Robert Lipsyte

Disarming the lunatics: Will we ever ban the Bomb?

Robert Lipsyte, Bombs Away!

I remember two boys from the 1950s.

The first of them took the subway out to Ebbets Field as often as he could to see “his” team, the Brooklyn Dodgers. (When in the grandstands with his friends, he thought there was nothing funnier than to yell “Beer here!” as the fellow selling brew walked by — and then duck fast.) So many years later, I think he could still name the nine Dodger starters of that time from Roy Campanella behind the plate and Jackie Robinson at second base to right fielder Carl Furillo (known as “the Reading rifle” for his throwing arm). He’d probably put either Don Newcombe or Sandy Koufax on the mound. And in center field, of course, was the Duke (Duke Snider) who hit at least 40 home runs five years in a row, a record only otherwise reached in that century by Babe Ruth and Ralph Kiner. In 1957, he hit two in his final game in Brooklyn as his team prepared to head for the West Coast and become the Los Angeles Dodgers (the rats!).

The other little boy of those years spent time ducking and covering under his desk preparing for an event he only half-grasped, the potential nuclear destruction of his hometown, New York City, by our mortal Cold War enemy, the Russians. He went to the movies to see atomically irradiated giant ants invade Los Angeles (Them!), spaceships destroying whole planets (This Island Earth), and this world being turned into an atomic wasteland (On the Beach). He read post-apocalyptic novels like A Canticle for Leibowitz. Asleep at night, he dreamed about nuclear explosions and felt the heat of destruction broil his body. He read with a certain fascination about what Americans who had built their very own personal bomb shelters might do if the neighbors tried to squeeze in when facing impending nuclear doom. (Shoot ’em!)

Of course, that “he” was me. In the terms TomDispatch regular, author of SportsWorld: An American Dreamland, and former New York Times sports columnist Robert Lipsyte lays out today, those were my own two versions of the Big Bang. More than half a century later, strangely enough, I’ve disarmed one of them. (I no longer watch my formerly favorite team, the Mets.). The other, unfortunately, the potential nuking of this planet, I can’t do much about. I only wish I could. But as baseball’s World Series approaches, along with a world series of nightmares from hell in Ukraine, let Lipsyte tell you more. Tom

Home Runs First: How the Four-Bagger Leads to the Real Thing

The time has come to ban The Bomb.

Of course, all those nuclear ones in the arsenals of the “great” powers, but — since I’m a sportswriter by trade — let’s start with the home run. Call it a four-bagger, a dinger, a moon shot, or (in my childhood) a Ballantine blast for the beer that sponsored so much baseball. One thing is certain, though: the dream of the game-changing home run has shaped our approach to so much, from sports to geopolitics. Most significantly, it’s damaged our ability to solve problems through reason and diplomacy.

So, consider banning both The Bomb and the home run as the first crucial steps toward a safer, more peaceful world.

For 102 years now, since Babe Ruth first joined the Yankees, we’ve been heading for this moment when a frustrated American lunatic might potentially try to take this country hostage by threatening violent civil war, while a frustrated Russian lunatic tries to take the world hostage by threatening to annihilate it.

Saving both the country and the world by disarming the lunatics can only be accomplished via the careful little steps that no longer seem to be a priority either in the playbooks of baseball or in the arsenals of liberal democracy. Over the past decades, they’ve largely been discarded in favor of the idea of the big bang, be it for deterrence, intimidation, or, in two horrendous moments in 1945, actual big bangs that created the politics of mutually assured destruction as a forever possibility.

How did that happen? In sports, blame it on baseball, which gave up much of its original artistry for the triumphal explosion that now overrides all else, potentially wiping out both past mistakes and future hopes. To set a proper example, the home run should be canceled if the world is to be saved.

It’s easy enough. Just change the rulebooks so that a ball hit out of the park doesn’t count. It’s not even a ball or a strike, just nothing, another missing baseball. Get over it.

Bombs Away!

Getting rid of the home run will be a particularly hard sell in the glow of the round-tripper renaissance born by the extraordinary season of the New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge. It unfolded, handily enough, as the specters of both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin haunted the non-sports networks. By hitting 62 home runs in a single season, an American League record, Judge brought back the shock-and-awe thrill of it all in a creamy cloud of nostalgia that has briefly obscured the terror of the real bombs.

Judge’s record season also managed to obscure for the moment just how tawdry the very idea of a home-run record had become. After all, the major league home-run record is now 73, set in 2001 by Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants. Until Judge came along, that record, like Bonds himself, had been mired in a Trumpian or Putinesque sports version of disgrace and disgust, though ascribing sane motives to Bonds is far easier than to Trump or Putin, because Bonds is no lunatic.

In fact, he was a truly great player, apparently so maddened by the ascendence of rival hitters seemingly on performance-enhancing drugs that he, too, may have reached for chemical help. The runner-ups to him for the single-season record, Mark McGwire (70 dingers in 1998) and Sammy Sosa (66 in 1998), were also linked to steroid use.

Ironically, it was in 1998, a year stained by the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, that the McGwire-Sosa home run rivalry was credited with diverting the nation from the shame of the White House — and it could only do so because home-run records held such powerful magic.

The record for ultimate power without drugs demands respect. In that sense, the most impressive previous one was set at 61 in 1961 by Roger Maris. He was a Yankees outfielder and a thoughtful, decent player without much flair. Despite all those homers, he was no Bombardier, especially because he was playing alongside a charismatic superstar, Mickey Mantle, whom fans had long hoped would supplant the until-then-ultimate record of that ur-superstar Babe Ruth. Maris was never quite accepted as such after he broke Ruth’s 1927 60-homer mark.

Enter The Babe

In his time (and for decades thereafter), the Babe was Mr. Baseball and, in some ways, Mr. America, too, the very symbol of this country’s emerging power after World War I. His style of play — Bam! — was the one our leaders began to see themselves bringing to global dynamics. He was the face of the Roaring Twenties (unless you’d prefer that flying fascist Charles Lindbergh or that gangster-in-chief Al Capone).

Ruth had been a sensation, a metaphor for appetite, celebrity, food, sex, and victory. In 1920, his first year with the New York Yankees, the 25-year-old Ruth hit what was then a nearly inconceivable number of home runs: 54. Until that moment, 15 or so homers were usually enough to win the home-run title. An exception was 1919 when Ruth, then still a Boston Red Sox pitcher, hit 29.

The Babe appeared at a propitious moment for baseball. His achievements counteracted the negative effects of what came to be known as the Black Sox scandal in which members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in a gambling scheme. There was gloom and soul searching. The national pastime fixed? The nation corrupted?

At least in the mythology of baseball, the emergence of Babe Ruth and the Yankees was credited with helping save the game itself and perhaps the pride of the nation as well. Through sheer power! Bam!

The Yankees would, in fact, get into the World Series in six of the next eight seasons as they developed into baseball’s powerhouse franchise. With all those homers in mind, they would come to be known as the Bronx Bombers. The United States went on to swing its own big bats in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan in 2001 and the Persian Gulf again in 2003, all en route to becoming, at least in the minds of its leaders and the Washington foreign-policy crew, the world’s leading superpower.

Time out. Are you finding this hyperbolic or, given the nature of baseball, not serious enough to put on the same page with those endless wars or the once all-American weaponry that has now become Vladimir Putin’s threat to the world? Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, Barry Bonds a key to our future? Not likely, huh? Well, just hang on to my theory that we’re in thrall to The Bomb (or do I mean enthralled by it?) and that, to survive, we’d better begin disarming — and keep reading.

Enter Aaron Judge

Enter Aaron Judge, a large, friendly, humble 30-year-old, an accomplished all-round player who’s considered “clean” or steroid-free.

On October 4th, in Toronto, in the first inning of the next-to-last game of the 2022 regular season, Judge, to his great relief and that of so many fans, hammered number 62. Mission accomplished! (Sadly, an apt enough phrase, given the way President George W. Bush featured it in reference to his 2003 invasion of Iraq — only to later regret it for obvious reasons and have it used again in 2018 by Donald Trump in reference to Syria, where U.S. troops remain to this day.)

At that moment, there was a new Bomber-in-Chief and might makes right was reaffirmed. No other sport, in fact, ever reinvented itself so thoroughly by focusing on one act — although football came close in 1906 when it legalized the forward pass. That, however, was an attempt to open up the game to prevent so many injuries from the brutal mass collisions of what was then essentially a rushing game. The year before, 19 young men had died and 159 had been seriously injured. President Theodore Roosevelt, a famous proponent of that supposedly manly game, demanded reforms to save it. The casualty rate soon dropped, but how well that all came out remains open to doubt, since the issue of traumatic brain injuries continues to plague football.

While football and baseball both became more dramatically exciting with their big bangs, in the process, baseball lost its brainy chess-like quality. Instead of eking out runs using cunning tactics like the sacrifice bunt, the hit-and-run play, or the delayed steal — all now categorized, whether nostalgically or derisively, as “small ball” — managers came to depend on their sluggers to muscle their way to victory, often at the last minute. As time went on and football, with its dramatic brutality, also often heightened at the last minute, became the dominant sport, the home run only gained more value as one of the best ways to lure in younger fans.

Power Is Sexy

The home run was once justified by the Nike slogan “Chicks dig the long ball,” a variant perhaps of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”

Trump and Putin, like most long-ball hitters (although not Aaron Judge), tend to strike out all too often and be forgiven for it because their fans believe that they’ll soon turn it all around with a home run. No wonder the term home run has become synonymous with having done the best job possible, nailing the deal, case, or diagnosis. In truth, the home run should have become the symbol of the quick fix that may not hold, the brass ring that diverts us from the pleasure of the process, the big club created to intimidate opponents into submission that so often turns them into resentful insurgents.

Which is where we are now. The Russians are in the deep muddy exactly because the Ukrainians knew how to play small ball. They found that they could take a hit-and-run approach with those Russian tanks on the outskirts of Kyiv as effectively as the Vietcong ever did with American ones (and you may remember who won that war).

At the same time, Trump’s Republicans and Putin’s Russians have depended on the long ball. The January 6th insurgency was an attempted walk-off blast to drive home the Big Lie that Trump had really won the election. Had it succeeded, he would have been an autocrat by coup. It was, however, thwarted by small ball: the incredible courage and discipline of the police and the defense of the nation by Democrats through the democratic process.

The invasion of Ukraine and the attempted seizure of its capital, Kyiv, ostensibly to save it from Western aggression as well as “militarism and Nazification,” was Putin’s shot at a home-run-style putsch. He had envisioned his invasion as a triumphant blitzkrieg ending in a quick Russian victory. The duration, relentlessness, and success of the Ukrainian response surprised the world, especially America, which (in its version of finesse) then used sanctions and military aid to support that beleaguered country.

The struggle continues as the Trump team threatens bloodshed in the streets and civil war if their criminal goals are legally blocked. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin continues to threaten an all-too-literal big-bang response to Ukrainian battlefield successes via his country’s vast arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons stationed just offstage — with the fear of escalation into full-scale mushroom clouds and, as our president put it, “Armageddon” lurking in our future.

Talk about a potential Big Bang!

What Can We Do?

Getting out the vote, especially in this time of voter suppression, requires small ball in its most passionate and precise form. Small ball was always about hard work, discipline, and dedication. Think of non-violent demonstrations during the Civil Rights era. So, practice your political version of the sacrifice bunt, while making sure that everyone is on the team, knows the play, and turns out.

Far be it from me to advise the Ukrainians, especially in the arts of the hit-and-run and the sacrifice. Material aid and back-channel diplomacy are, however, also examples of small ball in their way, but the terror of the Big Bang still looms over everything.

Admittedly, metaphor seems shallow and easy when so many lives are at stake, but at least when it comes to baseball, if not this planet, it would indeed be possible to ban the bomb and return to a sports version of a small-ball world. Unfortunately, sports rules don’t work globally, so banning the real bomb seems all too unlikely.

If we could do that, though, you could let the home run stay and who would care?

But, alas, what’s happening on this planet isn’t a game after all.

Donald Trump and the sportswashing of Saudi Arabia

Robert Lipsyte, Sportswashing Saudi Arabia

He’s never been either an apprentice or a man to miss the main chance. The latest example: only recently in mourning (or do I mean morning?) for his first wife, Ivana, he buried her on the golf course he owns in Bedminster, New Jersey. As the New York Post reported, “Not too far from the main clubhouse” — all too appropriately “below the backside of the first tee.”

Oh, as ProPublica noted, the Trump family trust had already established a non-profit funeral business 20 miles away “exempt from the payment of any real estate taxes, rates and assessments or personal property taxes on lands and equipment dedicated to cemetery purposes.” Now, it’s possible that Bedminster could qualify, too, and conceivably get similar tax exemptions.

In other words, his long-rejected wife could all-too-literally prove to be par for the course when it comes to The Donald. He might even profit from her death. How thoroughly expectable, don’t you think? And that’s not the only way in which our former president has been out golfing lately, though not, of course, anywhere near his Mar-a-Lago club, which has been left, for the time being, to the FBI.

No, I was thinking of his latest Saudi escapade, this time with golf club in hand, as TomDispatch regular Robert Lipsyte, author most recently of SportsWorld: An American Dreamland, explains today. Tom

Being Anything But a Good Sport in Saudi Arabia: Even Trump Has a Hand in the Attempted Hijacking of Golf

Here’s the big question in Jock Culture these days: Is the Kingdom of Golf being used to sportswash the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? Or is it the other way around? After all, what other major sport could use a sandstorm of Middle Eastern murder and human-rights abuses to obscure its own history of bigotry and greed? In fact, not since the 1936 Berlin Olympics was used to cosmeticize Nazi Germany’s atrocities and promote Aryan superiority have sports and an otherwise despised government collaborated so blatantly to enhance their joint international standings.

Will it work this time?

The jury has been out since the new Saudi-funded LIV Tour made an early August stop at the Trump National Golf Course in Bedminster, New Jersey. (That LIV comes from the roman numerals for 54, the number of holes in one of its tourneys.) And I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that it was hosted by a former president so well known for flouting golf’s rules that he earned the title Commander-in-Cheat for what, in the grand scheme of things, may be the least of his sins.

That tournament featured 10 of the top 50 players in the world. They were poached by the Saudis from the reigning century-old Professional Golfers Association (PGA), reportedly for hundreds of millions of dollars in signing bonuses and prize money. It was a shocking display for a pastime that has traded on its image of honesty and sportsmanship, not to mention an honor system that demands players turn themselves in for any infractions of the rules, rare in other athletic events where gamesmanship is less admired.

No wonder our former president hailed the tour as “a great thing for Saudi Arabia, for the image of Saudi Arabia. I think it’s going to be an incredible investment from that standpoint, and that’s more valuable than lots of other things because you can’t buy that — even with billions of dollars.”

The tournament was held soon after Joe Biden gave that already infamous fist bump to crown prince and de facto Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman. The two events radically raised bin Salman’s prestige at a moment when, thanks to the war in Ukraine, oil money was just pouring into that kingdom, and helped sportswash the involvement of his countrymen in the 9/11 attacks, as well as the brutal murder and dismemberment of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Deals They Couldn’t Refuse

The buy-off money came from the reported $347 billion held by the Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Top golfers were lured into the LIV tour with sums that they couldn’t refuse. A former number-one player on the PGA tour, Dustin Johnson, asked about the reported $125 million that brought him onto the Saudi tour, typically responded by citing “what’s best for me and my family.”

Phil Mickelson, the most famous of the LIV recruits and a long-time runner-up rival of Tiger Woods, justified his reported $200 million in a somewhat more nuanced fashion. In a February interview at the website The Fire Pit Collective, he admitted that Saudi government officials are “scary motherfuckers,” have a “horrible record on human rights,” and “execute people… for being gay.” Yet he also insisted that the LIV was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”

Family needs and the supposed inequities of the PGA’s previously hegemonic universe were the explanations a number of golfers used to justify biting the hand that had fed them for so long. Meanwhile, Tiger Woods, the greatest recipient of PGA largesse and probably the greatest golfer of our time, if not any time, reportedly turned down an almost billion-dollar offer with sharp words for those who had gone for the quick cash.

The PGA obviously agreed and barred any golfer who took up the Saudi offers from its tournaments. In response, some of them promptly sued the PGA.

The Kingdom of Golf

On the face of it, creating a Kingdom of Golf might not seem like a crucial thing for a morally challenged monarchy to do. After all, golf isn’t exactly a charity or a social justice campaign that’s likely to signal your virtue. It’s just a game whose players use sticks to swat little balls into holes in the ground while strolling around. It’s not even good exercise and far less so if you’re driving the course in a motorized cart or hire a caddie to carry your sticks. And it gets worse. After all, the irrigation water and poisonous chemicals necessary to keep the playing fields luxuriantly green at all times are abetting ecological disaster.

Golf symbolized reactionary greed even before the Saudis entered the picture. For starters, its competitors are among the only professional athletes ranked purely by the cash prizes they’ve won. And the leading golfers invariably earn far more from endorsements and speaking engagements. The sport’s almost comic upper-class snootiness sometimes seems like an orchestrated distraction from the profound racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism lodged in its history and, even today, the discrimination against women that still exists at so many of the leading country clubs that sustain the game.

Golf has long been retrograde, exclusionary, and money-obsessed. To put that in perspective, the estimated revenue of the Professional Golf Association in 2019 was $1.5 billion — and it boasts a non-profit status that’s sometimes been questioned. Lucrative as it is, it also proved distinctly vulnerable to an attack by an oil-soaked autocracy that, in warming up to invade golf, had already invested in Formula One racing, e-sports, wrestling, and its most recent controversial purchase, a British Premier League soccer team (which provoked protests from fans and Amnesty International).

Still, the Saudis’ move on golf was even bolder, more ambitious, and somehow almost ordained to happen.

Unlike football and baseball, which are convenient amalgams of socialism for the owners (in their collusive cooperation) and dog-eat-dog capitalism for the players and other personnel, golf is more of a monarchy along the lines of, um, Saudi Arabia. Until the LIV Tour came along, the main PGA tour, that sport’s equivalent of the major leagues, had been all-powerful in its control over both golfers and venues.

Over the years, golfers have indeed complained about that, but except for Greg Norman, a 67-year-old Australian former champion, not too loudly. Now a highly successful clothing and golf-course-design entrepreneur, Norman is called the Great White Shark for his looks and aggressive style. No wonder he’s now the CEO of LIV Golf and the ringleader of the campaign to recruit the top pros to play in the breakaway tour.

Norman denies that he answers to the crown prince, but his attempts to distance himself from that ruthless Saudi ruler are not taken seriously by most observers of golf, including the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins, who wrote:

Let’s be frank. LIV Golf is nothing more than a vanity project for Norman and his insatiable materialism — and an exhibition-money scam for early-retiree divas who are terrified of having to fly commercial again someday. By the way, the supposed hundreds of millions in guaranteed contracts for a handful of stars — has anyone seen the actual written terms, the details of what Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson will have to do to collect that blood-spattered coin, or is everyone just taking the word of Norman and a few agents trying to whip up commissions that it’s all free ice cream?

One of the best sports columnists, Jenkins may seem excessive in her attack on Norman, but the passions that golf and Saudi Arabia have raised separately only increase in tandem. On the one hand, there’s the outrage when it comes to Saudi Arabia’s murderous human-rights abuses and Washington’s continuing complicity with the regime, thanks in particular to its ongoing massive arms sales to that country. (The latest of those deals, largely Patriot missiles sold to that country for $3 billion, feels distinctly like a kind of bribery.)

On the other hand, there’s the long-standing resentment of golf as a symbol of rich, white, male supremacy. In fact, it’s still seen as a private meeting place to create and maintain relationships that will lead to significant political and business decisions, the sports equivalent of, um, Saudi missile deals.

The pro golfers profiting from the current bonanza may not engender much sympathy, but the derision for their materialism should, at least, be put in context. Until the LIV came along, they had next to no options in their sport and few of them made Mickelson- or Johnson-style money. Worse yet, their lonely gunslinger lifestyles made unionization at best the remotest of possibilities, especially for figures deeply wired into the corporate community through their sponsorship deals.

The Saudi golf coup (because that’s indeed what it is) has taken place at an interesting juncture for the sport and its two most compelling figures, Trump and Tiger, who have indeed played together, both seeming to enjoy the trash talk that went with the experience.

Tiger in Twilight

Tiger, who is now in steep decline, has long been the face of the sport at its most accomplished, captivating, and richest despite, or perhaps because of, his paradoxical nature.

