He has dissected the culture around pro sports in his columns and in this book, and his updated edition charges that hypocrisy and exploitation have only grown through the years.

He says SportsWorld, “that sweaty Oz, where so many of our values and definitions are born” is a “gross distortion of sports,” which is intimately connected with politics, commerce, entertainment and media. He does not excuse himself for having jumped on the bandwagon with sportswriters who went along with popular narratives that were later proved false, such as those of Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong. He calls sports “a vivid window into the rest of life” and doesn’t pull any punches about the ugly scenes on view.

Recalling his encounters with Donald Trump in the latter’s US Football League days, when the tycoon bankrupted the fledgling league with his destructive lawsuit against the NFL, the author writes in the new introduction: “I wish I hadn’t treated Trump as an entertaining if unreliable subject. He was expressing many of the political opinions then that he espouses now. We gave him space for our own ratings and circulation then as we did during the election campaign.”

Mr. Lipsyte points with some hope to athletes like Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James who have begun to speak out against brutality and for civil rights. He notes, however, that  the president used Colin Kaepernick’s protest to fan the flames of culture wars, “suggesting the quarterback find himself another country.”

Mr. Lipsyte met his wife, Lois B. Morris, on Shelter Island 20 years ago this summer. They now live full time on the Island, where she is president of the League of Women Voters. He enjoys writing the Reporter column.

“It’s nice to feel engaged with our neighbors,” he said. “People feel free to express their opinions on the column, in which I try to reflect on the real concerns in our lives here. At one time I wrote a column for The New York Times called “Coping,” where I observed that my neighborhood was like the whole city writ small. People wouldn’t hesitate to stop me on the streets and take issue with what I wrote, as New Yorkers will. On the Island, they may tell me the same thing about something I’ve said in ‘Codger,’ but they say it in a nicer way.”