Robert Lipsyte

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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