His first auto accident in 2009 revealed a tortured soul involved a maelstrom of sexual infidelities and occasioned a re-evaluation of his mythic rise. No surprise then that he’s struggled ever since, briefly regaining his form before more accidents and surgeries diminished his dominance.

As long as he continued to show up and hit a ball, popular interest in the game was sustained and the PGA’s grip held firm. As he diminished, however, so did public fascination with golf.

In a way, he had been Tiger-washing the sport. It was hard to sustain a critique of golf’s retrograde and exclusionary nature, however justified, while it hid behind his Black face. Of course, that vision of golf was already wearing thin when Tiger refused to define himself as African-American, preferring “Cablinasian” — meant to reflect his racial mix of Caucasian, Black, (American) Indian, and Asian.

With Tiger, at 46, fading as an active force, PGA golf had already become vulnerable to a coup long before the Saudis and The Donald appeared on the scene. And who could have been a handier guy for those Middle Eastern royals than one with such experience in coups, even if his first try, with all those armed deplorables, failed on January 6, 2021.

This time around, though, Trump had millionaires with golf clubs, Middle Eastern oil royalty, and the equivalent of bottomless sacks of PAC money.

And, of course, with Trump involved, anything could happen. The first time he was infamously linked to sports, in the early 1980s as the owner of the New Jersey Generals of the upstart United States Football League (USFL), he managed to destroy his own organization in what would emerge as his signature style of reckless, narcissistic malfeasance. An early Trump lie (in an interview with me, no less) was that the USFL would continue its summer schedule so as not to interfere with the National Football League’s winter one. Within days of that statement, he led a lawsuit aimed at forcing a merger of his league and the National Football League. It ended badly for Trump and the USFL.

This time around, Trump has said that the LIV Tour would avoid scheduling tournaments in conflict with major PGA events. That will probably turn out to be anything but the case, too. So how will his latest foray into Jock Culture play out? Will the PGA beat back the Saudi coup (maybe by raising its prize money) or will the Saudis burnish their global image through a sport undeservedly renowned for integrity and class?

And what about the Commander-in-Cheat? If only this Saudi enterprise would leave him too busy on the links (not to speak of fighting off jail in connection with those purloined secret documents of his) to run for the presidency again in 2024.

Ultimately, whether Saudi Arabia or golf gets sportswashed, it’s Trump we need to rinse out of our lives.

A country armed to the teeth and strutting toward the apocalypse

Robert Lipsyte, Take My Gun, Please

The introduction you’re reading right now is already out of date or we wouldn’t be in the United States of 2022. I mean, we live in a country where, for years now, there have been more guns than people. According to the latest figures (for 2018!), almost 400 million of them and only 330 million or so of us. Oh, and by the way, of those nearly 400 million, an estimated nearly 20 million (and rising) are AR-15 military-style assault rifles. And we’re also in a country where mass shootings (those in which at least four people are struck by bullets, whether or not they die) have all too literally become everyday matters. As I was starting this introduction, there were already 243 of them this year; in other words, more than one a day so far and, sadly, the year is young. Just a day or so later, three more had been added, including a bloody shootout in the streets of Philadelphia where three people died and 12 were wounded. The bloodiest of them — as recently in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas — are truly grim but increasingly normal events.

And the shooters only seem to be getting younger in a country where, in 44 states anyone 18 or older can buy more or less anything that kills, especially those highly militarized rifles the two 18-year-olds in Buffalo and Uvalde used to such deathly effect. And no matter who dies or how, it seems that the Republican Party will put its stamp of approval on unfettered gun ownership in a big way. Take it as a lesson of our moment that Chris Jacobs, a first-term Republican congressional representative from Buffalo, once endorsed by the National Rifle Association, recently came out in support of a federal assault-weapons ban. He then faced an instant backlash from within his party and, under intense pressure, decided not even to run for his seat again this year.

So, it’s good to have the second of what promises to be an ongoing series of autobiographical pieces from TomDispatch regular (as well as former sportswriter and columnist for the New York Times) Robert Lipsyte. Think of him as offering here a little inside information from his own past on what it feels like to be a young man in this country packing a weapon, while your emotions and sense of manliness run wild. Tom

A Country Armed to the Teeth – And Strutting Toward the Apocalypse

The gun I carried on the streets of New York City in the late 1960s was a Beretta, similar to the pistol James Bond packed in the early Ian Fleming novels. It was a small, dark beauty that filled me with bravado. I was never afraid when I had it in my pocket, which is why I’m so very afraid now.

I was packing it illegally, but I knew that a white man in a suit and tie was unlikely to be stopped by the police and frisked, even in a city with some of the strictest gun laws in the country — laws that may soon be swept away if the Supreme Court continues what seems to be its holy war on democracy. In fact, its justices are expected to rule this month in a case that challenges New York’s constitutional right to deny anyone a permit to carry a firearm. That state’s current licensing process allows only those who can prove a “special need for self-protection distinguishable from that of the general community.” That means you can’t pack heat just because you want to feel stronger and braver than you are or because you feel threatened by people who look different from you.

It also means that you can’t enjoy the privileges of the past. In his history of gun rights in this country, Armed in America, Patrick Charles quotes this from a piece in a 1912 issue of the magazine Sports Afield: “Perfect freedom from annoyance by petty lawbreakers is found in a country where every man carries his own sheriff, judge, and executioner swung on his hip.”

Sadly enough, carrying such firepower is thrilling, oppressive, and often leads to calamity as hundreds of police officers and the would-be neighborhood defender George Zimmerman, the killer of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, found out. It was something I, too, came to understand. Let me tell you how.

The Hunter

The Beretta was not my first gun. That was a .22 bolt-action Savage Arms rifle that my favorite uncle insisted I needed to grow into true manhood. My dad was against harboring a gun in the house, but the masculinity argument must have swayed him. He had been too old for the Army and not having served disturbed him. Uncle Irving was his best friend and a World War II vet.

I was around 12 years old, about the age most kids in gun-owning families are first armed. I was an avid fan of the Western movies of that era, which were always resolved by a gunfight. The idea of owning a gun, that symbol of manhood, genuinely excited me. Somehow, because there were so many rules and restrictions, target practice became a duty, as well as a guilty pleasure. (Many years later, I spoke with an Army sergeant who described shooting as unlimited orgasms for less than six cents each.)

In my early teens, I enjoyed plinking away in the woods, knocking off cans and bottles (Indians and outlaws, of course) until the inevitable need to actually kill something became uncontainable. I had to test myself. I was a responsible kid and heeded my dad’s ban on shooting at birds and squirrels, even rattlesnakes, but I finally begged permission to go after the rabbit pillaging mom’s vegetable garden.

I got it on the first shot!

And that was the beginning of my conflict.

It just didn’t feel as good as I had dreamt it would, even though my hunting partner, my kid sister, cheered, while my parents appeared both dismayed and impressed. In death, the marauder of our food supply turned out to be just a hungry little bunny.

Was there something missing in the experience or maybe in me, I wondered? Where was the joy I expected in actually gunning something down? Nevertheless, I paid lip-service to what I thought I should have felt, turning the backyard ambush into the equivalent of an Ernest Hemingway safari, a tale told heroically until it became satirical. (Hemingway was my generation’s avatar of toxic masculinity in literature and in life. And, of course, he killed himself with a gun.)

My sister and I skinned our prey and kept those dried-out rabbit’s feet for years. But ever since, the idea of hunting, if nothing gets eaten, seemed noxious to me and, as the years passed, I began to think of sport hunters as the leatherette men, a gang of poseurs.

Though I kept that rifle, I never fired it again.

The Shootist

Covering police stories early in my newspaper career, I found myself regularly around guns that were almost never drawn on duty, weapons worn by men and women mostly discomforted by their weight and bulge. But I found that I was still fascinated by them. It was only the idea of using them for hunting that bothered me then, not guns themselves.

Still, weapons training in the Army in 1961 turned out to be no fun. The instructors were even more restrictive than Dad and I proved to be a mediocre shot at best.

Basic training turned out to be boring and disappointing. I had, at least, hoped to get myself in better shape and work on some of those manly arts that were still on my mind, like hand-to-hand combat. But that didn’t happen. After basic, I was dumped into clerk/typist school, the Army’s numbing attempt to teach soldiers to be all they could be by doing paperwork. The secretarial training drove me so crazy that I went on sick call and started spending nights in the beer garden at Fort Dix, which only made everything worse.

Then, one night, en route to getting wasted again, I wandered into a free shooting range sponsored by the National Rifle Association (NRA). Oh, joy!

Unlimited orgasms, rifles and handguns, jolly instructors. I was still gripped by the fantasy of manly fun. The next thing I knew, I had joined the NRA by mailing in a card from one of its magazines. My mood lifted and, incredibly, I graduated at the top of my clerk/typist class. I then floated through the rest of my six-month active-duty enlistment in the Army information office, trigger-happy all the way.

Back in civilian life, writing sports stories for the New York Times in the early 1960s, I discovered that my manhood credentials were unassailable, especially to the guys I now think of as the Bystander Boys. Those were the everyday dudes who genuflect to alpha males, especially the sports heroes they assumed I drank with. Those were specious creds, although it would take me years more to figure that out. Back then, I wasn’t yet paying attention to the various kinds of faux manhood that were around me everywhere. Quite the opposite, I was living my own version of it. Especially when I got my beautiful little Beretta.

My frat house roommate Marty, a naval officer, brought back one for each of us from a Mediterranean cruise. It fit our fantasy lives then. After all, we’d both studied combat judo with a drunken ex-Marine on a tough street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. We were both delusional apprentice badasses at a time when actor Humphrey Bogart was considered a profile in manhood. We liked the way he smoked and handled a gun in his films. In addition, we had both read the James Bond novels and were proud that 007’s early pistol of choice, the Beretta, was now ours, too.

The Gunslinger

To say that I felt bigger and harder with the Beretta in my pocket is true, even if it reduces the experience to a phallic cartoon (which, of course, is just what it was). But there was more. It was proof that I was neither weak, nor soft, and didn’t have to feel as vulnerable as I actually did covering stories on the mean streets of the city. It meant I could walk at night in the South Bronx assuming that I’d be able to respond to anything, that I would never have to run or surrender my wallet to some teenaged mugger.

So went my weaponized imagination then. I felt primed for action. I was daring the world, strolling through New York with what I took to be the pigeon-toed rolling swagger of that classic star of so many cowboy and war movies, John Wayne. I even began to fancy that I projected a dangerous aura that would intimidate anyone with bad intentions toward me.

Soon enough, I knew, that feeling of invulnerability would have to be tested. The emotional weight of that gun seemed to demand it. I would have to use it and it wouldn’t be on a rabbit this time.

I felt feverish with the desire for (and terror of) engagement. I suspect that a kind of temporary insanity set in, that I was gun crazy, drowning in testosterone — and the memory of that gives me a feeling for the state of mind of the mad boys now regularly slaughtering people in our country. And here was the strangest thing in retrospect: I don’t remember ever thinking that I didn’t really know how to use that gun, that I’d had no training with it, never even fired it. And in those days, there was no YouTube to show me how.

And then came one lunatic night on Manhattan’s lower East Side. For a magazine story, I was shadowing a young doctor who worked for a non-profit group visiting sick kids in their squalid rooms. Nervous that the drugs and syringes he was carrying in his medical bag might make him a target, he was hugging the shadows of the dark street as we made our way to his car, half a block away. Suddenly, a group of loud young men appeared, drinking beer. The doctor grabbed my arm. He wanted to duck back into the building we had just walked out of.

Filled with bravado, however, I pulled him along, my other hand in my pocket. I was suddenly on fire in a way that reminded me of my teen self and the rabbit. No punks were going to chase me off that street. I glared at them. They glared right back, but then separated so we could walk quickly through them to our car. I promptly flopped into the passenger seat, suddenly exhausted, wiped out by my own stupidity, my own madness.

Just thinking about it now, almost 60 years later, my spine tingles, my muscles lock, and I feel a deep sense of shame, especially for endangering that young do-good doctor. And the possible outcome, had I done something truly stupid? I imagine the gun snagging on my pocket lining as I tried to pull it out for the first time and shooting myself in the foot or, far worse, shooting someone else. I never carried a gun again.

The Unarmed

When I gave the Beretta back to Marty, I told him only a piece of the truth. I said I was afraid of getting busted with it in a city with such rigorous gun laws. I promised to visit the pistol in California, where he would soon be living. And I did. I shot it there for the first time at a commercial range, along with Marty’s new .45. He was rapturous, but I was just going through the motions. There was no excitement or pleasure. I had changed.

I was done with guns and felt like a fool for ever thinking differently. But because of my experience I do understand why, in this thoroughly over-armed land of ours, so many others consider such weaponry (and far more powerful and deadly versions) so important to who they are. Having experienced a sense of that identity myself, I don’t look down on them for it. And I understand that behind the mostly male pleasure in being armed can lie complex feelings. As historian Adam Hochschild noted in the New York Review of Books several years ago:

The passion for guns felt by tens of millions of Americans also has deep social and economic roots. The fervor with which they believe liberals are trying to take all their guns away is so intense because so much else has been taken away.

Even more troubling is that many of them believe they will need those guns for defense against the rampaging gangs (calling themselves militias?) that would rise after the possible collapse of American democracy as we’ve known it, which any number of armed men don’t trust to protect them anyway. (Thank you, Donald Trump, most Republicans, and, alas, my old benefactor the NRA!)

Is stocking up on AR-15s and thousands of rounds of ammunition paranoia or preparation? While a Beretta would never be enough, it turns out that such lesser guns have done most of the damage to Americans. Mass murders with military-style automatic rifles, especially school shootings, have reaped so much of the attention, but it’s been handguns that have killed far more Americans every year, most often via suicide (which is why it’s so sad to see so many of us increasingly arming ourselves to the teeth).

More than half of the 45,222 gun-related deaths in 2020, the last year for which we have solid statistics, were suicides, while “only” (yes, put that in scare quotes) 513 of them were thanks to mass shootings, defined as an incident in which four or more people are shot, even if no one is killed.

Handguns, not long guns, were involved in 59% of the 13,620 deaths classified as murders that year as well, while assault rifles were involved only 3% of the time. So banning those military-grade weapons, manufactured to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible, while distinctly a sane idea amid this mounting firearms insanity of ours, would probably have little real effect on our proliferating gun culture. Given the politics right now, it’s hard to imagine any administration attempting to begin the disarming of America.

Unfortunately, it’s easier to imagine a future government eager to build that arsenal to ever more destructive extremes, both at home among individuals and throughout the world as arms merchants, the ultimate in gun culture.

It’s not hard to imagine this country strutting all too manfully toward the apocalypse with more than a Beretta in its pocket.

More men need to defend abortion rights because 'the bullies are preparing to go after the entire schoolyard'

Robert Lipsyte, Abortion – Not for Women Only

It’s easy to forget just how long we’ve been waiting for Samuel Alito’s “opinion,” signaling that Roe v. Wade is going down the tubes. Back in 2019, I already took it for granted that the Supreme Court would indeed put an end to Roe and wrote then that, as I did, I couldn’t help but think “of my own involvement with abortion as a man.” My wife and I had indeed decided to abort a fetus because of a medical anomaly, even though we both wanted a child then. That was 10 years after Roe v. Wade became the law of the land. Now, I feel nothing but horror and sadness for couples like us who will indeed face such crises in an increasingly Trumpian America.

And honestly, I also remember the years of my youth before Roe became the law of the land in 1973. In fact, there was a moment then when, filled with horror, I ventured into the back-alley world of illegal abortions to help someone I cared deeply about who was, I thought, pregnant. We were lucky. She proved not to be, but I’ve never forgotten the fear (and, strangely enough, the fascination) of that abortion journey into what was then an everyday American underworld and undoubtedly will be again. More than a half-century has passed since then and I still haven’t forgotten that moment, which makes me truly sad for all the young people today who are going to face a similar hell on Earth thanks to Donald Trump, Samuel Alito, and crew.

They have no hesitation, I know, about sending the rest of us into the flames of hell. Looking back, the failed coup at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, may not have been the worst of Donald Trump. His seizure (with the help of Mitch McConnell) of the Supreme Court will, I fear, leave that riot in the dustbin of history when it comes to changing this country.

And they have a nerve. Truly they do. Which is why, today, I turn this site over to Robert Lipsyte, former New York Times columnist, TomDispatch regular, and author most recently of SportsWorld: An American Dreamland. Let him remind us all of what it was like, not just for women but for men, too, in the pre-Roe years and why it’s up to us not to let this stand. Tom

Where Are the Men? No More Bystander Boys in the Post-Roe Era

For 50 years now, people have told desperate, heart-breaking stories about what it was like to search for an abortion in the days before Roe v. Wade. These were invariably narratives of women in crisis. They sometimes involved brief discussions about economic inequality, police-state intrigue, and unwanted children, but for the most part men were invisible in them, missing in action. Where were they? And where are they now that a wall of fundamental rights seems to be crumbling away not just for women, but for all of us? This is another example of what I used to call the Bystander Boys.

As a sportswriter, my work over these decades often brought me into a universe of male entitlement and the sort of posturing I thought of as faux masculinity. Even in that chest-beating environment, I was struck by the absence in abortion stories of what in another time would have been called manliness. What happened to that mostly storybook ideal of the brave, modest, responsible, big-hearted protector? I figured out early on not to waste time searching for him among football quarterbacks or baseball coaches, or even cops and Army officers. Much, much later, I found more people with the right stuff — that “manly” ideal — among single mothers and feminist lawyers.

As it happened, there weren’t a lot of male heroes during the women’s movement of the 1970s or even the more recent #MeToo upsurge. Most men, except for the power boys who treated everyone else as girls, were too fearful or starstruck to intervene. The most grotesque models were, of course, the athletes who stood by silently while their teammates raped stoned or drunken women.

In the pre-pill early 1960s, when unwanted pregnancy was a constant chilling specter for my pre-Boomer “silent” generation, men usually talked about abortion only if their girlfriends had missed a period — when they were trying to track down that coal-country Pennsylvania doctor who performed illegal abortions with relative impunity. They might even share their fears of what an unwanted kid would do to their careers, but rarely did they bring up the typical back-alley butchery of abortion in those years that came from the hijacking of the most fundamental of rights.

Where are those guys even today, much less their sons and grandsons, presumably still active partners in the reproductive process? Forget about moral responsibility — what about the jeopardy our lives are in as the possibility of a Trumpian-style authoritarian future closes in around us? Sixty years ago, it already seemed remarkably clear to me how crucial it was that men stop leaving women to face this nightmare essentially alone — and it still does.

The Dismissal

With that in mind, let me tell you my own ancient abortion story, though it always felt somewhat pallid compared to others — what my kids would have sneered at as a “first-world story” if I had told them. Still, I think it does capture the fear and helplessness of a time which, sadly enough, just might be coming around again.

The year was 1961, 12 years before Roe v. Wade. I had already been married to my first wife for two years and she was justifiably convinced that we were still too shaky, emotionally and professionally, to have children. We were both 23. She was an undergraduate, working on the side in a doctor’s office. I was an ambitious New York Times reporter, covering sports for that paper and cops for its Sunday magazine. When she discovered that she was pregnant, we briefly argued about what to do. I liked the idea of fatherhood and was convinced that it wouldn’t hamper my career. (No wonder, since in the spirit of the time, I assumed she’d be doing all the work.) But I did at least understand that, in the end, it was her choice, not mine.

Through her medical connections, she found a Fifth Avenue doctor who would perform the then-illegal operation for $500, which we could just barely scrape together. We called that upcoming operation “the dismissal” in what we both understood to be a pathetically smart-assed way of avoiding a confrontation with the actual fears and mixed emotions generated by our choice. At that time, it was, of course, criminal, dangerous, and (in what passed for proper society) largely despised.

I was scared for Maria’s well-being and the possible consequences of acting illegally. I was particularly fearful that the Times might find out and, in some fashion, hold it against me. In a confused and twisted way, I was also disturbed about acting against the moral conventions of my society and time. It made me feel like a bad person and, believe me, those were wrenching feelings that began to bubble back into my memory recently as the most humane of judicial amendments came under assault by truly evil forces.

