Robert Lipsyte Discusses the Intersection of Sports and Politics

Robert Lipsyte Discusses the Intersection of Sports and Politics

On Tuesday, Jan. 30, the renowned sports journalist and author Robert Lipsyte visited Wake Forest to deliver a talk entitled “2018: A Collision of Politics, Sports, and Journalism.” The talk was sponsored by the Departments of Politics and International Affairs, Communications and Education, as well as the Journalism and Documentary Film Programs, with additional support from the Office of the Provost and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Professor Alan Brown, of the Wake Forest Department of Education, introduced Lipsyte, stating “Robert Lipsyte had a distinguished career as an award-winning sports reporter and columnist for the New York Times and author of more than 20 books, including his memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter.

Brown also mentioned that Lipsyte was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Commentary 1992, served as Ombudsman for ESPN as recently as 2013-2014 and had numerous appearances on CBS Sunday Morning and the NBC Nightly News

Throughout his long and storied career, Lipsyte has had what he describes as two separate writing lives: one as a journalist and one as a fiction author.

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“While [Lipsyte is most recognized for his role as a sports journalist,he is perhaps best known for his social commentaries and topics surrounding race, class and gender,” Brown said.

Lipsyte garnered some of his initial recognition in 1964 as a young reporter for The New York Times when he was sent on assignment to Miami to cover the little-known Cassius Clay (who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali) and Sonny Liston fight. According to Lipsyte, the main boxing reporter did not want to attend due to Clay’s lack of recognition, so they “sent the kid.” It was the first opportunity Lipsyte received at The New York Times to cover a fight. Clay’s major upset victory over Heavyweight Champion Liston helped propel Lipsyte’s career.

During his talk, Lipsyte described the “collision” between politics, sports and journalism throughout history and his career in sports journalism. He began by discussing Jim Bouton, a former New York Yankees pitcher. Bouton’s desire to discuss the Apartheid in South Africa and its effects on their Olympic team during his post-game interviews with reporters as opposed to his in-game performances helped Lipsyte to realize that being a sports journalist means reporting more than just sports. Since then, Lipsyte has never simply “stuck to sports.”

Lipsyte then discussed Ali’s often-misunderstood quote regarding the Vietnam war and his refusal to be drafted. Ali’s famous message was “I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong.”

“[Ali’s message] is shown as the ultimate political statement by an athlete,” Lipsyte said, however, he disagrees. Lipsyte argued that Ali’s answer to the question of how he felt about going to Vietnam to kill the Vietcong was less a political outcry but more an expression of his anger and exasperation at the end of the day following hours of interviews and answering petty questions. The answer, however, became framed by the media historically as the great political statement by a major athlete.

Lipsyte compared the politics of Ali to a modern example in Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick, an NFL quarterback, used his celebrity platform to protest the plight of African Americans and kneeled during the national anthem at NFL games.

“[I refuse] to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said.

To Lipsyte, this was a truly political statement. Lipsyte described Kaepernick’s gesture as “the most powerful political message in the sports world since 1968” when two Americans, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised their fists during their medal ceremony at the Mexico City Olympics. Lipsyte expressed his admiration for Kaepernick who he says has put his money where his mouth is by donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to political causes.

Lipsyte also further touched on the concept of sports media no longer “sticking to sports.” According to Lipsyte, many view sports as a sanctuary and escape from the ills of the rest of the world. During his time as ESPN’s Ombudsman, Lipsyte received numerous complaints from viewers about the intrusion of politics into sports and ESPN’s programming. The most notable outcry he recalled receiving was during ESPN’s broadcast of the 2014 NFL Draft when the Rams selected Michael Sam, a defensive lineman from Missouri attempting to become the NFL’s first openly homosexual player, in the seventh round. After Sam was drafted, he shared a passionate kiss with his boyfriend, which many ESPN viewers viewed as offensive material to air in their “sanctuary.”

In contrast, Lipsyte presented the idea that sports are a type of laboratory for social issues. He noted the integration of Major League Baseball in the 1960’s and concluded his talk by discussing how the Olympics have become a prime example of the collision of politics, sports and journalism. In particular, he discussed the 1948 Olympics when Germany and Japan were barred from competing after losing World War II, the kidnapping and murder of 11 Israeli team members at the 1972 Munich games by a Palestinian terrorist group and Russia’s ban from this year’s games in South Korea for decades of state sponsored doping.

Lipsyte concluded by mentioning his favorite event involving this collision in Olympic history. At the 1992 Barcelona games, the U.S. men’s basketball team, often referred to as the “Dream Team,” won the gold medal. The team itself was sponsored by Reebok, but the team’s premier player, Michael Jordan, had an individual sponsorship with Nike. To combat this conflict of interest, Jordan went to the medal podium wrapped in an American flag, covering any Reebok logos.

“[Michael Jordan] is a true hero because he extended the collision of politics, sports and journalism,” Lipsyte said. 

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