I was also — however contradictory this might sound — righteously angry on that crisp, clear fall afternoon as Maria and I walked to the doctor’s ground-floor office across from New York’s Central Park. I knew even then that religious bigots and the mercenary politicians backing them stood in the way of our health and freedom. Admittedly, I could never have imagined that, more than half a century later, the same combination of forces would be using abortion as part of an authoritarian plot to seize control of all aspects of our lives. Back then, I probably would have smirked at such seeming paranoia, had I seen it in some sci-fi film.

The doctor’s door opened before I rang the buzzer and the arm of an older woman — the doctor’s wife I later discovered — shot out, grabbed Maria’s sleeve and began pulling her inside. We kissed quickly. I noted how terrified Maria’s eyes were. And then she was gone.

I had been instructed to leave the area and call in two hours (from a payphone on the street, of course, since no one then had a mobile phone). After wandering in the park for a while, I found myself drifting back toward the doctor’s office. Reporters always have that urge to stay near the action. As dusk was settling, I noticed nondescript black and gray sedans beginning to double-park illegally along Fifth Avenue and in the side streets flanking that office. They disgorged athletic-looking women in non-chic clothes. In that fashionable neighborhood, they were distinctly not local residents.

The Raid

As they clustered on the sidewalk, I remember thinking that they looked like a women’s semi-pro softball team I had once covered, as well as the women cops I had met recently doing a Times magazine piece about a squad of Manhattan detectives.

I realized then that I was watching a raid. I felt ice water in my veins as I hurried to a telephone booth from which I could observe the cops closing in on the doctor’s office. What should I do? Warn the doctor? Less than an hour had passed since Maria had gone inside. If they aborted the abortion now, would that spare them criminal charges? What if she was numbing into the anesthesia? I imagined the doctor, scalpel in hand, panicking and injuring my wife. I couldn’t bring myself to take that chance. So, made powerless by my decision, I simply waited and watched.

Soon enough, the cops swarmed the office door and went inside. I moved closer. Several of them were standing guard there and others were stationed along the block. They briskly collected a middle-aged couple heading toward the office and stuffed them into a parked sedan.

It seemed like a long time before the office door opened and the cops came out with the doctor’s wife, a white-bearded man in a white coat, a teenage girl wrapped in a blanket, and Maria, pale and shaking after the operation. I couldn’t be a bystander for one more second. Nobody stopped me as I ran to her, yelling, “That’s my wife!”

The cops were matter of fact, almost kindly. They assured us that if Maria agreed to accompany them to Bellevue Hospital and submit to an examination to ascertain whether she had an abortion, there would be no charges against her. I felt helpless. I didn’t know what to do or who to call.

Gripped by a certain desperation, I asked whether the medical exam would be the end of it? No, I was told, she would need to appear before a grand jury trying the doctor. I insisted on going to Bellevue with her. The cops conferred. Okay, they said, and took me along.

I sat in the chilly hallway of that hospital for a long, long time. Passing cops chatted with me in a relatively friendly way. Several of them all but apologized. Abortions were against the law, they pointed out, shrugging, as if to say, what can we do? Finally, I took Maria home. She slept for a day. There were visits from a nurse at the doctor’s office where she worked.

Sometime later, she did indeed testify before a grand jury. The doctor’s name eventually appeared in a splashy New York Post story. He was running an abortion “factory,” so the claim went, and the raid on his office was considered a big bust.

The Choice

And that was pretty much the end of it for us, not to speak of our marriage a year later. The only related event: a call from the Police Department’s public information chief, a deputy commissioner, demanding an apology and a retraction of things I had written in my recent magazine article about the squad of women detectives. He said he knew just why I had written so negatively about them and assured me that if I didn’t send him that apology, he would inform key people at the Times about my recent “unlawful activity.” He let that phrase hang in the air.

I felt chills. My career, I feared, was over. At that moment, I remember thinking about how my dad had talked me into getting a junior-high-school English-teaching license as a backup to my risky journalism career.

Still, I felt I had no choice and told that deputy commissioner to go to hell. He snickered and hung up. I never heard from him again. Sometime later, a magazine editor from the Times discreetly indicated to me that he’d brushed off some complaint from a police flack and told me not to worry.

End of story, although I thought about it again when Roe v. Wade became the law of the land in 1973 and, with Maria’s permission, I wrote about what happened to us as part of a boomlet of pre-Roe horror stories published then. The bloody wire coat hanger that women so notoriously used to try to induce abortions at home, which once seemed all too real to me, was becoming a quaint symbol of another age. We could breathe easy on this, as it was obviously settled law for all time.

In retrospect, I realize that I was surprised by how blithely a new generation took for granted legal access to safe abortions. As a feminist married to a feminist journalist in the 1970s, my nascent thoughts about those Bystander Boys of the pre-Roe era transformed into far better images of “liberated males” I knew, mostly writers and academics, who supported the women’s movement, even if the mainstream media wrote them off as softies.

Everything started coming back to me, though, with Politico‘s scoop on Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion that threatens to end Roe v. Wade (and potentially so much more). In that “opinion,” you can see one of the many bullies of this era at work. When it came out, the Republican congressional crew were, of course, already well launched on the tactics they had undoubtedly learned so long ago in some schoolyard, intimidating any onlookers who wanted to stop them from terrorizing the girls.

Meanwhile, the everyday dudes, starting with President Biden, were generally cutting and running from both the reproductive nightmare Alito’s opinion had set loose in our world and its larger social implications, including the Trumpist campaign to control us all.

It’s time, though, for the boys to become men, to step out on the streets, organize, demonstrate, march (maybe wearing knitted penis caps), guard clinics, escort patients, make noise. Older men like me who can evoke the terrible pre-Roe days should tell their stories, at least to their grandsons, especially the ones who claim that their impractical progressive ideals prohibit them from voting in lesser-of-two-evils elections (too common these days, it seems.)

Just hold your nose, sonny, if it means doing the right thing.

And perhaps it’s most important to keep reminding ourselves and everyone we know that abortion isn’t the whole abortion story, that the bullies are preparing to go after the entire schoolyard, not just the girls, and (as has become so common these days) they’re going to stomp into the school-board meeting as well. Sooner or later, they’ll try to take over the school itself and, eventually, the mind and soul of this country thanks to the holes they’re about to tear in the Constitution. There are more of us than them and, if we stand together and fight, we can still win. No place for bystanders now.

Why Muhammad Ali is the last American hero

At least once a week, a stranger writing a book, magazine article, newspaper feature, or blog; representing a documentary film, radio serial, or podcast; researching a paper for middle school, high school, or college asks me for an interview about Muhammad Ali. I’m on the short list of live resources because I began covering him when he was Cassius Clay and I was starting out as a New York Times sports reporter.

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch

Other than, I guess, Abraham Lincoln or Jesus Christ, the current go-to-guy for a quick symbolic fix of history, spirituality, and spectacle is that heavyweight boxer who called himself The Greatest. Somehow, he’s now right up there with two other once super-polarizing figures — the greatest American president and the greatest Christian of all time.

I’ve been wondering lately just how Ali actually reached such heights. There are plenty of people alive today who once hated him and yet, in American popular culture, he’s now a secular saint.

He would only have been 80 years old on January 17th. He died in 2016 at 74. While Lincoln and Christ were dramatically killed in their prime, Ali’s life began fading away before our eyes while he was still in his thirties. That was when he gradually began losing his voice (and oh, what a voice it was!), his mobility, and his expressive affect, first from the pummeling that boxing gave him and then from Parkinson’s Disease.

I rarely refuse interview requests about him. As one of a diminishing group of old, mostly white male journalists who knew Clay before he was champion, I feel an obligation to help set straight a willfully misinterpreted biography. I’m also always curious about why strangers are so fascinated by Ali and who they think he really was.

In recent years, they’ve ranged from the documentary king Ken Burns to an eighth-grader from California named Harmony. Like most of the scores of others, their questions were remarkably sharp and well-prepared, although most of them lean toward the Ali industry’s common image of him as a fiery social warrior who arrived fully formed at a time in need of just such a hero.

That image is easier than dealing with his early espousal of a separatist cult preaching that white people were devils genetically created by an evil scientist. On Allah’s chosen day of retribution, went the dogma of the Nation of Islam cult to which he then belonged, the Mother of Planes would bomb all but the righteous, who were to be spirited away. It was also easier than remembering Ali’s repudiation of his early mentor, Malcolm X. Ali chose the Nation’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, over him, a betrayal that may have doomed Malcolm to assassination.

Years after leaving the sect and converting to orthodox Islam, Ali offered a far more measured message. While he still gave the Nation of Islam credit for offering him a black-is-beautiful message at a time of low self-esteem and persecution, he also said definitively that “color doesn’t make a man a devil. It’s the heart and soul and mind that count. What’s on the outside is only decoration.”

And he admitted that he had made a mistake in turning his back on Malcolm, partly in fear for his own life.

The Operatic Life

I’ve always thought that Ali’s journey from youthful ignorance to a hard-earned enlightenment was one of the most inspiring stories in the history of sports, perhaps even a kind of morality play or, at the least, an opera.

And so, I was hardly surprised last month, on the same day I answered an Austrian journalist’s emailed Ali questions, to learn that, thanks to Covid-19, Opera Las Vegas had indeed postponed the opening of a new opera, “Approaching Ali.”

Meanwhile, the Ali Center in Louisville was sponsoring a star-studded virtual event celebrating what would have been his 80th birthday. And the Smithsonian Channel announced a new two-hour documentary, Cassius X: Becoming Ali, about the five-year “spiritual and ideological journey” in which, from 1959 to 1964, that callow young boxer was transformed into a world champion. (And, yes, I’m a talking head in it, along with Burns’s eight-hour epic and too many others.)

All of this leaves us with the question of how Ali — or at least a version of Ali — became the Last American Hero. The American dream may be coming apart at the seams, but the glory of The Greatest is in full flower and still growing. Why?

The simplest answer – and the most discouraging – may be the right one. There is no one else. In the age of Trump, the Hero Pool has dried up, if at least you ignore the endless movie characters based on comic book super people (or creatures). Even my own childhood fave, Superman, who early in his career battled the Nazis, has lost his dominance.

In America, the terrible tribalization of the Trump era has made it almost impossible to consider any kind of consensus hero worship in any genre (Dr. King, Dr. Fauci, Dr. Who?) while culture was becoming as politicized as politics. The usual default for hero worship, sports, has turned into an all-star disaster area and perhaps a leading reason for the idol abyss of the present moment.

A Roster of Hyped (and Then Discredited) Heroes

Lately, almost every sport has contributed a major disappointment in the form of a hyped hero who came up all too short. Recently and typically, the popular golfer Phil Mickelson was one of a group of PGA pros who signed up for a lucrative tournament in Saudi Arabia (with its murderous regime) at about the same time the number-one tennis player, Novak Djokovic, was trying unsuccessfully to stay and play in Australia while unvaxxed.

As we inched toward the February 13th Super Bowl, many began rooting not for but against fan darling Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers who turned out to be another unvaxxed slickster. When the Pittsburgh Steelers were eliminated from the playoffs, their long-time superstar quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was relieved of a full-scale moral review, but he won’t be able to avoid it when he becomes a candidate for the Hall of Fame.

Among the sportswriters who vote for the future immortals, baseball has similarly had a long-simmering argument over the moral qualifications for its Hall of Fame candidates. And that, as it happens, offers a controversy all its own. Since induction brings a substantial boost in sideshow income, isn’t it a conflict of interest for so-called journalists to reward their subjects that way?

In any case, the argument over qualifications seems to have boiled down to skirmishes between the Moralists, who can’t abide the likes of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, or Curt Schilling, all of whom have been accused of using performance enhancing drugs, and the Analytics, who believe that only statistics should be the basis for such final judgments. (Allegations of drug use or bad behavior be damned.)

Such arguments have devalued the very idea of a Hall of Fame because the statistically minded sportswriters come across as mindless boosters hiding behind numbers, while the Moralists seem like all-too-tiresome finger-pointers. How do you get heroes out of that?

The answer is: you don’t. So you go back to Ali, who was stripped of his heavyweight title in 1967 after refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam-era Army for religious reasons. It’s always worth recalling that he was not penalized by some federal agency or central governing sports body, but rather by scores of politically appointed local boxing commissions.

Hero and Villain

Ali immediately became both hero and villain, celebrated for a principled stand against the Vietnam War (“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam after so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?… I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong”), vilified for rejecting his country’s call of duty, and sentenced to five years in jail for refusing induction, later overturned by the Supreme Court. The passion of those 55-year-old reactions to Ali’s draft avoidance were echoed in 2016, several weeks after his death when, in one of sports’ most symbolic acts, Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem before a pro football game and instead took a knee.

As that season unfolded and Kaepernick became a right-wing target, it seemed as though the San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback would prove a worthy successor to Ali as an all-American hero-in-chief. He, too, was clearly taking a personally dangerous and politically principled stand and his avowed purpose — to call attention to discrimination against people of color — seemed unassailable.

But even as Ali remained a secular saint, Kaepernick would be maligned and smoothly sideswiped. He really wasn’t such a good quarterback, it was said (although he had led his team to the Super Bowl), and anyway he was nothing but a pawn of the Black Lives Matter movement. Most damaging for Kaepernick, I think, was the lack of white support, especially among other National Football League players. (Black support wasn’t so widespread, either.) Ali, of course, never lost the favor of the millions of young white fans against the draft.

Ali’s herohood remains unsullied, especially because it’s been sanitized. The fearsome social warrior of 1967 came, in the end, to be celebrated as something of a teddy bear.

Ringing the Wrong Bell

The issue of neutering a feared social warrior has been covered most trenchantly by Thomas Hauser, the lawyer and novelist who is Ali’s most exhaustive and reliable chronicler. His description of Ali as “a beacon of hope for oppressed people all over the world” as well as “the embodiment of love” whose “dreams inspired the world,” has clearly led to his antipathy toward what he sees as the relentless commercialization of Ali. No example of this was more symbolic than his appearance at the New York Stock Exchange on December 31, 1999. Hauser says he thought Ali should have celebrated that millennial moment “at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter to draw attention to the plight of the disadvantaged.”

Ali, according to Hauser, was, however, adept at avoiding making rich white people feel guilty or even uncomfortable. The cruelest Ali had ever been publicly was to his most formidable opponent, Joe Frazier, a Black man — calling him a “gorilla,” while mocking his nose, lips, and skin.

“In real life,” writes Hauser, “Ali played the race card against Frazier in a particularly mean-spirited way. For the entertainment of white America, he labeled Joe as ugly and dumb. And at the same time, speaking to Black America, he branded Frazier an Uncle Tom, turning him into an object of derision and scorn within the Black community.”

One of the harshest observers of Ali’s commodification, Mike Marqusee, author of Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties, broadened such a critique by writing:

“Ali’s power in the third world grew precisely because he was a symbol of defiance against racism and the use of United States military power abroad. And those issues are very much alive today; so, it means a lot to the powers that be if Ali can be used to suggest to the rest of the world that they aren’t problems anymore. [Ali’s] history is now being plundered and deliberately obscured to sell commercial products and, more significantly, ideas.”

No wonder I looked for hope in Harmony. After the Zoom interview and some follow-up e-mails, I asked the California eighth grader if she and her project colleagues would answer two short questions: Based on your research, what do you think Ali should be remembered for now? Is that the same thing you might have thought before you did your research?

Generously, Harmony offered the views of her classmate, Yaseen, who wrote that he thinks “Ali should be remembered for being arguably the most iconic athlete of all time and as a hero because he taught young Black people that they could do anything and he should also be remembered for the positivity and love he spread in his life.” Before researching his life, he had merely thought that Ali “was a good boxer.”

That was positive. And then, the day that Yaseen’s tribute arrived, part of a weekend that would include my birthday, as well as Ali’s and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, a request arrived from a Purdue University graduate student for information about Superman’s role in American culture. Many years ago, I had been involved in a TV show that peripherally addressed that subject. Of course, I agreed to answer his questions and started plowing through old notes where I found a reference to a 1978 DC comic book called “Superman vs. Muhammad Ali” in which the two team up to defeat an alien invasion of America.

My heart raced at that. Alien invasion? We’re in the middle of one right now. They’re called greedy, gutless Republicans and they seem to be winning. And worse yet, they have a hero whose seedy charisma and shamelessness is enough to inflame his nervous and needy followers.

Spoiler alert: in the comic, the good guys win and Ali shouts, “Superman, WE are the greatest!”

And it’s true. Unlike Trump, the champ was willing to share the glory. What more can we expect from a “hero” these days?

Flaming the fans: How the age of Trump has changed fandom

If you think that the true focus of the recent World Series was what the Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves were doing on the field, you were either living in Texas, Georgia, or on some billionaire’s space station. In the world that lies somewhere between rabid fandom and total baseball disinterest, the fall classic actually proved to be a contest pitting the cheaters against the racists with a disturbing outcome that might be summed up this way: to the spoiled belongs the victory.

And don’t think this was purely a baseball phenomenon. I can’t wait to see who will be competing in next February’s Super Bowl, although the most obvious early contenders are homophobia, sexism, and vaccination misinformation. As for the basketball, hockey, and Olympic seasons, I’m putting my money on the likelihood that predatory sexuality, financial inequality, and transgender discrimination will be right up there alongside the commercials for Nike and gambling.

I consider all this the upshot of what appears to be a shift in the very nature of fandom, a moral drift. Fandom has traditionally been mostly regional. In recent years, however, it has begun to take on the worst of the corrupted tribalism that has dominated so much of life outside the arena, the ballpark, and the stadium ever since Donald Trump became America’s coach. Before that, sports was generally considered a crucible for character, a place to define righteous principles, or at least to pay lip service to the high road, whether anyone was on it or not.

Of course, as Trump himself was more a symptom of ongoing developments in this country than the originator of them, this moral drift in sports started years ago when TV and shoe company money further corrupted the arms-race competition among colleges for box-office athletes. Think of Trump as the blowhard who fanned the already growing flames, or perhaps more accurately — by provoking the fanatics — flamed the fans. This shifting sense of sports, fandom, and life in America started gathering velocity in the late 1990s as performance-enhancing drugs proliferated and the National Football League’s (NFL’s) ongoing cover-up of the brain traumas the sport caused so many of its players began to be revealed.

Soon enough, though, cover-ups of just about any sort became unnecessary as the world of Trumpism affirmed that the strategic use of lies and bad behavior was at least as acceptable as were well thought out personal fouls in soccer and basketball. And all of that was before the complications of the Covid-19 pandemic led professional athletes to realize that it was about time they assumed active responsibility for their own physical and mental health — if they wanted to survive.

International stars like tennis champion Naomi Osaka and Olympic medal-winning gymnast Simone Biles found themselves crushed by the pressure exerted on them by major sports institutions whose only interests, whatever their fates, seemed to be eternal profits. Even pro football players are becoming involved in their own mental health.

The Fall Classic

A milestone of the current moral drift was the World Series just past.

Like every major sporting event these days, it opened with a media-generated narrative. Such story lines generally feature a star’s comeback (from a slump, an injury, or more recently, suspensions for drug use or domestic violence) or perhaps a franchise’s chance to finally win a title and so repay a city for its endless sufferance of mediocrity and tax breaks. Such narratives help ratings and circulation. Baseball, losing popularity lately, depends on them, especially to reel in the “cool” Black audience so important to current pop culture and style.

Baker, after all, is Black and celebrated for his integrity and decency. As a player, he was mentored by Atlanta slugger Hank Aaron. As a veteran manager, he was well-liked by his players and by the media. For a team that had cheated the last time around, he was, in other words, a seemingly unassailable and all-too-necessary figure. (Well, actually, maybe not quite. Despite managing slugger Barry Bonds for 10 years at San Francisco, he claims to have had no idea whether Bonds used steroids, which, for some at least, makes him either a liar or a self-blinkered leader.)That’s why this year’s baseball narrative was so startling — and effective in terms of ratings. I think of it as: root for the lesser of two evils. In this case, the lesser of those was either a team that broke the rules to win the title or a team that marketed its racism.

Three years ago, the Houston Astros won the 2017 World Series, apparently with the help of an intricate system of cheating, which involved shooting video of the opposing team’s pitching signals and relaying them to their own batters. The subsequent punishments meted out by Major League Baseball (MLB) were clearly designed not to be harsh enough to damage the Astro’s future possibilities in any way. And when the team showed up at the 2021 World Series, it was with a new manager, Dusty Baker, a highly appropriate yet seemingly cynical selection of the team owners.

In any case, Baker’s reputation made it possible for fans and the media to look past the Astros’ previous transgressions long enough to focus instead on those of the Atlanta Braves. In a time when the Cleveland Indians have changed their name to the Cleveland Guardians and the former Washington Redskins have dropped their (as yet to be replaced) terrible name, Atlanta and Major League Baseball nevertheless defended not only that team’s use of what was considered a racist slur (“Braves”), but its promotion of the despicable tomahawk chop gesture among its fans in the stands, which former President Trump so notoriously demonstrated when he attended game four of the series.

If perhaps you don’t know what happened but still care, the “Braves” beat the Astros, four games to two, to win the series. In what once was arguably the national pasttime, they seemed to prove that racism tops cheating in Trumpist America during this season of moral drift.

Email Slurs

But what about the sport that left baseball in the dust, and now passes for the national pastime? Can diverse bigotry beat anti-vaxx mendacity in pro football?

Last October, Jon Gruden, justifiably famous for good-old white mediocrity, resigned as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders after a trove of emails revealed him to be an equal-opportunity slinger of slurs. Those emails were discovered while lawyers were investigating alleged sexual harassment at the Washington Football Team (those former Redskins). The Gruden emails had mostly been exchanged 10 years ago with Bruce Allen, then the Washington team president when Gruden was an ESPN sports analyst. Racial and homophobic slurs abounded in those old, white, frat-boy-style exchanges.

Allen was fired and Gruden is now suing the NFL and its commissioner, Roger Goodell, for allegedly leaking those e-mails in an attempt, he claims, to divert attention from the transgressions of the league and of Goodell himself. It’s not all that far-fetched a notion in this time of conspiracies. Who knows what medical, racial, and financial wrongdoing pro football continues to conceal today?

It may be unlikely but, should the upcoming Super Bowl feature, say, the Raiders or that still-to-be-renamed Washington team against the Green Bay Packers, it could rival the World Series as a “lesser of two evils” (or greater of two evils?) event. Matched against the bigotry that lost Gruden his job would be the peculiar prevarications of the Packers’ once exemplary quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. He lied about getting his Covid vaccinations, putting teammates, fans, and sports reporters at risk.

One of my favorite sports commentators weighed in mightily on the subject. The Washington Post‘s Sally Jenkins wrote:

“Lord knows Rodgers is inventive with the football, but of all the dodging, narcissistic, contrived moves. ‘Yeah, I’m immunized,’ he said, so artificially, when asked in the preseason whether he was vaccinated. That was a lie by omission. And not just a single lie but a daily willful deception along with a weirdly callous charade. On multiple occasions he went into postgame news conferences — which tend to be closely packed, fetid affairs — unmasked. And there should be some queries about the steam and sauna and rehab rooms, too.”

Former National Basketball Association star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was fearful of the damage Rodgers might have done to the very image of pro athletes by, among other things, claiming that

“this idea that it’s a pandemic of the unvaccinated, it’s just a total lie… If the vaccine is so great, then how come people are still getting Covid and spreading Covid and, unfortunately, dying of Covid?”

As Jabbar pointed out,

“Those two statements don’t even belong together. Statistics from many sources conclude that around 97% of those being hospitalized or who have died in the past several months are unvaccinated. The CDC found that the unvaccinated are 11 times more likely to die than those vaccinated. If he thinks that’s a lie, what credible evidence does he have? None.”

Fun fact: Rodgers also auditioned to be the new host of the TV game show Jeopardy, a potential job he soon put in… er, jeopardy.

Sadly, pro football was not exactly “woke,” despite the sustained courage of Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback. Just before Trump was elected president, he dropped to a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial mistreatment in this country. His stature has only grown since, even if he could never again get a job in the NFL. In fact, this February, your time might be far better spent on the new book just published about Kaepernick’s impact on our world or the new TV series on his life than watching the Super Bowl.

On Thin Ice

The drifting morals of major league sports have even tainted the whitest and usually least controversial of those leagues, the National Hockey League. In October, it began its latest season dealing with one old tumult and a whopper of a new one, both involving the same team.

The old controversy has been dragging on for years, the slur-ish name and logo of the Chicago Blackhawks. The new one concerns the cover-up of the sexual abuse of a young pro player by a coach, a shocking tale in a particularly stoic, macho, and tight-lipped sport. The club and the league at first professed surprise at the charges for an incident which allegedly occurred in 2010. Nobody knew anything, as usual… until, of course, it turned out that they did but, in the interests of the sport and of winning, had kept quiet.

In a remarkable interview with Rick Westhead of TSN’s SportsCentre, the victim, former Blackhawk player Kyle Beach, said:

“I am a survivor. And I know I’m not alone. I know I’m not the only one, male or female. And I buried this for 10 years, 11 years. And it’s destroyed me from the inside out. And I want everybody to know in the sports world and in the world that you’re not alone. That if these things happen to you, you need to speak up.”

Had Kyle Beach spoken up earlier, it might have helped Jonathan Martin, a football player whose mental health issues were triggered by the homophobic and racist harassment of a teammate. Martin is only now coming to terms with his psychological needs. His nemesis, Richie Incognito, had a long college and pro history of aggressive behavior, but his size — 6-4, 322 pounds — and his skill allowed him to flourish even as he appeared on police blotters and was considered by some of his peers to be the dirtiest player in the league.

There is a moral to this story. A discouraging one. The bad guy wins. Martin was driven out of pro football in 2015 at age 26, his early talent unrealized. Meanwhile, Incognito, 38, is still in the league, a Trump supporter now playing for the Las Vegas Raiders. Don’t you wonder if he misses his former coach, Jon Gruden?

But before you get too discouraged, take heart in this Ohio State University study which finds that less than half of Americans surveyed think “that sports teach love of country, respect for the military, and how to be an American.” Those who do think that way tend to be “men, heterosexuals, Christians, and Republicans… groups that have traditionally had high status in the United States, been comfortable with their situations, and therefore have positive feelings about these values.”

Maybe there’s a better moral out there and hope for sports yet. If we can drive the moral drifters off the field, maybe we can have a brand-new ball game.

Copyright 2021 Robert Lipsyte

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Robert Lipsyte is a TomDispatch regular and a former sports and city columnist for the New York Times. He is the author, among other works, of SportsWorld: An American Dreamland.

The original sin of American sports is before the Supreme Court

In the late 1990s, I could always draw dismissive snickers at ESPN production meetings — I was a commentator there at the time — when I lobbied for tennis champion Billie Jean King to be named that network's number-one athlete of the twentieth century. In those days, even women sports wonks would roll their eyes and keep plugging for the likes of Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, or Muhammad Ali.

My argument then: that while Billie Jean, like all those worthies, not only dominated her sport, sold tickets, and crossed over into popular culture, she also went well beyond them in fighting successfully for gender equality and against that slavish system of control called amateurism. Meanwhile, she was representing and inspiring half the population of the world.

That was then. Check the recent sports news, please, and grant me a recount. At 77, Billie Jean is still active in the progressive movement in sports. She still marches, speaks, and tweets, while her legacy remains a critical context for current stories like the one about a transgender reality TV star and former Olympic champion running for governor of California, the upset victory that delivered the Senate to the Democrats, and an impending Supreme Court decision that might upend college sports as we know it (on all of which, more to come).

In her heyday, she was a woman whose life was too often defined in tabloid terms — wearing the "wrong" clothes as a junior tennis player, implicitly endorsing cigarettes, being outed as a closeted lesbian in a blackmail scandal, and taking a star turn in the silly yet symbolically significant 1973 "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match in which she beat aging male-chauvinist former tennis star Bobby Riggs before a TV audience of 50 million.

In this century, however, Billie Jean has emerged as a venerated foremother of American sports. As befits a legend, she's generated at least four autobiographies. The latest, All In, written with Johnette Howard and Maryanne Vollers (to be released this summer), will help make my case. Now, let me trace her influence through four contemporary sports-related stories, the most complicated and far-reaching first.

The End of Amateurism

Story one: Sometime next month, the Supreme Court is expected to deliver an opinion in NCAA v. Alston. It's an athlete-led flank attack on the present system of compensating college players — basically through "scholarships" that cover only tuition and living expenses — as a violation of antitrust laws.

The Supremes are sure to offer a narrow opinion because this particular case focuses only on a cap of about $6,000 on various education-related awards that universities are allowed to bestow on athletes. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), with its 1,268 universities, colleges, conferences, and associations, imposed that cap in a relentless attempt to avoid expensive competition among its schools. The greatest fear of its top officials: a burst of uncontrolled bidding wars for high-school athletic talent. After all, the NCAA was created in 1906 to enrich itself through the unpaid labor of "student-athletes," of whom the organization estimates there are now about 480,000.

As the justices prepare their decision, the NCAA business model is about to blow up anyway, with new state laws in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and New Mexico that will allow such athletes to be paid by private companies for the use of their names, images, and likenesses. The NCAA, afraid of losing control of its monopoly, is rushing to loosen its own restrictions to stay ahead of a potential tidal wave of change. Ironically, it may soon find itself at cross purposes with its own Supreme Court case.

All of this feels like nothing less than the welcome death throes of a scam religion called Amateurism, which has been defined as playing games for love, not money — or not your own money, anyway. Think of it as the original sin of American sports. No one should be surprised, then, that it came out of slavery. The first celebrated athletes in America were unpaid Black slaves who represented their plantations as boxers, rowers, and jockeys. Their owners gambled on their skills against slaves from other plantations in bare-knuckle fights, as well as horse and crew races. When sports became prestigious and profitable, white people took over playing many of the games.

Even though, in the last century, Olympic and college athletes, along with golfers and tennis players, became worldwide stars, they remained tightly controlled servants of "Shamateurism," as it was dubbed then. This was the practice of denying such athletes the right to accept money as gifts or for expenses, much less as fees for appearances or endorsements.

Meanwhile, coaches, officials, tournament executives, colleges, and corporations raked in the big sports bucks, maintaining their dominance in part by slipping the stars under-the-table payments. Colleges gamed the system with "scholarships" and no-show jobs, while Olympians wore branded shoes that came with cash stuffed under their innersoles. It was all about keeping jocks on the plantation. No wonder the phrase "million-dollar slave" came into vogue as a complaint against the bondage of college rules and sometimes pro contracts, too. Sometimes, it was even used as a mocking pejorative by those who held the chains.

Enter Billie Jean Moffitt, a daughter of the working class — her father was a firefighter, her mother sold Avon products — and a prodigy in home-made shorts. She seems never to have forgotten the humiliation of being pushed out of a Southern California tournament group picture because she wasn't wearing a white tennis dress.

But before she was done, she got payback. In the revolutionary year of 1968, spurred by her agitation, tennis finally entered an "open" era in which amateurs and pros played against each other (even if the pros still took the cash). This led to the sport's professionalization and eventually to a movement toward player independence in all sports, part of the "athletic revolution" that informs the Supreme Court case and those five state decisions.

The Equal-Pay Gap

Story two: It's probably no surprise that the professionalization and commodification of sports — the Olympics loosened its rules in the late 1970s to keep restive athletes in the games — benefited men far more than women. Their prize and expense money was simply much higher.

Again, the change began in tennis, led by Billie Jean. In 1970, the men's winner of the Italian Open received $3,500 in prize money and the women's champion (guess who?) got $600, a typical disparity of the times. Billie Jean then led eight other American and Australian women players in rebellion against the ruling United States Lawn Tennis Association, which promptly suspended them. But the women's pro tour they founded, eventually called the Virginia Slims Circuit (with its slogan, "You've come a long way, baby"), soon enough became the centerpiece of a new Women's Tennis Association.

There was a cost, however. By sharing that slogan, women's tennis and Virginia Slims cigarettes became inseparable in the public mind. Was the seeming trade-off worthwhile? There was a spike in women's participation in sports — and in lung-cancer cases. Billie Jean has maintained that the players never directly endorsed smoking. As weak as that justification may seem to many, it was also true that even in a boom time for sports, no other major corporations were willing to sponsor women's tennis.

Even today, that money gap between men and women has not disappeared. On "Equal Pay Day" last March, members of the U.S. women's soccer team joined President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden in discussing that very disparity. That team, far more celebrated and successful (as the winner of four World Cups) than the men's team, recently lost a wage discrimination suit against soccer's equivalent of Billie Jean's ancient nemesis, the United States Lawn Tennis Association. The team plans to appeal.

At about the same time, it was revealed that there was a gap of about $13 million between the money the NCAA budgeted on men and women's living conditions, medical support, and training facilities for its annual basketball "March Madness" tournaments.

Billie Jean was immediately on the case with a video tweet calling for equality, for "the same…[as] we're all in this together."

The Original 9

Story three: The "Original 9," as Billie Jean and her tennis rebels came to be known, offered a singular lesson to the male-dominated sports world — women could act collectively, courageously, and aggressively against the establishment, despite both ongoing oppression and the suppression of their history.

Women's sports began its great awakening as an athletic off-shoot of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. At the time, female Olympic medals became as valuable as men's when it came to propagandizing for the physical and moral superiority of the "Free World," as led by Washington. At home, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which protects against discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance, began to be applied to girls' high-school and college sports. That would affect millions of young women and help bring political activism to their sports.

Meanwhile, in the pro ranks, the most prominent daughters of the Original 9 would be the players of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA), the marginalized women's version of the NBA. While men regularly left college and began their pro careers as instant millionaires, women who turned pro regularly found that they needed second jobs in the off-season.

But it was in the WNBA, not the NBA, that players, even whole teams, would launch years-long protests against racism, gun violence, and police brutality, which would lead the way to the NBA Black Lives Matter wildcat strikes of 2020. The men, in other words, would find their moral courage in the women's example and that example, in turn, can be traced back to… of course, you know the name I'm about to use… Billie Jean King.

And that wasn't the end of it either. The WNBA had picked up the Original 9's torch and so became the moral center of the current progressive movements in sports. And then the league got really serious, playing a striking role in the 2020 elections when members of the predominantly Black Atlanta Dream team began wearing tee-shirts endorsing Raphael Warnock, the Black Democratic opponent of Republican Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler. It was a gutsy move, since Loeffler, a white woman who had disparaged the Black Lives Matter movement, just happened to be the Dream's co-owner.

The surprise upset victories of Warnock and the other Georgia Democratic Senate candidate, Jon Ossoff, would even the odds in a previously Republican-dominated Senate. Typically, Billie Jean congratulated the victors with a tweet, quoting from the late Representative John Lewis: "The vote is precious. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democratic society, and we must use it."

The Battle of the Sexes Revisited

Story four: The technique men have traditionally used to cancel women athletes (particularly the ones who could beat them) was to declare them ersatz women; that is, either biological men or lesbians. Billie Jean did not escape such rumors and they turned out to be true. While her first biography extolled her early marriage to Larry King as a fulfilling physical relationship with a liberated soulmate, later bios would describe their union as more of a friendship and business partnership.

At the time, she was actually in an increasingly troubled affair with a hairdresser named Marilyn Barnett. In the end, Barnett threatened to out Billie Jean and that threat, in turn, exploded into a sensational 1981 trial that left the Kings in financial ruin. Millions of promised dollars in endorsement contracts would promptly vanish and her most innovative project, World Team Tennis (now known as Mylan WTT), an innovative league of touring pros who also give clinics to local players, would be damaged.

As a result, Billie Jean needed to keep playing beyond her prime, an ironic comedown for someone who had been transformed into a worldwide symbol of emerging womanhood when she beat Bobby Riggs in their 1973 televised "Battle of the Sexes" spectacular. It may only have been a tennis match between the 29-year-old King and her 55-year-old opponent, but it had been promoted as a gender reckoning.

And even that match of theirs would come to seem quaint in the decades to follow thanks to Bruce Jenner. A handsome, 27-year-old New Yorker, he became the world's greatest all-around athlete by winning the 1976 Olympic gold medal for the decathlon, a test of 10 demanding sports. He would appear on a Wheaties cereal box and eventually marry into the Kardashian family.

Then, in 2015, Jenner would help set in motion the sex/gender story of the first decades of the new century by renaming herself Caitlyn. She would, in other words, come out as a trans woman. This year, she even declared herself a Republican candidate for California and, bizarrely enough, announced, in the manic fashion of present-day Trumpian Republicans, that she did not believe transgender girls should compete on girls' teams. In other words, she cancelled herself.

America's Sports Foremother

Billie Jean, who had, of course, backed Caitlyn in her transition, went on to join a vanguard of women stars supporting transgender athletes — and no, she never ran for the governorship of anything. In short, her stands, personal and political, offer a remarkable progressive roadmap for my own 60-odd years covering sports. The very first time I met her, in the late 1960s, she was only 26 and already under attack. "Almost every day for the last four years," she complained, "someone comes up to me and says, 'Hey, when are you going to have children?' I say, 'I'm not ready yet.' They say, 'Why aren't you at home?'"

She responded that she would answer that question this way: "Why don't you go ask Rod Laver why he isn't at home? I'm a breadwinner, too." Laver was then the best men's player.

She was mocked and berated for her stances in much the same way that, at the time, Black athletes who protested unfair treatment were marked as "ungrateful Negroes." Blacks were told to go back to Africa, women like Billie Jean to the kitchen.

Through her activism, serious introspection, protests, even rants, and more recently Twitter volleys, Billie Jean has continued to adapt to her times. She told me recently that, through therapy, she had come to understand how she had used sports competition as an escape from everyday life, as "a way of putting off all the issues that need eventually to be addressed," including coming out to her aging parents.

Once she stopped playing tennis regularly, she said, she found herself substituting binge eating for the addiction of competitive matches.

"You don't need to face fears when you can focus on the next match," was how she put it.

In her late sixties, she began revising the symbolism of the Battle of the Sexes, an event adapted for a 2017 film starring Emma Stone. Now, however, she described it to me in terms more fitting for the sensibilities of her fellow boomers — less a battle of the sexes than, in her phrase, an alliance of the ages.

In retrospect, she said, the late Bobby Riggs had not been as much a masculine symbol to be bested as a role model for successful aging and for the principle of never giving up. She won, she added, because she took him seriously and respected what he had done in his past. He wasn't some hustler to her still looking for his moment, but a player who had won the singles, doubles, and mixed doubles at Wimbledon in 1939, and so could never be taken for granted.

The ultimate lesson, she declared on the cusp of her own old age, was respect your elders.

Now in her late seventies, one of those very elders (with America's premier tennis center named after her), and an icon of sports, women's rights, and LGBT rights, she seems ever more clearly number one — and our foremother.

Copyright 2021 Robert Lipsyte

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Robert Lipsyte is a TomDispatch regular and a former sports and city columnist for the New York Times. He is the author, among other works, of SportsWorld: An American Dreamland.

My grimly ironic conversation with Trump, the fourth horseman of our media apocalypse

The Four Horsemen of our media apocalypse — Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch, and Donald Trump — have ridden roughshod over us this past half-century leaving their hoofprints on our politics, our culture, and our lives. Two of them are gone now, but their legacies, including the News Corporation, the Fox News empire, and a gang of broadcast barbarians will ensure that a lasting plague of misinformation, propaganda masquerading as journalism, and plain old fake news will be our inheritance.

The original Four Horsemen were biblical characters seen as punishments from God. By the time they became common literary and then film currency, they generally went by the names of Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death. Matching each with Limbaugh, Ailes, Murdoch, and Trump should prove a grisly but all-too-relevant parlor game. The originals were supposed to signal end times and sometimes, when I think about their modern American descendants, I wonder if we're heading in just that direction.

Reflecting on the lives of those modern embodiments of (self-) punishment makes me wonder how we ever let them happen. Isn't there any protection against evil of their sort in a democracy, even when you know about it early? Maybe when evil plays so cleverly into fears and resentments or is just so damn entertaining, not enough people can resist it. Hey, I even worked for one of the horsemen. It was my favorite job… until it wasn't.

But first, let me start with Rush Limbaugh. The nation's leading right-wing bullhorn died last month at 70. His vicious wit ("feminazis") and ability to squeeze complex subjects into catchy sound bites ("In Obama's America, the white kids now get beat up with the Black kids cheering") stirred and nourished a devoted mass who would become a crucial part of Trump's base. Limbaugh, earning by the end more than $80 million a year, left his heirs a reported $600 million.

Those numbers, I believe, defined him far more than any political stance he took and, at the same time, made him indefensible. He was Pestilence, spreading poison without either genuine ideology or principle of any sort. He was doing shtick, whatever worked for him (and work it certainly did). He was, by nature, a great entertainer. One more thing: don't kid yourself, he was smart.

I realized this in 1995 when Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken, Jr., was approaching Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive baseball games. The Yankee star set that record in 1939 when, after 17 big league seasons, he finally took himself out of the lineup because he was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, later known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.

Tongue-in-cheek, in my then-weekly New York Times sports column, I called on Cal to take a day off to avoid breaking the record. I wrote that, if he did, he would "be remembered forever as an athlete who stepped proudly over the statistical rubble of his sport to lead us all into a higher level of consciousness. He will end up a bigger Calvin than Klein."

The response from pundits, sportswriters, and fans was overwhelmingly negative. I was called clueless and stupid or, at least, a running dog of a new, much-mocked and demeaned "participation culture," unaware of the competitive nature of sports. Worse yet, I was trying to deny a hero his due.

It seemed that, of all people, only Limbaugh picked up on the mindless paradox of the situation — after all, Ripken would merely have to show up at work that day to claim his trophy — or even how obviously I had been offering my advice tongue in cheek. And he said so on a national radio network carrying his shows.

As the saying goes, it takes one to know one. That he saw what I was actually doing convinced me that he, too, often had his tongue tucked firmly in that cheek of his and away from anything that might pass for his rational brain. And this would, in the end, make it all that much worse. My guess: he wasn't ever truly a believer in the right-wing trash he talked. From the beginning, he was a mercenary, a commercial provocateur who found fame and fortune by spreading ever more toxic takes.

Down Under with Murdoch

Of the Four Horsemen, I came upon Rupert Murdoch first — in early 1977, soon after he bought that once-liberal newspaper, the New York Post. Among his earliest hires as columnists (strange indeed, given what we now know of him) were progressive icon Murray Kempton and me.

I already knew something about Murdoch's Australian and British reputation as a venal press lord, but the lure of a no-holds-barred cityside column and the possibility of sharing an office with Kempton proved irresistible. Murdoch and I first met in the crowded, raffish Post newsroom in lower Manhattan. He was brisk but pleasant that day, asking me at one point how I would improve the paper. I answered breezily: "For starters, I'd hire more women, Blacks, Latinos, gays, so the city can be properly covered."

He regarded me coolly. "Hmm, yes," he said, "but instead I'm hiring a liberal like you."

At that moment, I sensed that he was a monster and that this would end badly. I lasted all of seven months, mostly thanks to another monster, the serial killer Son of Sam, who terrorized the city that year. Like so many other tabloid writers of that moment, I spent the summer writing about the hunt for him, which mostly kept me out of trouble, since Murdoch loved sex, violence, and crime. But then there were those off-his-message columns I wrote about Israel, the South Bronx, and his favored candidate for mayor, Ed Koch.

And there were my shoes. They were soft Italian suede. Beige. I felt cool in them. One day, a new Australian editor took me aside and said, "Lose the poufter boots, mate. The boss hates them."

Of course, now I had to wear them every day despite that boss's homophobia. It was about then that whole paragraphs simply began to disappear from my column (without anyone consulting me), while the column itself was often shoved ever deeper into the paper, especially if I wrote about, say, marching in a women's movement or gay pride parade with one of my kids. Sometimes the column would be cut entirely.

I resigned from the Post live on Dave Marash's 11 p.m. local CBS TV news show. The next morning, in answer to a question during a press conference in Los Angeles, Murdoch claimed that he had fired me. When that didn't fly, he said that I had never been much good anyway. By then, thanks to TV, more people had heard about me than had ever read anything I wrote at the Times or the Post — a lesson about the new world we were all being plunged into.

As it happened, there would be no escape from Rupert Murdoch. After quitting the Post, I went back to writing books for HarperCollins, the publishing house that he had bought. Thank goodness he never seemed to make the connection. Not so far anyway.

Soulmates Without a Soul in Sight

Among the Four Horsemen, Murdoch is surely Famine. Given the sports and gossip-driven sensibility of his newspapers and the role of Fox News as a tool of right-wing and Trumpian political propaganda, he's helped starve people on at least three continents of the kinds of information they would need to truly grasp our world and make educated decisions about it.

His most reliable collaborator in those years was Roger Ailes, who became the chairman and CEO of Fox News. He would prove so skilled when it came to purveying misinformation that he deserves a horse of his own. And no question about it, Ailes represented War, both against the truth and (within journalism) for circulation, eyeballs, and the clicks that always favor profit over facts.

Of all four horsemen, I had the least personal interaction with him. One evening in 1990 (I think), I went to see him at his poorly lit midtown office. It was evening and I had the feeling he might have been drinking, though he didn't offer me anything. I was then the host of a nightly local public television show and we wanted to put him on a political panel we were forming. By then, after all, he had successfully advised presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush (though he wouldn't join Murdoch for another six years). He had blown off all the producers who tried to book him on their shows but had agreed to let me come in for a pitch.

I didn't know it, but around then he first met his future co-horseman Rush Limbaugh who, at the time, was still trying to invent himself as a radio star. Limbaugh had walked into New York's posh 21 Club looking for famous people to buttonhole. He soon spotted Ailes but was too intimidated to introduce himself.

As Rush would later tell it, Roger was the one who first swaggered up to him and boomed, "My wife loves you!" Soon after, they began talking and, so Rush reported, he felt that he had met his "soulmate." Ailes would soon be producing a short-lived Limbaugh TV show. Alas, it would prove long-lived indeed by becoming a model for the bogus news/talk format of Fox News a few years later when Murdoch hired Ailes as the devil's consigliere. Later, Ailes would use that very position to advise George W. Bush and Donald Trump.

Still, when I met Ailes that was the unknowable future. It comes back to me now as if in a dream, brief and weird. He listened to my description of my show, "The Eleventh Hour," and why we wanted him as a guest. I may not have been as fawning as I remember myself being. (I hope not anyway.) He nodded along as I made my pitch, offered me the most perfunctory thanks for coming, and dismissed me with body language suggesting that he had checked me out and found nothing he wanted. He simply turned away and began murmuring to a woman I could barely see in the darkened office.

In 2016, after years of commercial and political success together, Murdoch dumped Ailes in the midst of an ever-spreading sex scandal. He had not only personally harassed Fox employees but had created a company-wide climate of abuse and intimidation. He left with a reported $65 million. A year later, he died in Palm Beach (as would Limbaugh four years after that). He was 77.

A "Great Show" for a Great Showman

Of all the horsemen in those years, I spent the most time with Donald Trump. (By now, haven't we all?) He's our greatest shame because while we in the media may have thought that we were using him — listening sneeringly to his lies and braggadocio since it pushed our media products so effectively — he was using us bigly. Making the "fake news media" his very own accomplices may have been his greatest skill.

I was no exception to the media patsies who flocked to him for easy stories. Maybe I didn't take him seriously enough then because we both came from Queens, a scorned outer borough of New York City, or because he was already a well-known publicity hound and boldfaced tabloid name.

Honestly, who could have taken an obvious buffoon like him seriously? And back then, we didn't have to, as long as we took him. And here's what I do remember from those days: he would always respond to a question, no matter how negative, as long as he was its subject. That's all he truly cared about. Him, him, him, and him again.

The first time we met, in the early 1980s — he was then an ambitious real-estate mogul and B-list celebrity — he insisted that he didn't much like attention, but felt obligated to do the interview because I represented "a great show" ("CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt"). He would then go on to lie about his scheme to pressure the National Football League into admitting to its ranks the New Jersey Generals, the United States Football League team he then owned.

In a later meeting, I remember him offering me his supposed credo as a public figure, one that in retrospect seems grimly ironic, if not satiric: "I tend to think that you should be decent, you should be fair, you should be straight, and you should do the best you can. And beyond that, you can't do very much really. So yeah, you do have a responsibility." Then, as if adding a note in the margins of his bland comment, he added, tellingly enough, "I'm not sure to what extent that responsibility holds."

Once, for reasons I can't recall, I returned to that supposed sense of "responsibility" of his, asking him if he'd like to "run the country as you have run your organization." That was in 1984 (no symbolism intended) and he responded, "I would much prefer that somebody else do it. I just don't know if the somebody else is there." So, 32 years before his election, he was, it seems, already imagining the unimaginable that would become our very own surreal world in 2016. "This country," he added ominously, "needs major surgery."

"Are you the surgeon?" I asked, innocently enough.

"I think I'd do a fantastic job, but I really would prefer not doing it."

I would have preferred that, too, but it's much too late now and, sadly enough, there's no reason to think that the ride of the modern Four Horsemen is over. Limbaugh and Ailes have left their vast poisonous pools behind and they won't dry up soon. Murdoch, turning 90 just days from now, is still running his empire. And Donald Trump, of course, continues to gallop toward the future astride his pale horse, as the rider called Death.

Copyright 2021 Robert Lipsyte

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Robert Lipsyte is a TomDispatch regular and a former sports and city columnist for the New York Times. He is the author, among other works, of SportsWorld: An American Dreamland.

The Super Bowl ends the most toxic season ever

Overwhelmed by the intertwined plagues of Covid-19 and Trumpism, sports didn't stand a chance in 2020. No wonder I'm weirded out by the strange, metaphorical moments of that last disastrous year and the first days of this one. To mention just three among so many: Dr. Anthony Fauci's errant pitch on opening day of the Major League Baseball season; Ben and Jerry's announcement of its newest ice cream flavor, Colin Kaepernick's Changing the Whirled; and President Trump's awarding of the Medal of Freedom to three pro golfers the day after his own all too "proud" team stormed the Capitol.

Much of sports was crammed not only into bubbles of physical isolation but of intense scrutiny that led to the inevitable certainty that sports still does matter (though far less than it did before the reign of Trump) — but also that something is truly the matter with sports. The greedy, entitled manner in which most of its overseers, college and pro, responded to the dangers of the virus illustrated vividly their commercial priorities. Profitable games über alles. It also mirrored Trump's unmasked attitude toward the citizenry he had sworn to protect, especially the 450,000 virus victims he helped to kill.

And now, as the National Football League season ends with the Super Bowl, that annual spectacle celebrating socialism for billionaires and patriotism for poor people, it's hard not to wonder whether sports, at least as we've known it, can survive exposure not just to the coronavirus but to Trumpism Lite.

The Three Promises

Like democracy, sports has been up for grabs ever since the big three promises offered by its corporate version — real live amusement, a moral crucible for exhibiting individual models of behavior, and a sense of belonging (that is, fandom) — disappeared or were co-opted just when we needed them most.

Having spent the last 64 years as a reporter and sports columnist, mostly covering jock culture's relationship to the larger society, none of this surprised me. (I expected no less once I grasped the nature of the pandemics of both Trumpism and the coronavirus.) What did, however, sadden me was the diminishment of sports at its brightest: the power to enrich young lives, bring health to older ones, inspire, and entertain. No such luck in the Covid-19 season.

At its darkest, of course, sports have always fueled caste divisions, sexism, and racism, reckless cheating, and the kind of bullying domination that can be found from schoolyards to the online universe to global politics. While Donald Trump may have been the quintessential jock culture president (and bully), his malpractice certainly came out of an old playbook.

In 1938, the year I was born, for instance, one of the preeminent sportswriters of his moment, Paul Gallico, published a valedictory book, A Farewell to Sport, before graduating to the higher pop literary leagues by writing, among other works, The Poseidon Adventure. Gallico's lofty musings on Blacks, women, Jews, and deplorables in A Farewell to Sport were not only conventional for his time but — sadly enough — still resonate in today's Trumpian world.

What I learned as a teenager from his book included such gems of Jock Culture as: "like all people who spring from what we call low origins, [Babe] Ruth never had any inhibitions"; Mildred (Babe) Didrikson Zaharias became one of the greatest athletes of the century "simply because she would not or could not compete with women at their own best game — man-snatching. It was an escape, a compensation"; and the reason basketball "appeals to the Hebrew… is that the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind and flashy trickiness, artful dodging, and general smart aleckness." Gallico's racial observations — that the success of Black boxers could be attributed to their thick skulls, for instance — were no less stupid and bigoted.

The struggle against such sensibilities in sports has made a real difference in recent years as an impressive new wave of activism emerged among athletes, which, in turn, spawned "woke" journalists, fans, and even management. That's why sports wasn't completely overwhelmed by the despicable values of our recent president. But it didn't escape the damage caused when those three big corporate promises were essentially replaced (however temporarily we don't yet know) by a new "sport" that, along with the coronavirus, would dominate the news: Trumpism.

Elites Versus Lunchpails

As a start, Trumpism replaced sports as America's most compelling live entertainment last year because The Donald intuitively knew how to provide what normally makes that field so successful and addictive — constant conflict, surprises, unscripted action, and a set of heroes and villains to cheer, jeer, or even feel empathy for, like former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway's family.

Conflict is intrinsic to sports fandom. It's the glue that keeps us in the cult. In sports, conflict is naturally embodied in the games themselves, but also in the relationships among the players, coaches, owners, and especially the fan bases. In New York City, for example, the supposed caste differences between the Yankees (elitist) and the Mets (lunch pail) were always vigorously promoted to sell tickets and newspapers. It made no difference, for instance, that for years the Mets millionaire owner was in bed with Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff.

Then there are the never-ending bar bickers over who was better — say, the late Henry Aaron or Willie Mays? And when Tom Brady was the New England Patriots quarterback, who couldn't argue windily about how much of his success was due to his own talents and how much to those of team coach Bill Belichick? Now, of course, with Brady leading a new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, into the Super Bowl, the argument seems not just moot, but far less important than the way Belichick, also a Trump supporter, rejected a Presidential Medal of Freedom after the January 6th assault on the Capitol. That's the news, even for sports fans, these days.

Hack Teams, Not Countries

No wonder relatively benign jock chatter couldn't compete in the pandemic election moment with Trump-style conflict; with those breathless, unmasked rallies of his and their undercurrent of sadism; with the president's continual news-making flip-flops in tactics; with the constant fear of hacking, disloyalty, and betrayal; or with a riveting and endlessly revolving and evolving cast of jettisoned officials like Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon, FBI Director Jim Comey, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, White House Director of Communications (for 10 days) Anthony "the Mooch" Scaramucci, and so on — and on and on. We hardly got to hate them before they were gone.

And then, of course, came the Big One. No Super Bowl has ever exceeded expectations the way the terror attack on the Capitol, supported by some members of Congress and urged on by Coach Trump, rattled our sense of security, horrifying, stunning, and (yes) keeping us glued to our screens in a way that no football game ever could.

In addition, sports lost its role as America's (supposed) moral crucible once the president's transactional ethics overshadowed the values of traditional sportsmanship, however hypocritical and flawed they were. In the age of Trumpism, the 2019 revelation that the 2017 Houston Astros had been electronically stealing pitching signs to win the World Series seemed quaint, if not beside the point, at a time when Russian hackers were suspected of having electronically done the equivalent to try to tip the 2016 election to Trump and possibly alter the history of the world.

A credible case can be made that the transgressions and lies of Trumpism opened the way for a moral moratorium in sports in what would otherwise have been a set of far more headline grabbing scandals, ranging from the Astros-style sign-stealing caper of the Boston Red Sox to the so-called Varsity Blues scandal in which rich parents, including Hollywood actors, bought their children's way into college by pretending they were athletes.

It's hardly as if sports had been an unsullied enterprise before Trump came along. Consider the exploitation of "amateurs," especially in the Olympic Games or those "student-athletes" in college sports; the blind eyes turned toward performance-enhancing drugs, whether self-administered or given out by team doctors; not to speak of pro football's appalling cover-up of the extent of brain trauma among its players.

In all of that, at least, there was a sense of shameful wrongdoing in the cover-ups involved, nothing like the jaw-dropping blatancy of the cases of the pardoned presidential confidant Roger Stone, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and, of course, that classic pardoner Trump himself, unashamed bad guys all.

Compare them with the miscreants of sports: Pete Rose, who secretly bet on games while playing and managing baseball; Barry Bonds, who allegedly abused steroids to become the most productive home-run hitter of all time; and Lance Armstrong, who bullied colleagues as he juiced his way to seven Tour de France victories. Those guys, as reviled as they might have been, simply don't belong in the same league with the White House gang. Unlike the shunned Barry Bonds, denied a place in baseball's Hall of Fame, Trump's crew have already admitted themselves to their own ongoing hall of shame.

The president's two impeachments might have been satisfying to many of us, as would be his Senate conviction (and being barred from future office), even if neither will happen. However, the only meaningful moral punishment Trump seems to have felt deeply was when the very white, old-school Professional Golf Association, or PGA, pulled its championship from his New Jersey golf club in the wake of the January 6th assault on the Capitol. That was the single act that reportedly "gutted" him, the only knockdown punch that truly landed, however trivial it might seem to the rest of us in this anything but sporty season.

Beware the Left Behinds

Finally, Trump's base is too often described — and dismissed — as a mosh pit of maskless deplorables, violent and brainless as British soccer thugs. I think that's a leftish mistake and that their support for him is a far more complicated phenomenon than a former sports reporter can indeed grasp.

As it happens, I know a few of them, including a couple of friends of long standing, one a sophisticated lawyer who cherishes the sense of belonging to something with an undercurrent of danger. And then, more typically, I suspect, there's the Brooklyn guy who's always felt disregarded by Manhattan elites. Personally, I connect the Trump base to the crowd of 1960s Mets fans I used to cover, Manhattan elite box-seat holders and working-class bleacherites alike, all united in their feeling of victimhood, their fear and envy of Yankee fans (and the World Series championships they always seemed to end up with). Mets fans, when I covered them, were the sports deplorables of that moment, former Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants fans who felt left behind, dropped in the dust, when those two teams suddenly moved to the Golden State of California in 1957.

As Mets fans, their gratitude for having a new team to cheer faded after several losing seasons, but their bonding with each other was real and understandable rather than deplorable. The team came into being in 1962 and survivors of that era still have a shared emotional history and language that can seem like a cause, classic hats and T-shirts included. Such a cause comes with permission to hate the team's enemies, call them Yankees, libtards, or the media (that enemy of the people). And Trumpism's fans may, in the years to come, have a similar experience.

Nor are they alone in their sometime violence. Sports fans, especially of college teams, often express themselves with violence, from fighting in the stands to tearing down goal posts. While the sports media officially disapproves of such behavior, it also whips them on in its reportage with the constant use of emotionally charged words like hate, revenge, and humiliation. And that's not merely the product of lazy sports writing (although there is that), but a recognition of the audience's perceived need for a certain kind of reinforcement which gives importance to their rooting.

Whenever the pandemic is more or less over and Donald Trump becomes just part of the past, not the present and the future, the question is: Will American sports — at least in its present form with the dominance of its current major pastimes — recover from Trumpism? After all, slouching toward us are not just the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and crew, but e-sports, particularly video games as spectator entertainment and, with them, universal gambling from home, bar, and arena consoles. That, too, could be, as the broadcasters like to say, a game-changer.

Meanwhile, at the end of this deadly season, a Super Bowl arrives with what should have been enough of a sportswriter's dream backstory to top any imaginable weekend. The defending champion Kansas City Chiefs with their Mozart of a 25-year-old quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, considered the future of the sport, against the perennially mediocre Tampa Bay Buccaneers with their recently purchased ($50 million for two years plus incentives) 43-year-old quarterback, Tom Brady, arguably the best of all time.

Yet that fabulous match-up in that most Trumpian of sports has every chance of fading into the woodwork this weekend when compared to the recent contest at the Capitol between treason and reason, the spectacle that eventually confirmed Trump as a loser, but left the left of us shaken.

And yet, for many of us still hoping to be hyped on hope, there's always the dream that last season's toxicity can be assuaged by the promise of the old-style game around the corner. Perhaps we can seek salvation in the springtime ritual of a new season as pitchers and catchers all limber up for that Biden-esque renewal called baseball.

Copyright 2021 Robert Lipsyte

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

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At first, my sympathies were all with Palinkas, a doughty 122-pounder who sprang right up to inspire her minor-league Orlando Panthers to victory. Making folly? Why shouldn't she be allowed to play "a man's game" and find the limits of her skill and talent, to gain the fame and fortune of sports stars? And then I thought about Florence. Poor guy. One-hundred pound weight advantage and he still couldn't break her neck. Didn't even hurt her. So I called him up a few days after the historic game and found him still angry. "I wanted to show her this is no soft touch," he told me. "I wanted to smash her back to the kitchen."

He was working at the time as a counselor in a Bridgeport, Connecticut, ghetto nonprofit agency. It wasn't his first choice; after playing at Purdue, he had tried out for the New York Giants and Jets and been cut. He was 27, and the Bridgeport Jets team was his last chance to get his game together for a final shot at the big leagues. And now he was a national joke. But why was he angry at Palinkas instead of the bush league businessmen who pulled a stunt to hype the gate? Had they been serious, they would have found some 250-pound women for their offensive line; instead, they were merely toying with the "manliness" that the game represented to Florence and most fans.

I've thought about Palinkas and Florence from time to time over the decades. Their story seemed alternately a quaint legend and an evergreen microcosm as I observed women, usually attractive golfers, rise up to challenge male athletes amid a rash of outrage, then fall short in a flurry of condescension: what could they have been thinking? Men are simply bigger, stronger, faster -- better -- than women. And if we think that's true, declare Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano in Playing With the Boys, women can never be full citizens. Sports matter so much in American life, they maintain, that as long as women do not have total access to the sports men play, they will not be truly equal.

This might seem hyperbolic as Hillary Clinton threatens to win the heavyweight championship and more male athletes are caught augmenting their male hormones. But the case that McDonagh, a political scientist at Northeastern University, and Pappano, a journalist, build is a starting point for a serious examination of the role of gender politics in sports. Their claim that Title IX -- the 1972 Education Amendments that deny federal funds to any educational activity that discriminates on the basis of sex -- has been detrimental to women's progress is even more provocative than the controversial view that sports success has hampered African-American progress.

Sports are, according to McDonagh and Pappano, "a social force that does not merely reflect gender differences, but in some cases, creates, amplifies, and even imposes them." It enforces "the notion that men's activities and men's power are the real thing and women's are not. Women's sports, like women's power, are second-class."

The evidence seems obvious. Our most popular traditional sports, football and baseball, are overwhelmingly men's sports. With a few exceptions, men's college basketball is better viewed and attended than the women's game (tickets to men's games are more expensive too). Women's pro basketball is the weak sister of hoops, played from May to September and with a shorter season than the men's game. Women's boxing is even more of a freak show than the male version (which has been supplanted by wrestling and ultimate fighting.) There is no real pro soccer for women; a league, the Womens United Soccer Association (WUSA), started in 2000, failed in 2003 and is scheduled to relaunch in next spring as Womens Professional Soccer. There should be far more female jockeys and auto racers.

One might have predicted less of a gender gap in sports by now; the past half-century has been one of enormous progress in athletics for women. Fairness had nothing to do with it, however. In the late 1950s, when the Olympic Games became a cold war surrogate, women's medals suddenly counted for something, especially on American TV. Tennis pro Billie Jean King appeared in the '60s with her own version of a feminist manifesto, snapping back at interviewers, "Why don't you go ask Rod Laver why he isn't at home?" And it wasn't Laver, the leading male tennis player of his time, but Billie Jean who led all the tennis sexes out of country-club serfdom into professional independence and riches, the second great American sports revolution after baseball's racial integration two decades earlier.

Billie Jean, who is in my opinion the most important athlete of our time, went on to inspire the Title IX generation, then the 1999 US women's World Cup soccer champions and the WNBA. (She never received her appropriate material awards; a 1981 lesbian palimony case wrecked her corporate connections.) Billie Jean is the godmother of not only the phenomenal surge in women's high school and college sports but also the parallel rise of women in medicine, journalism, law and business leadership. So many successful women credit their jock experience with giving them the confidence to compete outside the arena. For women, amateur games have fulfilled much of the promise that sports held for men in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries--fellowship, a healthful physical outlet, lessons in pride, humility, leadership and collective activity, and preparation for corporate life and warfare.

But women pro athletes have barely benefited from the fabulous expansion of men's sports into the entertainment-industrial complex. To McDonagh and Pappano, the huge gap between men and women in money and iconic status bolsters their argument that no matter how successful women-only sports are, they are merely reinforcing the message that women are weaker and less-skilled than men, in and out of the arena.

I wonder if this is true. The current moral devaluation of professional sports, that relentless parade of scandals that chips away at standards of meritocracy and fairness, makes "role model" a mocking epithet. The best of athletes are disposable heroes. How can juiced liars seem superior to the actors, musicians and uncategorized celebrities who also entertain us? To many fans they aren't. This helps explain the rise of fantasy sports leagues in which "owners" pluck individual players from real teams to stock their make-believe teams, which they bet on. The real statistics of these shuffled players become the basis of winning and losing. It's emotionally safer than rooting for cheaters. Of the estimated 15 million fantasy football league players, approximately 10 percent are women, according to industry data. Some leagues discourage women from playing. While there may well be fantasy leagues for, say, women's soccer or softball, one wonders if they are necessary; the existence of the real thing is fantastic enough.

McDonagh and Pappano seem on even shakier ground when they blame Title IX, with its permission for segregated contact sports, for diverting a '60s movement toward co-ed games. That movement was based on the idealistic philosophy of inclusion and healthful participation that female physical educators clung to until the big boys ran them out. How much of this philosophy was based on ideology and how much on pragmatism -- it kept women's sports alive and under the radar -- is an interesting topic of its own. The big boys -- the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)-- only stopped lobbying against Title IX when it decided to take over women's sports, which it has, replacing most women coaches with men and women who use the male athletic model of winning through stars and intimidation rather than team play and sound fundamentals.

Women's basketball teams, for example, were traditionally formed as a group of friends sharing an athletic experience. Men's teams recruited the best players available, putting aside personal feelings, to achieve a goal. Thus, went the conventional wisdom, men learned to work well with people they did not necessarily like while women needed good relations to start. (Male sports writers loved writing about the female point guard who supposedly refused to pass to the teammate with whom she had just broken up.) These days, the best women's hoops teams are built around recruited stars and their handmaidens. The value of Playing with the Boys is in its bold vision of big-time co-ed sports and the two main questions that it raises for us, without satisfactorily answering: can men and women actually play together? should they?

The flattening of Pat Palinkas thirty-eight years ago (still a unique event) is a good place to start on the "can they" question. Florence didn't knock Palinkas down because he was better than her or because men are better athletes than women. He knocked her down because her male teammates on the offensive line failed to do their jobs and stop him at the line of scrimmage. It happens all the time in the NFL, where there are often hundred-pound differences between linemen and backs.

In Major League Baseball and pro basketball, height and weight disparities are common. Women second-base players and point guards seem a natural. But that's getting ahead of ourselves. Set it up earlier with open tryouts for mixed teams in all sports, including football, and not just for kicking positions. Female wrestlers, competing by weight class, have been successful in high schools. The mixed soccer teams on which kids play are a start that doesn't need to ever stop. Given the chance to keep playing with the boys, there will be girls who will move up and up. Why not?

Because, say McDonagh and Pappano, sports were created as "a vehicle for preserving male power." They point out that sports involving horses, dogs, boats and cars can be more easily integrated because "the guy has an out" with a third party involved: men wouldn't feel threatened because they are competing with machines or animals controlled by women instead of with women directly. Yet only the Iditarod dog-sled race and long-distance competitive sailing seems to have offered a haven to women. Intensely macho sports such as NASCAR only flirt with women drivers and use them in commercials. Auto racers and jockeys don't want to lose to women any more than any other athletes raised in a jock culture that tyrannizes boys by calling them "sissies" and "girls," and they will protect the mediocre male from the superior woman.

And why shouldn't they? Forcing them to compete through childhood and adolescence as a prelude to big-time college and pro equality might not be in their best interests. Dr. Michael Miletic, a former Olympic weight lifter whose Detroit-area psychiatric practice includes many professional, college and youth-group athletes, says, "I am sure that there is value for girls and boys to be segregated at an age when they are anxious about their bodies and tend to measure themselves as boys or girls. Gender is more than just cultural conditioning."

So how do we develop a pool of talent on that level? McDonagh and Pappano have a ten-point plan that begins with "Accept a new, gender-neutral view of sports" that seems as worthily fuzzy as "Love Thy Neighbor" and goes on to ask women to buy sports teams or at least speak more sports talk in their business lives. Their best recommendation is calling for the vigorous enforcement of Title IX on every level, even if it means (I would say especially if it means) scaling back college football and basketball, higher education's largest and most corrupt sinkholes. But asking the media to cover women's sports equally is futile until the entire sports entertainment industry decides that real money can be made with girls and boys together.

And it will. Alas. The authors see sports as "the next frontier" of achieving equal rights. I'm afraid it won't happen in a way they might approve. The groundwork has already been laid by reality shows such as Survivor in which men and women compete against each other in a quasi-team dynamic laced with sexual intrigue. Some clever sports entrepreneur will promote, say, co-ed pro volleyball, perhaps staged as the opening act for a minor league baseball game. There will be a narrative that includes the reasons why certain players don't set up for each other anymore. It wouldn't be such a leap for the best female volleyball player, aà la Palinkas, to pinch run brilliantly in the baseball game and, caught in a locker-room soap opera that makes her famous (watch Desperate Infielders or The Young and the Hitless) be called up to the major leagues. The rest will be showtime.

That field of dreams seems barren to me. If I thought that women would actually defuse the warrior culture of big-time commercial sports, I would joyously march for McDonagh and Pappano's version of equal rights. There's no question that females should have every opportunity that males have in sports from childhood through college. But I think that women integrated into the present professional sports world will merely be cosmetic commodities in an industry that has become so greedy, violent and soulless that it has lost its value as a promised land for anyone.

Four Sports Scandals That Gave Bush Cover

1. The Longest Season

"I think the Patriots actually live by the saying, 'If you're not cheatin, you're not trying.'" -- LaDainian Tomlinson of the San Diego Chargers

The sports scandals of the last months already feel old.

O.J. Simpson returned to retrieve some of his collectibles at gunpoint in a caper that seemed like a YouTube PR stunt. It's time to ask the really tough question: Was he a greater running back than Jim Brown?

New England Patriots' coach Bill Belichick, winner of three Super Bowls, went from resident genius to resident evil when his spycam was spotted at a Jets game stealing defensive signals. The Jets' coach Eric Mangini, a former Belichick assistant, may even have been the snitch. The NFL punished Belichick and the Pats swiftly and harshly, but did nothing a week later when Jets defensive players were accused of shouting out signals at the line of scrimmage to confuse the Baltimore Ravens, also against NFL rules.

A few weeks before the Belichick revelations, one of the Patriots' stars was suspended for using Human Growth Hormone (the current big-boy drug of choice), while a number of major league baseball players are now being investigated for receiving HGH shipments. Meanwhile, the New York Knicks have just found themselves on the losing end of a high-level sex-harassment suit involving Isiah Thomas, their coach and president. (Their star player merely had his way in his truck with an intern.) And don't forget Marion Jones, long the sweetheart of track and field, finally admitted that she had used drugs to help her win five medals at the 2000 Olympics.

And those are just a few of the top scores from the scandal season.

Maybe your inclination is to blame the seeming erosion of sports ethics on the Bush role model, but increasing numbers of studies reveal that jocks cheat more often than non-jocks. It's part of their conditioning. You can't blame it all on Karl Rove.

So let's take a look back at the summer's scandal season with an appropriate attitude of Belichikian paranoia. After all, the powers-that-be love to promote sports scandals which encourage a hopelessness about the world as well as our ability to change or control it. Sports scandals liberate us from having to stand up, vote, demonstrate, move on. What's the use when everything -- including our games and pastimes -- is so obviously fixed, or at least a little bit crooked?

Even so, the onslaught of scandals that roiled SportsWorld this past summer were classics we should never forget, because they did more than encourage that cynical shrug that precedes the next channel change; they also distracted many of us just long enough to avoid seriously confronting withdrawal, impeachment, or the other great issues of the day.

What chance did troop numbers in Iraq have against Barry's home-run numbers?

Forget about death and dismemberment abroad, we have some dead dogs in Michael Vicks' Bad Newz kennel!

Who needs support from a European community that promotes something as corrupted as the Tour de France?

Alberto Gonzalez might be crooked, but so is pro basketball -- as the summer's crooked ref scandal made so clear!

There is, however, one "sports" scandal that refuses to die, one thoroughly entwined with the battlefield, one that, it seems, could yet give us hope.

So let's kick off a new season of Jock Culture notes with a mild aperitif of distraction -- and then work our way up to the dogz.

2. We'll Always Have the Pyrenees

"The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart." -- Iris Murdoch

Suddenly, it looks like a good thing that the cheese-eaters and their Euro-trash allies didn't ride with us on the Tour d'Iraq. How can you trust surrender monkeys who can't even pedal up a hill without pumping themselves with steroids, spare blood, and Dieu knows what else? Wouldn't those junkies have been a big help going house to house in Falluja, stopping every so often for an injection?

Truth is, Americans hardly care about bike racing in years when Lance Armstrong wins, so the disintegration of the Tour de France last summer wasn't exactly giant news here. For the past two years, the Tour's early favorites were mostly disqualified for failing drug tests and the winner's yellow jersey was passed to the back of the pack, most notably to Floyd Landis, who won in 2006 with an engaging smile, a bad hip, and -- according to the drug-testers -- some help from synthetic testosterone.

Earlier this month, an arbitration panel convened by the United States Anti-Doping Agency upheld the charges against Landis and the subsequent stripping of his championship. While he may appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the damage is done. Teams, including one sponsored by the Discovery Channel and partly owned by Armstrong, are disbanding.

My first reaction was to wonder whether Karl Rove had pumped up this scandal -- since the bicycle is such a subversive instrument: inexpensive, healthful to the rider and the environment, sort of a MoveOn.org with wheels. If more people rode, we would be in better physical and mental shape to fight the greedheads. We wouldn't be so dependent on oil. If we were riding as a nation, maybe we wouldn't be in Iraq.

My second reaction, of course: Rove was a genius -- having already convinced us, after all, that the most competitive bike rider in the country was George W. Bush.

I want the drug that Karl was taking.

3. Stealing the Game

"The only thing our refs shave is the ice." -- a Billboard ad by the Dallas Stars of the National Hockey League referring to the basketball scandal

Years ago, as a cub covering pro basketball, I couldn't understand the waves of seemingly inappropriate cheering and booing that swept through Madison Square Garden at less than crucial moments in the game. It was a while before I was schooled in "the spread" and "the over-and-under" (gamblers' terms for betting on a game's score differential rather than who won or lost). In retrospect, was I stupid or in denial -- or was I just less interested in basketball than I should have been?

I've never been as enthralled by hoops as other smallish white boys of my caste so often are, which is not a boast. I grew up in New York during the City College scandal of 1951. (My father, a City grad, was almost as wounded by the betrayal as C.L.R. James.) I also started to lose interest in rap (post-Chuck D) when it seemed less political expression than music for the hard-court stampedes -- two sets of black artists moving units for smallish white businessmen... such as National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern, who has brilliantly globalized his game, but now faces a challenge to its integrity.

A referee, Tim Donaghy, has pleaded guilty to federal felony-conspiracy charges, alleging that he passed inside information on games to gamblers. He also bet on games he was officiating and made wrongful calls to support those bets.

How could the NBA's vaunted security apparatus not have picked this up earlier? And, of course, there are those nagging questions: How widespread is this? Are other refs involved? When Donaghy's trial begins in November, is it possible that he'll snitch on colleagues?

Commissioner Stern has, of course, framed the Donaghy affair as an aberration, a localized cancer to be cut out. The equivalent of a rogue guard at Abu Ghraib.

Then again, hoops fans have always complained about incompetent officiating. At least, now we know that Donaghy wasn't merely stupid. And, as an off-season scandal, it's certainly been distracting enough.

4. The Syringe Is Mightier than the Surge

"You've always been a great hitter and you broke a great record." -- President Bush to Barry Bonds in a phone call on Aug. 7, 2007

The President's congratulatory call was, I suspect, one of relief. I recognized the feeling; The days leading up to Barry breaking Hank Aaron's career record of 756 home-runs felt like those leading up to Y2K when all the computers in the world were supposed to crash. With one stroke, the world as we knew it would end.

Hating Barry was too easy. His excellent biographer, Jeff Pearlman, has labeled him "a truly evil man." A normally solid, thoughtful columnist for ESPN.com, Jemele Hill, actually called on God to "smite" Bonds before he could break the record.

The journalists who have driven the Bonds' story, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams of the San Francisco Chronicle now write that, rather than "poised to emerge from its steroid crisis... [baseball] appears headed deeper into the drug abyss."

They foresee more reports and revelations on performance-enhancing drug use, notably of HGH by high-profile players and a continuing steroid investigation marked by revelations from Kirk Radomski, an admitted steroids dealer and former New York Mets batboy. Kirk has a little list, so far sealed, of some two dozen names.

Charles Yesalis, professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University and a recognized steroids expert, told the Chronicle reporters, "Fans who believe baseball has cleaned up the game with its toughened drug-testing program are exhibiting 'a childlike naïveté.'"

Baseball doesn't even test for human growth hormone and, according to Yesalis, players who want to cheat are certain to discover that, "with growth hormone and low doses of [the steroid] testosterone that can't even be detected on the tests, you are good to go."

And we're good to go, too. Everything should be asterisked (not just the record-breaking home-run ball itself, marked by the fashion designer who paid $752,467 for it and has reaped millions in publicity from it). Nothing is pure. Why bother? Have another Bud.

Meanwhile, having used him to help build their new ballpark and fill its seats, the Giants recently fired Bonds, which probably makes him more vulnerable to his legal pursuers. Did he lie to a grand jury in 2003 when he said he never used steroids? His friend and trainer, Greg Anderson, is still in jail for refusing to rat Bonds out.

But it doesn't matter anymore; the case against Michael Vick was strong enough to make him the new designated demon du jour, the Saddam to Bonds' Osama. And just like Saddam, Vick had a posse to disarm and land to invade.

Less than a week after Bonds broke the home-run record and four days before Michael Vick's pals rolled on him as a killer of dogs, Karl Rove quit the White House to "start thinking about the next chapter." We were suitably distracted.

5. Who Let the Gasbags Out

"Personally, I'd like to see Vick locked in a cage with six to eight of those pit bulls and nothing but his hands to use in his own defense. Goodness, yes, an eye for an eye is sometimes the only just punishment."-- Michael Wilbon in the Washington Post, August 25, 2007

The moralizing of sportswriters is a critical aspect of our limited charm. It is expected because we are democracy's cheerleaders; our moralizing is a cultural signifier. The Vick avalanche was, in part, brought down by the animal rights lobby. (As one sportswriter pointed out on TV, Vick would have suffered less had he committed rape. He was right, of course, and lost his TV gig for the comment.) Also at play were the notions that star athletes have social responsibilities and that a vicious crime requires a punishment.

Underlying it all, I suspect, was the frustrated fury of the sports media in the wake of Bonds' crime without punishment. For several years now, the media had raged at Bonds' alleged steroid use, mocked his engorged body and head, sniped back when he showed his undisguised disdain for them. He ignored them and pounded on. He may even come back next year to add to his record.

How else, I wonder, could the Washington Post's nonpareil Wilbon wax so violently above -- or his splendid colleague Sally Jenkins have written in such a similarly vehement vein (as in this passage)?

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Beyond Steroids: The Trouble With Baseball

The following is an article by Robert Lipsyte with an introduction by Tom Engelhardt.

We've been following the sports (and political) seasons thanks to vet sports columnist Robert Lipsyte: NASCAR and the Republican election loss; the Super Bowl, the religious right, and Pat Tillman (who died for our sins); March Madness and the selling of the universe. Now, we hit the Persian Gulf, shock-and-awe summer of baseball, Bonds, and Bush. The question in ballparks around the country is: Will Barry launch the big one before the government can launch its indictment of him? And the question around the world, as people eye those U.S. aircraft-carrier strike forces in the Gulf is: Will the Bush administration try to solve all its Iraqi and other problems (before it collapses in a heap) by launching the big one in Iran?





It's true that the big one -- even the "walk-off" home run -- has settled many a baseball game. But in the context of the summer of Barry Bonds, Lipsyte, whose most recent Young Adult novel is the shocking Raiders Night, suggests that maybe we would be a better world all the way around if we didn't even have the big one, the home run, in our sports (and war) arsenals. What if we banned all the bombs? Tom Engelhardt



How We Learned to Start Worrying and Hate the Bomb
Mickey Mantle, Barry Bonds, and the Bad Boys of Summer
By Robert Lipsyte




1. Power Comes from the Barrel of a Bat





"Chicks dig the long ball." -- Nike commercial



Like its nation, the national pastime often turns to brute force in a crisis.



The 1919 World Series gambling fix that came to be known as the Black Sox Scandal shook America's belief in baseball, but Babe Ruth brought it back with the home run. The very next year, his first with the Yankees, he hit 54 homers. Until the Babe, 15 or so dingers would usually lead the Major Leagues.



In saving the game, the Babe also transformed it, ditching the cunning tactics of "small ball" -- the sacrifice bunt, the steal, the hit-and-run play -- for a reliance on the big bang. In the Bambino, America found its prototype male athlete: the arrogant, self-absorbed rowdy whose excesses, commercial greed, and tunnel vision were justified by winning. The cock-jock has since become a business, entertainment, and political role model.



In the Bambino's home-run, America found a thrilling symbol of American power -- on the diamond and in the world. Boom! Hitting a home run became a synonym for having done the best job possible, for nailing the deal, or the case, or the diagnosis. As it happens, the home run should also have become the symbol for the quick fix that may not hold, the brass ring that diverts us from the pleasure of the process, the big club created to intimidate opponents into submission that so often turns them into resentful insurgents.




The 1994 Major League players' strike led to the cancellation of the World Series. Again, as in 1919, fears arose that fans had lost faith in the game, and again the home-run brought them back. The 1998 Summer of Swat featured the collegial rivalry of St. Louis' Mark McGwire and Chicago's Sammy Sosa, ending in a seasonal home-run record of 70. Roger Maris' 61 and the Babe's 60 were left in the dust, but this, too, came at a cost; it became obvious that baseball players, like football players and Olympic athletes, were going for the big bang by enhancing their performance with steroids.



That summer also made Barry Bonds angry and sad. Arguably the best all-around player in the game, on track for the Hall of Fame, Bonds at 34 was having a terrific 13th season for the San Francisco Giants. All-star, Golden Glove, he hit .303 with 37 homers and 28 stolen bases. Yet no one seemed to be paying attention. McGwire's booming homers filled the air.



One can imagine Bonds fuming at this white meatball, this freckled phony, who surely was on steroids. (Actually, McGwire's use of the over-the-counter nutritional supplement Andro, which can act like a steroid and was banned in other sports, was no secret in 1998, although the story was not vigorously pursued.) Why wouldn't the prideful Bonds decide to take steroids -- those weapons of mass construction -- and also start hitting monster home-runs without end?



Jump a decade. In this mean season for the nation and its pastime, the home run itself is at the core of the crisis. Sometime soon, Bonds will hit the 756th home run of his major league career, surpassing the record set by Hank Aaron, a decent, low-key, dependable star most fans never cared much about until, in 1973, he began approaching the Babe's iconic, never-to-be-broken record of 714 homers. As a youngster, Aaron had been inspired by Jackie Robinson and he swept past his contemporary, the golden Mickey Mantle, the consensus Chosen One to beat the Babe, who retired after the 1968 season with 536 homers.



No wonder, then, that Mantle has reappeared this homer season -- in a controversy yet. Hallmarked by a generation of fans led by Bob Costas and Billy Crystal, Mantle is often remembered as the face of all that was once right with baseball and America. This season brings a novel, 7: The Mickey Mantle Novel, described by its author, Peter Golenbock, as "an inventive memoir." Dictating from heaven, Mantle talks about homers and sex acts with equal relish. The book was cancelled by HarperCollins in the wake of the firing of controversial publisher Judith Regan, and recently put out by The Lyons Press. Mainstream commentators seem as outraged by the novel (which, the publishing blog Galleycat points out, would have been merely dismissed as "experimental" had it been about Jesus) as they are about Bonds' assault on Aaron's record.




Aaron, who received many racially-motivated death threats as he approached the Babe's 714, has said that he will not be in attendance when Bonds breaks his. Commentators wonder if Commissioner of Major League Baseball Bud Selig will be there. (In 1974, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn did not show up for Aaron's big hit.)



The depth of this "crisis" was first signaled several years ago when baseball commentators floated the idea that it might be in the best interests of the game if Bonds suffered a career-ending injury before he got near the 756 mark. They also began suggesting that Aaron's home-run record was not nearly as historically or athletically significant as Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak of 1941.



Devalue the idea of muscling our way to the top? Was this wordplay or power play? What did George Tenet know when he called the case for Saddam's WMDs a "slam dunk" instead of a you-know-what?



Baseball is in trouble. Its best and brightest seem to be flaky Shreks (Manny Ramirez), tortured matinee idols (Alex Rodriquez), or hard-case samurais (Roger Clemens). The attempt to drum up interest in the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's heroic integration of the game fell flat; at 8.4% of players, African-American numbers are the lowest in decades (and the percentages of blacks among young amateur players and fans have been falling as well). People complain that the game is too slow, too long, too cerebral; that television doesn't do it justice; and that ball-park attendance is expensive and often made unpleasant by drunken fans and endless commercials on raucous scoreboards.



More important, the media's incessant stories about illegal steroids and inflated salaries have created a climate of inconvenient truths in a place that was supposed to be a hallowed sanctuary from all that was truthfully inconvenient about our everyday lives. What's the big deal? We don't complain about Johnny Depp's income any more than we once complained about Arnold Schwarzenegger's pumped-up muscles. So why begrudge A-Rod and Barry? But then wouldn't baseball morph from the national pastime into but another entertainment in a world crowded with them?



Baseball apologists tend to dismiss bad behavior as just a reflection of the larger society. How can you truly blame athletes for trying to be better in a performance enhancing culture of Viagra for randy seniors, Ritalin for high school students, and beta blockers for musicians and inspirational speakers? Yet baseball, they also claim, is more than a reflection of the larger society. It's a special world all its own, worthy of anti-trust waivers, tax breaks, and a place in our collective hearts.





No wonder, in this confusion of motion and emotion, many fans cherish their memories of Mickey Mantle and wish Barry Bonds would break a leg.



2. The Heart of the Order




"All boys love baseball. If they don't they're not real boys." -- Zane Grey



Mickey Mantle arrived in the springtime of the American Dream, 1951, and the way he wrapped those miner's hands around a bat seemed to confirm that everything was possible and power was the answer. A golden teenager from our Golden West, he was shy, polite, grateful. A poor boy with a dying father named Mutt, he had a sunny look to him.



Twenty-four years ago, I asked him why he thought that some grown men cried when he entered a room. He pretended to think about that before saying, "Maybe my fly was open. Or I had a booger hanging from my nose." When I didn't smile back, he said, "Let's have another drink, Bob."





Barry Bonds arrived in a darker time, 1986, the year that the space shuttle Challenger, the Soviet nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, and Ronald Reagan's Iran-Contra scandal all blew up -- a time when we weren't so sure of anything anymore. Barry was born of baseball royalty: Bobby, his father, was an all-star; Reggie Jackson, his cousin, a future Hall of Famer; and Willie Mays, his godfather, was considered a god. Each of them could be difficult, although Barry beat them all for his low fever of surliness relieved by sudden flares of anger.



A dozen years ago, on a story about a San Francisco Giant campaign to raise money for pediatric AIDS that every other player on the club seemed to want to talk to me about, Barry just kept walking away or turning his back. When I appealed to his father, then a coach, Bobby gave me a sheepish grin. "That's Barry. He always gave me a hard time, too."



Mickey and Barry never played against each other (although young Barry described Mickey as a hero of his), but as athletes, personalities, symbols, and lightning rods for our emotions, they remain linked in this year of crisis, the official good and evil poles of our defining sport. Bonds, of course, is being attacked for cheating, for defiling the game with his "steroid use." (More probably, experts guess, he was taking human growth hormone and drug cocktails mixed just for him.) Commentators claiming to represent mainstream white fans tend to suggest -- or at least imply -- that he is the ultimate symbol of the ungrateful black thugs taking over our games.



On the other hand, Mantle, dead these twelve years, is being vociferously defended against Golenbock's, 7, which illuminates his slobbish, selfish, insecure, and (ultimately) endearingly wicked ways. The commentators, enraged at Bonds, are no less enraged that anyone dare besmirch the fading glow of the last white hero. The coincidence of the home-run record and the irreverent book in the same year seems to be ratcheting up the terms of enragement.




It was possible to feel pity for Mickey, even while wishing you were him, or friends with him, or sleeping with him. His bad legs and his intimations of mortality -- most males in his family had been cut down by cancer before they reached 40 -- gave him that romantic aura of the doomed, even as he exploded from both sides of the plate, made impossible catches in centerfield, and dared to steal on his bad wheels. His vulnerability invited warm feelings. Although he could be famously brusque with sportswriters and fans, we came to understand that he (unlike Barry, of course) needed to medicate himself with booze and women; he was playing in pain.



For Bonds, from the start it was hard to feel anything but a distant awe. He regularly treated not just fans but sportswriters -- the very people whose job it was to make him iconic -- with vicious contempt. Far more telling was his locker-room persona. He was aloof, and when he tried to be one of the boys, he was awkward. He demanded special privileges. He did not share his knowledge of the game. Teammates hated him.



In his fascinating biography of Bonds, Love Me, Hate Me, Jeff Pearlman -- who claims 524 interviews, although his central character typically refused to talk to him -- tells how Barry's college teammates at Arizona State, given the chance, voted their star off the team. The coach vetoed the vote, a lesson for all. On his first major league team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, disgust with his attitude boiled into at least one clubhouse fist fight. While his current San Francisco teammates seem to resent his disregard for the team, they do appreciate the money and success he's brought the club.




Mantle's teammates loved him. He often said he wanted to be remembered as a good teammate and he was that, funny and generous. Jim Bouton, the 20-game winning pitcher who wrote Ball Four, the acclaimed baseball memoir, has never forgotten the way Mantle laid a carpet of towels across the clubhouse to Bouton's locker to celebrate the rookie's first victory.



It's poignant that Mickey and Barry, handsome, rich, extravagantly talented, should both have been so unhappy. Both had Dad issues; Mutt Mantle was a hard-driving baseball father and Bobby Bonds' alcoholism was a major complicating factor in his career and his family life. Mantle claims to have been shy and sometimes acted it. Bonds threw up a belligerent defensive shell.



Neither had long-term happy relationships with women. Mantle seemed to have been pushed into marriage with a hometown girl on whom he cheated all his life. Bonds has had two marriages, both to women who worked in strip clubs, and cheated on them all his life. I look forward to the shrinks taking their innings. Is there any case to be made that Bonds' narrow genius for the game and his social dysfunction could be symptomatic of a mental illness, such as Asperger's Disease or some other form of higher-functioning autism? I have no expertise here, but I wonder why we can't cut him some slack, at the least consider the possibility that he was taking the wrong meds?



Despite the evidence reported in Game of Shadows, the best-selling investigatory book by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, Bonds has yet to be charged with a crime. Our assumption that he has taken drugs is based on watching him change over ten years from a speedy whippet into a pumpkin-headed hulk while his performance improved unnaturally; in baseball, few people get so much better as they grow older.





It's instructive to compare Barry and the Mick statistically:



In his rookie year in 1951, Mantle, at 19, hit 13 homers. In his last year, 1968, at 37, he hit 18. The arc of those 18 seasons looks natural. From 1955 through 1964 (ages 24 through 33), he had his peak seasons, consistently batting over .300 and slugging a median 35 homers. (In 1961, the year Roger Maris broke the Babe's record with 61 homers, Mickey hit his personal best, 54.)



As a 21 year-old rookie in 1986, Bonds batted .223 and hit 16 homers. This season, at 42, he has been leading the National League in homers. His numbers surged at the age of 35, when he hit 49, then his personal best, with a .306 average, itself better than most previous years. In 2001, however, he set the season record with 73 homers (batting .328) and, for the next three seasons, his homer production would average 45, while he would bat around .350, both highly age inappropriate. Even more astounding, his homers were often traveling farther than they did in his late twenties, the normal time of a hitter's peak power. These aren't the numbers of a superstar in twilight; they are the numbers of a man who has found the Fountain of Swat.



Of course, Barry could not have done it on drugs alone. He worked harder than anyone else, exercising and weight-lifting obsessively, studying and practicing his craft, generally avoiding alcohol, which has ruined so many big-league careers. Because a river of beer floats important sponsors, owners, and ballpark concessions, baseball has not taken a hard line on hard drinking. This season, manager Tony LaRussa was arrested for driving under the influence, while pitcher Josh Hancock drove drunk into a tow truck and died. Both were members of last year's World Series' champions, the St. Louis Cardinals, owned by Anheiser-Busch. Beer has just been banned from their clubhouse.



Mantle's heavy drinking -- he often came to the ballpark drunk or hung-over -- was no secret. The beat writers protected him. After all, losing access to Mantle and his team-mates for one or two true stories could wreck a career. Even now, in these more contentious times, sportswriters generally want to write positive stories; they are fans, too.




Golenbock has written several bestsellers about the Yankees, including Dynasty, The Bronx Zoo, and Wild, High and Tight, a Billy Martin biography. He was trying to shape a careers-worth of Mantle anecdotes into a biography when -- disclosure -- I suggested that it might make a delicious novel. The result: A quirky Mantle monologue from heaven as he tries to convince Leonard Shecter, a real-life sportswriter (who did not like him) to help him with a memoir.



7 is as heartfelt a valentine to baseball as Ball Four ever was. Horrified critics have homed in on a scene in which Mantle has sex with his female counterpart, Marilyn Monroe. It is cheesy in its way, although Golenbock claims that Billy Martin, Mantle's former Yankee drinking buddy and later the club's manager, told him it really happened. In any case, it's a true fan's note: Monroe's abusive husband, the great DiMaggio, was never welcoming to the rookie Mantle when they shared the outfield and, by waiting too long to call for a fly ball, caused the injury that plagued the Mick throughout his career.





I don't know whether the outrage over the novel stems from playing fast and loose with the legend, even though Mantle's drinking and screwing has been reported elsewhere, or from the play-by-play; Marilyn was bored by the Mick's performance.



The fact is this: Mantle did not give the game -- and us -- his best, yet he has become emblematic of our baseball dreams. Bonds, who has relentlessly tried to be the best, with or without chemicals, has been demonized for his refusal to charm us, to recognize our fandom.



Someday, in the coming apocalypse, when the home-run derbies are finally at an end, the Centerfielder who died for our sins will have to be acknowledged as all too human while the Dark Angel will have to be granted, however begrudgingly, his rightful place by the throne of Our Babe.



3. Last Licks




"You can win or you can lose or it can rain." -- Casey Stengel





Pushing 70, I still dream of centerfield and sing with John Fogarty, "Oh, put me in, Coach -- I'm ready to play today."



Football is war for wide bodies; basketball is hip-hop for stretch bodies; but baseball is an elegant display of virtuosi. The philosopher/commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote that baseball was "not a territorial game; it is not about conquering; I do not send a team out to capture the other team's goal or ground. Baseball may not even be truly a team sport; it may really be a game an individual plays with a group."



Poor Bart died in 1989, his 51-year-old heart attacked, some thought, by Pete Rose's threat to the integrity of the game. Rose, one of the best and most passionate ever to play, holder of the record for base-hits (4,256), had bet on his own games -- although he lied about it for years. (Now, for $350 you can buy from Peterose.com a signed baseball on which, after your name, has been written, "I'm sorry I bet on baseball.")



Mickey, dying, asked forgiveness for his drinking and for being a lousy family man. (He also raised awareness of the importance of organ donations.) It's hard to believe that Barry will apologize for anything, even if there's money involved. Can you imagine a Bonds public service announcement warning youngsters off steroids, human growth hormone, and whatever else the clever chemists are cooking up for their millionaire clients?



It's probably too late -- and in this "larger society" useless -- to ban performance enhancements anyway.




But it is exactly the right time to ban the home run.



First of all, it would be righting an almost century-old wrong. Early in the twentieth century, the home run was considered a crude gesture devoid of true craft, when players thought about it at all. Remember, pre-Babe, the leading slugger of 1913, Frank "Home Run" Baker, led the American League with 12 homers.



The world changed. Baseball was ever less about strategy, smarts, and speed -- who steals home anymore? -- and somehow everyday life was no longer about persuasion, compromise, and trust; or international politics about debate, diplomacy, and détente.



By the time I became a fan in the 1940s, the Ballantine (beer) Blast or the White Owl (cigar) Wallop were already a major part of the game and a homer could suddenly turn the tide of a taut pitcher's battle, just as a mega-bomb could end a war. Duck and cover, this one is going, going, gone. What was the Cold War, if it wasn't about two powerhouse sluggers waving big bats that could clear the bases forever?



Will banning the home run lead to banning the bomb?



Maybe not, but it could save the game. If baseball is truly our national pastime, mirror, and harbinger, it could follow the nation down the drain if we don't do something. Waiting for baseball's current wave of Latin and Asian guest workers to keep the game alive for us seems like the same pathetic passivity we've been showing these last years to the lying, cheating, vicious anti-social attitudes of the present government.




A simple fix (for baseball anyway): Any ball hit out of the park is an out. Only the rare inside-the-park homer, typically a combination of speedy running and sloppy fielding, an example of very small ball, would still be a four-bagger.



This would probably not end the use of performance enhancing drugs, which, despite the bad rap sluggers get, are mostly a pitchers' weapon anyway.



There are no slam-dunks, but if we could take life just one base at a time, wouldn't that be going deep in national pastime terms? By getting back to small ball, to planning and thinking, we might start finding pleasure in the process, not just the outcome, in incremental victories rather than staying useless courses waiting to be saved by one big bang.

NASCAR Cost Republicans the 2006 Election

1. It's the Car, Stupid




"I hate that term, NASCAR Dads, it's narrow and patronizing, but it's about time Democrats showed some sensitivity to the stock car culture." -- David (Mudcat) Saunders, political consultant.


The Democrats won the Senate and the House because the Republicans lost the garage.


Four years ago, mad political scientists created Nascar Dad to combat Soccer Mom. The result was as epic as Beowulf versus Grendel's Mother. We know how both those battles came out. And now we also know that Nascar Dad, like the great Scandinavian mercenary, began to wonder if he was protecting the right mead hall.





Like Beowulf, Nascar Dad may be a fiction. Nascar itself denies having any stereotypical fan, while encouraging the idea that it is a political player. Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, described Nascar Dads as "middle-to-lower-middle-class males who are family men, live in rural areas, used to vote heavily Democratic but now usually vote Republican." Most political experts more or less agree with that description, although political consultant Mudcat Saunders adds that Nascar Dads are often suburbanites who are "rural-thinking" about religion, patriotism, hunting, and fishing.


One of the sharpest thinkers in Nascar Nation, H.A. (Humpy) Wheeler, president of the leading North Carolina track, told me back in 2003, "They liked the President's Top Gun performance, but they're not so gung ho anymore on Iraq because this is the crowd that joined the National Guard."


That turned out to be a distant early warning.


Nascar Dad still voted for Bush and Republicans in 2004. Among other reasons, as many Nascar Dads told me then, they thought that Bush was more "manly" than Kerry, whom they despised as the patronizing snot who had been putting them down since grade school.


Republican attitudes toward evangelical Christianity, unashamed commercialism, guns, the environment (racing cars still use leaded gasoline), and diversity (the Nascar garage is overwhelmingly male and white) seemed a perfect fit with Nascar values. Nascar supported Bush financially and courted his attention through its ruling family, the Frances. They have owned and operated the sport since 1947 when promoter Big Bill France whipped a brawl of hot-headed former moonshiners into a confederacy called the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. His son, Bill, Jr., and now his grandson Brian, extended his vision brilliantly, signing record TV deals. They did it with racers that sort of looked like everyday street cars, but weren't, and they held onto their southern hardcore while reaching out to markets in California and the Midwest.



I remember thinking -- in the years I actively covered Nascar -- that one of the most telling differences between my subjects and me was that they knew more people on active military duty than people in same-sex relationships.


That was still true this month, and that's why the Democrats won.


2. Dale Died for Our Sins




"You might be a redneck if you think the last four words of the national anthem are 'Gentlemen, start your engines.'" -- Jeff Foxworthy


On the final turn of the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, the first and most celebrated race of the Nascar season, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. slammed into the wall near where I was sitting. I can still hear the frantic voice of Earnhardt's crew chief calling to him through my radio scanner: "You okay, Dale? Talk to us, talk to us."



Minutes later, a blue tarp was thrown over that famous black #3 Goodwrench Chevrolet. It was my first race and I didn't understand the full meaning of the blue tarp until I heard the air whoosh out of 200,000 chests and people around me in the press box begin to cry.


The clash of reactions to Earnhardt's death -- Oh, God vs. So What? -- was a signifier of America's cultural divide. There were millions of Americans who barely knew what Nascar was, who thought of it as numbing Sunday afternoons of gas guzzlers mindlessly snarling around a track while rednecks got hammered. But there were also millions of Americans who built their family vacations around those races and their buying patterns around the products advertised on their favorite cars. Nascar claims some 75 million fans and, by some measures of regular season TV viewership, it is second only to pro football as a national sports pastime.


Beyond the three top levels of Nascar -- Nextel Cup, Busch, and Craftsman Truck -- lies a competitive racing culture that starts with an estimated 4,000 American youngsters between 5 and 13 driving quarter-midgets, little fiberglass cars with 2.5 to 4 horsepower engines that can reach speeds of almost 40 miles per hour. They graduate into dozens of classes of cars at hundreds of race tracks, predominately in the South and Midwest, driven by men, women, and children in front of grandstands packed with Nascar families.


For them, Earnhardt, known as "The Intimidator," was one of the last of the laconic, hard-charging carburetor cowboys with whom Southern workingmen could identify. They flew Confederate flags with his face superimposed. They wore hats and shirts with his number 3 and grew imitations of his push-broom moustache. And they plastered their pick-ups and rec vehicles with pictures of his main rival, California-born Jeff Gordon. There would be a red slash through Gordon's pretty face and the words Fans Against Gordon (F.A.G.). It was the worst they could throw at Gordon, a hearty hetero who drove as hard as Earnhardt (who liked and mentored the younger man).


At 49, Dale was the cocky, daring, triumphant yet accessible hero of a wounded land, a tough guy who might tolerate the Northern corporate suits who dogged him like little boys, yet never lost touch with his rural roots. He hunted and worked his farm and tough-loved Dale, Jr. into a superstar, too.


I didn't get it while he was still alive. I spent some time with him the month before he died. He was gruffly charming and I found what I considered his contradictions amusing. Here was a populist hero whose North Carolina office-race shop complex, the so-called Garage Mahal, contained a curated display of his hunting rifles, mounted animal heads, and pictures of his executive chef cooking up his kills. I was simply too new to the sport, maybe too New York, to appreciate his mythic place.




Thousands jammed his memorial services, lined up to leave notes and flowers on the fence near where he died, wore black, and painted a 3 on their cars and pick-ups. Think Princess Di.


His death was at least as poignant; he was in third place, blocking the field for the front-runners, his son, Dale, Jr. and his protégé, Michael Waltrip, a 37-year-old journeyman who went on to win his first Cup race.


My story of Earnhardt's death appeared the next day on page one of the New York Times, but his name was not in the headline. The editors decided that not enough Times readers knew who he was. They were probably right, yet another indication of the red-blue divide. The headline read: "Stock Car Star Killed on Last Lap of Daytona 500."


In her best-seller, Slander, Ann Coulter, in an attempt to portray how out of touch and elitist the Times was, claimed that it took the paper two days to get around to covering Earnhardt's death and, when it did, the lede read "His death brought a silence to the Wal-Mart," which she interpreted as a disdainful swipe. (That was actually in a reaction piece several days later by Southerner Rick Bragg.)





In an attempt to show how out of touch and misleading Coulter was, Al Franken reprinted that front page in his best-seller Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them.


The beatification of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. as a man's man who sacrificed himself to shepherd his flock to the finish line, a hero who in death evoked both John Wayne and Jesus, presented America with its biggest joint jolt of sports and evangelical Christianity since Billy Sunday left the Philadelphia Phillies outfield more than a century ago to become a superstar preacher. But as William J. Baker, author of the forthcoming book, Playing with God: Religion and Modern Sport, told me, it shouldn't have been a surprise.


"In many ways, evangelical Christianity and big-time sport are similar," said Professor Baker, who was a preacher and a quarterback in his time. "Both are win-loss mentalities. In evangelical Christianity you are either saved or lost. You've gone to heaven or you've gone to hell, you win or you lose and that's what this sport is all about."


3. What's the Matter with Nascar?





"People do not necessarily vote in their self-interest. They vote their identity. They vote their values." -- George Lakoff in Don't Think of an Elephant


I was an accidental gearhead. In 2000, Neil Amdur, the Times' sports editor, had cool-spotted stock car racing as the next major-league entertainment. Just at that moment, I was looking to let some fresh air into my weekly column. As we planned it, I would drop into Nascar from time to time, a dilettante anthropologist. Then Earnhardt crashed and I was suddenly the department's leading expert on the new century's hot sport.


Most of the people I spent time with over the next few years were white Christian men with rural roots. Once I got a few rules of the road under my belt -- drink beer, not wine; never underestimate their intelligence or sensitivity to slight; and be totally honest about my own lack of car sense -- it was the best time I had as a sportswriter. They were eager to help me understand their sport. This included not only hilarious nights of eating catfish with sides of raffish tales, but a window onto an America I had not known and, most memorably, a chance to drive a stock car at about 135 miles per hour. Those sixteen laps around Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte (cleared of all other cars for obvious reasons) were the only time in my life I did not have a single extraneous thought. When it was over, I brimmed with admiration for Nascar drivers who drove fifty miles per hour faster, while being rubbed and bumped by forty other cars.


I also appreciated the passion of their fans who clearly understood the realness of this sport, its danger, its demands for concentration and skill, and -- compared to the insecure faux macho of so many "stick-and-ballers" -- its…manliness.





It's part of the Nascar deal for drivers to attend sponsors' and car manufacturers' breakfasts, trade shows, and customer parties, even on race days, and those who do it well can extend a mediocre career. So they interact with their fans far more than any other athletes and are always saying how "grateful" they are to them.


They should be. Nascar fans shop against their best interests so they can remain loyal to the sponsor of a driver they root for. They understand, they'll say, that the main sponsor's annual infusion of $15 million or so is what makes their favorite car go.


One fan actually told me: "My husband buys Tide even when it's more expensive than Wisk because he likes the driver Ricky Craven. We have friends who don't like Bud but drink it because of Dale, Jr. When my Sprint contract is up, I'll probably switch to Nextel." (This was before the merger.)


It gets worse. Pfizer, which sponsored the Viagra car, used to set up a tent at racetracks offering blood and urine exams by local doctors for diabetes and other disorders. I sat in one day and was amazed at the number of overweight men and women with dangerously high glucose and blood pressure levels. For many of them, this was their only medical exam of the year. Some said they had made a choice between their medicine and their grandstand tickets. "Why live if you can't go racin'?" was the way they'd put it.


Some of the Pfizer docs thought that they were making an understandable -- if regrettable -- "quality of life" decision.



Those grateful drivers don't have to make quite the same decisions. Unlike most other athletes, they sound like their fans, they even look like their fans, who use words like "modest" and "humble" to describe them. But after the race is over, while fans wait hours in monster traffic jams to leave the track, the drivers typically chopper to the airport where they fly their own jets home to backyard airplane hangars in gated communities. Their neighbors tend to be corporate executives.


4. Nascarizing Politics, Politicizing Nascar


"In an unsettled economy such as this one there will be even more of a disparity between the richer teams, which typically dominate victory lane, and all the others." -- Geoff Smith, president of Roush Racing


Like the GOP, Nascar could crack wide open, and knows it. Both are ripe for breakaways. This is the main reason why the France family recently capped at three the number of cars a racing team could run in its premier series, the Nextel Cup. Too powerful a team, besides destabilizing Nascar's idea of competitive balance, could also make demands, using as leverage the threat of starting a competing racing league.


A Brand New Party to rival the Grand Old Party? The threat may be more real for Nascar, which owns twelve of the twenty-two tracks on which it holds races. Most of the others are owned by rival Speedway Motorsports, Inc., parent company of Texas Speedway, which was behind a recent lawsuit aimed at forcing Nascar to let it stage not just one but two of the 36 annual Nextel Cup races.



Nascar finessed the problem, but in so doing looked -- to many traditionalists -- pragmatic to the point of hypocrisy. Nascar sold one of its most storied raceways, Rockingham in North Carolina, to Texas Speedway for $100 million. Texas had little interest in the real estate, but could now take over Rockingham's Nextel Cup date and have its two races.


Like any good autocracy, the France family has often subordinated the best interests of individuals to its own control and for the sake of "growing" the sport.


Take a fine Republican issue like safety regulations -- or the lack of.


Driver safety didn't become a discussable issue until after Earnhardt's death. Drivers, long in denial, suddenly realized that if Old Ironhead could buy it, so could they. Until that time, few wore the head-and-neck supports that are now standard. And, believe it or not, wearing helmets was not mandatory then (although all did).


Now, Nascar is finally developing "soft" walls and making a greater effort to supervise recovery from concussions and other injuries that drivers once tended to disregard.


At the bigger speedways, where it's possible to race at more than 200 miles per hour, the specter of cars flying off the track and into the grandstand led to the invention of the "restrictor plate," a piece of aluminum with small holes that limits the fuel-air mixture entering the carburetor. In effect, it slows down the car. It also means closer, more competitive racing because a fast car can't run away from the pack. So now they race in tight bunches which leads to frequent (though rarely deadly) wrecks, which fans love. Drivers hate it.




Take another Republican issue, the "right to work." In the early days, Big Bill intimidated drivers (sometimes with his pistol, it was said) who tried to unionize. These days, the France family uses more sophisticated corporate tactics, including what seems like favoritism to certain manufacturers and race teams -- and a rule book so fluid everyone is always off-balance.


The joke goes that the Nascar rule book is written in pencil and no one has ever seen it. There actually are some rules, but the codicil to all of them -- "except in rare instances" -- gives officials the latitude to change technical specifications and racing regulations, thus keeping races exciting and competitive. Last week's rule about gas-tank size, say, or post-accident procedures can be modified this week for reasons only conspiracy theorists claim to understand. Enforcement has often seemed arbitrary, not to say political. (It's all a plan to let Dale, Jr. win, they whisper.)


I've always thought that Nascar's wink-wink attitude toward such bad behavior as unnecessary bumping during a race and fist-fights afterward, as well as outright cheating, was another form of Republican-esque control.


Cheating has never been considered immoral or unethical in the sport. In fact, trying to bend the rules is expected as long as no one offers a direct challenge to the supreme authority of the France family. Tiny changes in the size of a gas tank, a shock absorber, or a restrictor-plate hole can win a race. There are constant technical inspections. Seized tampered parts are displayed in the garage area, where it's fun to watch crew chiefs checking out the contraband for new ideas. Nascar rarely imposes real punishment, almost never on its stars.


And then there's the media.




By tightly controlling access, Nascar has kept a lively, questioning motor-sports media at bay, White House style.





5. God and Guns




"This season has been a morale boost for our soldiers working both here and overseas and I expect we'll have even more to cheer for in 2005." -- Lt. General Roger Schultz, Army National Guard.


At the finish, I think, it comes back to the difference that struck me at the start -- my subjects knowing more people on active military duty than in same-sex relationships.


In Nascar, the gay issue is abstract and religious because there is no gay presence at the track. Evangelical Christian preachers follow Nascar like old-time circuit riders. They have their own double-wide trailers parked in the garage area, conducting prayer meetings and operating with the full cooperation and encouragement of the tracks. They minister in cases of death and injury, counsel couples, and offer drivers and crewmembers a place to talk about stress, addiction, and depression. Like cops and soldiers, Nascarites would prefer talking to the chaplain than to a shrink.



They have ethical discussions.




Jeff Gordon, whose first wife plastered psalms inside his car, once told me: "There is a fine line in our sport between trying to do the right thing and trying to do the competitive thing that puts you over the top to win. We've had a lot of conversations in our Bible studies about that. God wants us to do all of what we know in our abilities to win the race, but we all know in the back of our minds what wins a race in a way that you'll feel proud and what wins a race in a way that you're not very proud of."


There is a starchy pride in Nascar, at least in the garage. Drive hard, finish the race, stand up like a man. Once they bought the WMDs and the need to oust Saddam, they accepted deployment. Military service ran in Nascar families.


All those brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends on active duty were making satellite calls and sending e-mails back to the garage. It was the citizens of Nascar Nation who knew first that the war on the ground was losing its wheels. And they were the first ones who raised money to buy armor for their kids' Humvees in Iraq.


I wish I had been at Michigan Speedway two years ago when Greg Biffle won the GFS Marketplace 400 at Michigan Speedway in a car sponsored by the National Guard, which then decided to extend its Nascar enlistment for another season. Neither the Guard nor the Army, which also sponsors a car, would release figures. They say it comes out of an advertising budget of more than $500 million for all the services. The Marines and the Air Force have lesser Nascar deals. Painting your logo on just a lower rear quarter panel (behind the tire) goes for between $250,000 and one million.


How much armor would that buy?





When asked if Nascar advertising really drew recruits, Ike Shelton of Missouri, then the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said "You will not find them at golf tournaments."


Truth is, Nascar Dad, if he exists, also plays golf, watches the news and takes his time thinking through a problem -- how you fix an engine, craft a race strategy. He came to realize, as a citizen of Nascar Nation, that pragmatism trumps ideology, if indeed there is ideology to begin with. And then he made the connection. In the same way Nascar gave us the sentimental patina of good old boy tradition, Christian morality, and all-American products while it was expanding into Mexico, courting Toyota and Jack Daniels, and selling out old Southern tracks to make room for major metro markets, the Republicans diverted us with clanging alerts about gay marriages, partial-birth abortions, and terrorists, while pumping up their profits.


The supposed lesson of this dog-eat-dog business is don't get eaten, get better, because if you don't it's your own fault. None of that stick-and-ball welfare where baseball and football try to keep weak franchises afloat.


If you lose, it's because you didn't work hard enough.


You didn't have enough faith.




Until this past race.

America's Juiced-Up Jock Culture

I was shooting depo-testosterone the other day, imagining how good the juice would make me feel and how it would power my pedaling up the Ram Island hill, the toughest test on my 15-mile bicycle ride. The hill is my Alps and so my feelings about Floyd Landis testing positive this past steroid summer after winning the Tour de France with a ruined hip are so mixed as to be almost incoherent. Like all super-elite athletes, including Barry Bonds and Marion Jones, Floyd is a freak of physique and will. I could double my dosage, shoot up every day, and never ride in his shadow.


So consider what follows just random notes from Jock Culture by a recovering sportswriter.


Denial and Demonization




I do understand my own complicity in the superstars' need for the needle; we -- fans, coaches, parents, owners, media -- demand that they attempt superhuman feats to thrill us, authenticate us, make us rich and proud, and naturally they need superhuman help to satisfy us. (We also want our Whole Foods before they rot, which is why long-haul truck drivers pop speed.)


And we don't want to know about the process. When it's jammed in our faces, when athletes come up "dirty" in testing (or truck drivers jackknife on the interstate), we demand that they be punished and expunged from our fantasies.


This pattern of denial and demonization is our problem, not theirs. Steroid use in sports is a symptom of our disease more than theirs, and a fascinating, if tinted, window on Jock Culture, on its connection to the complicated, dangerous, exhilarating way manhood is measured in America from the field house to the White House.


"Athletes certainly have no ethical dilemma about doing steroids," says Dr. Michael Miletic, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst whose Detroit-area practice includes high school, college, and professional athletes. "Steroids are totally embedded in the sports culture. We need to get past the finger-pointing. There's been a wholesale abandonment of critical analysis."


There isn't even a solid body of scientific information about performance enhancement in sports to analyze. Exactly which performances are enhanced, and how, and by which anabolic steroids, androgens, human growth hormone, Erythropoietin (EPO), or whatever else athletes shoot, swallow, and sniff? What are the long-term or short-term effects? Are those enhancements and side-effects different for adolescents and adults, for men and women?


And how can we justify teasing out sports performance from all the other ways we try to enhance ourselves?


"Performance-enhancement is in a gray area," says Dr. Robert L. Klitzman, a psychiatrist and faculty associate at Columbia University's Center for Bioethics. "Would you include new technologies to improve cognitive abilities? How about access to SAT prep coaching? Assisted pregnancies?


"Itës going to get even more complicated as techniques for screening embryos and scanning brains become more sophisticated. Scientists will be looking for stupidity genes and smart pills. Cosmetic psycho-pharmacology is an area where people with money will have advantages over people who don't. Is that fair? In an ideal world there would be a level playing field. Exactly where does cheating begin?"


Cheating begins at the beginning, of course, with our kids.


Enhancing Childhood




I've heard about normal-sized kids getting human growth hormone just to give them a leg up, and I've watched four and five year-olds taking golf and tennis lessons, or racing cars. This is childhood enhancement, the sports equivalent of getting your kid into that pre-school whose starting blocks are on the track to a prep school that feeds Princeton. It makes just as much sense in sports; by pre-adolescence, the competition is fierce and the youngster whose killer instinct hasn't been honed simply won't be advancing to the finals.


My accountant moved to Florida because his eight year-old showed talent on the golf course. He swore he would be doing the equivalent if his son were a whiz at math or the violin. As parents, he insisted, we have a duty to give our kids every chance to discover the limits of their possibilities. No argument there, which makes it harder to argue about the limit of that duty -- and where it becomes child abuse.


Of course, even if as a teenager my accountant's kid bumps up against the limits of his golf game, he'll probably be good enough to be admitted to a selective college that has a golf team, and afterward to work his way up the corporate ladder with joke-a-stroke putts.


Meanwhile, the poor kid who mortgaged his soul for a hoops dream has a lot less to fall back on. As sports reformers keep reminding us, the possibility of a high-school football or basketball player actually playing big-time college ball, much less reaching the pros, is a lottery shot. But coaches, parents, and inner-city educators herd them through school -- and keep them under control -- drugged by the dream. The stereotypical poor jock, who winds up without an education, becomes so much sports trash.


And then we have those little car racers. Since at least the 1950s, quarter-midget and Go-Kart racing as a gearhead little league -- the cars can go 30 miles per hour and up on tiny dirt tracks -- has been a regional phenomenon, primarily in the southeast. In the past half-dozen years, it has followed the NASCAR boom to success. There's serious money, real jobs, and the chance for corporate networking in anything NASCAR-related now, and not just for the drivers on the major and high minor-league circuits. The pit crew that jumps the wall for a top team can make $100,000 each. No wonder those quarter-midget dads have been known to slip illegal additives into their kids' fuel supply.


I recently attended a race where an official pointed out such a dad, whose kid went on to win. But no one wanted to make a fuss and bring down bad publicity. Soon enough, I was told, the kid's victories would lift him into a higher classification and that dad would become some other official's problem. When I asked a few of the officials and crew-chief dads what all this was teaching the youngsters, they looked at me as if I were what I obviously was, a man out of touch.


Jocks and Pukes




At least in car racing, the steroids go into the car, not the athlete. So far at least.


Dr. Miletic, a friend, collaborator, and former Olympic weight-lifter, believes that nobody under twenty-one should take steroids because of the unknown effect on developing bodies and brains, and that far more dangerous to society than adolescent drug-taking is the dividing of youngsters, particularly boys, into jocks and pukes. Both points I agree with.


The first time I heard the word "puke" used as a noun was in 1968. That was the way Columbia's head crew coach, recently returned from stroking a shell along the Saigon River while a Naval officer, described political activists demonstrating against the war, as well as English majors lolling around campus listening to their beards grow.


Just when kids need to be socialized, taught fundamental sports and fitness skills, and made comfortable in their bodies, along comes Little League baseball and PeeWee football to weed and classify them. In typical suburban environments, the sorting is simple enough -- the kids marked as future elite athletes join "travel teams" that soak up resources and attention. Whatever level field once existed in such sports has long since tilted.


However, the kids left behind, the pukes, are still not free to play; they have to keep competing for the crumbs. With less pressure than the travel team members, some of them may actually get more from their experience, but for the most part they will grow up idolizing and resenting the jocks. No wonder the biggest growth in sports has been the so-called fantasy leagues in which mostly men, hooked on their computers, play owner, selecting athletes from actual teams whose actual individual performances will be toted up at season's end to produce on-line winners. While money is often involved, the biggest pay-off seems to be finally getting power over those jocks. What better control then owning them?


But back in high school, when it really counted, the power seemed to be in jock hands. Other kids either identified with them, or became insurgents, in spirit if not action. After the Columbine High School killings with their Jock-Puke overtones, I ran a New York Times Internet forum.


The response was thoughtful, sometimes emotional e-mails, mostly from middle-aged men who remembered high school with pain. Two representative examples:

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