Robert Lipsyte, America Juiced on Sports

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In 1975, Robert Lipsyte — by then, a sportswriter for fourteen years and a New York Times sports columnist as well — published Sportsworld, An American Dreamland, a fabulous, acerbic, goodbye-to-all-that. In it, he wrote: “By puberty, most American children have been classified as failed athletes and assigned to watch and cheer for those who have survived the first of several major ‘cuts’ Sportsworld heroes exist at sufferance, and the path of glory is often an emotional minefield trapped with pressures to perform and fears of failure. There is no escape from Sportsworld, for player or spectator or even reporter, that watcher in the shadows who pretends to be in the arena but above the fray.”

And then, as if to prove his point, Lipsyte, an addict like the rest of us, came back and did it all over again at the Times — even better. In fact, from Muhammad Ali to NASCAR racing, he’s never stopped chewing over the subject of sports and American life.

Oh, and he was also part of a cadre of novelists who broke the staid field of Young Adult fiction wide open back in the 1960s. My kids grew up on his novels: The Contender, The Brave, One Fat Summer. I read them myself in those years. Lipsyte has always tested the boundaries of the Young Adult form. This season he’s done it again with his newly published Raiders Night, a down-and-dirty locker-room tale of Jock Culture and high-school football at its well-tested worst, of how one jock, one team captain, tries to deal with the pressures of juiced-up sports parents, enhancement drugs, and sex as brute domination. Like the best of Young Adult fiction, stripped down to narrative and ready for action, it’s absolutely gripping.

Of course, I’m a sports-watcher like most of the rest of male (and increasingly female) America and it always seemed to me that some essential part of our lives, our culture, our strangeness would be missing from Tomdispatch if the spectacle of sports didn’t take a bow here from time to time. That was a dream. Now, Lipsyte makes it a reality with the first of what will be periodic missives from the sports front. So check out the steroid scandals and a host of other sports matters, Lipsyte-style. Myself, I wouldn’t miss it for the (sports)world. Tom

Shooting Up on Jock Culture
By Robert Lipsyte

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?

“It’s 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:


“When I attended high school, I had so much built-up anger from being treated unfairly that, if I had access to guns or explosives, [I] would have been driven to do similar things to take revenge on the Italian and Irish white bastard jocks who dominated the school and made those 4 years miserable for me. After high school, I was not surprised to hear that a handful of these jocks had either died as a result of drunk driving and drug overdoses, or had spent a little time in jail for violence or drug possession. As for the dead ones, I would probably pee on their graves.”

And from a former Jock:


“We really did get special attention both from the students, and from the teachers. We also did cruel things to other students. I have a 20th school anniversary this summer and plan on seeking forgiveness from the people I know I helped terrorize.”

The word terrorize took on a different resonance after 9/11, but the values of Jock Culture loomed large even on that day. The firefighters, police officers, and emergency technicians who rushed into the World Trade Center exemplified Jock Culture’s most heroic and selfless models; and a majority of the victims who died at work in the Twin Towers were identified as jocks in their obits. Personnel executives I interviewed about that phenomenon admitted that they specifically tried to hire former varsity high school and college athletes for brokerage jobs because they had discipline, were responsive to authority, knew how to overcome setbacks, and were willing to play hurt (come to work sick).

Othello Juiced on the Diamond

Jocks in the work-place, hard-driving and superficially fraternal, often mimic the postures of their big-league role models. Yet the baleful mask of the pro athlete’s game face is not only there to intimidate opponents; it’s also a defense against inner fears. Athletes have been taught to appear invulnerable, to repress emotion, to never, ever let ’em see you sweat, much less show panic or pain.

This is why for so many pro athletes, with their shallow marriages, false friendships, and dysfunctional family relationships, the only places where true emotion can freely emerge are the locker-room and the playing field. There, they can finally hug and cry. For many, these are the only times they feel truly alive, and one can understand how they might be tempted to do anything to stay in the arena, including drugs. It isn’t only about bulking up to win games; it’s also about staying strong to survive in the game, their comfort zone, their home.

Consider poor Barry Bonds, the Othello of the sports drama. (His Desdemona was fame.) Barry was raised a prince, the son of a star (Bobby), the godson of a superstar (Willie Mays), and he definitely proved himself worthy. Lean and apparently drug-free, Barry was arguably the greatest player of his generation, but one day the crowd’s affection and the home-run records began flowing to a swollen, surly, red-headed meatball named Mark McGwire who was clearly on the juice. So Barry, with an aging and wounded back and bad knees, seemingly decided to level the field by getting some, too.

Now, I don’t much like Barry. Once, he so frustrated me during an interview that I appealed to his dad, who just shrugged and said he had the same problems. Barry’s moral character makes him a poor role model for the sportswriters who are jumping all over him now that he’s down. I wonder if they’re making up for having never noticed all the steroid side effects in locker-rooms the past ten years. (Actually, serious steroid use, particularly in Olympic events, goes back to the days when I was reporting, so you can blame me, too.)

Barry didn’t start taking steroids — if he did: no proof yet — to enslave our children or to mock all fans outside San Francisco or even to bury Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. He did it because he wanted to stay in the locker-room and on the field, and he wanted to be the best. He did exactly what he had been trained to do as a Jock Warrior, pushing himself and the boundaries, winning ugly, even cheating, if necessary.

The media has had a tougher time beating up on Marion Jones, described by Harvey Araton, one of our best sports columnists, as “the elegant sprinter with the sweet, crooked smile” who engendered in him “wishful — and probably blind — subjectivity” (even as her husband, boyfriend, coach, and running mates were nailed as drug cheaters). Jones was a track-and-field princess even when her body became ever more princely in muscle definition. She reminded me of Florence Griffith-Joyner, who died of a seizure in her sleep in 1998, ten years after setting an Olympic record in the 100 meters. FloJo, who also associated with drug mavens, was widely suspected of steroid use as her muscles bloomed. Jones, who returned to the track after giving birth three years ago, was never caught with steroids; the test that temporarily did her in was for EPO, a red blood-booster that enhances stamina. But the confirming test came up negative and she was off the hook, avoiding a two-year suspension but not raised eyebrows, including mine.

Crossing Up the Duke of Wellington

That we pretend to care about chemical performance-enhancers in sports seems hypocritical and diverting, and perhaps the last gasp of the character-building that we once claimed for sports. The Duke of Wellington’s declaration that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton became, in nineteenth and early twentieth century America, a slogan of the secular religion of amateurism, of young men joyously playing games that prepared them for war and factory work. As amateurism was devalued, the new cult of mid-twentieth century professionalism offered a promise of class mobility, of young men loosed from the rural mines and the urban slums to play college ball and maybe even become major league millionaires. But athletic stars were still “role models” for youth because the supposed meritocracy of sports and the inherent fairness of games made them morally superior to the actors, musicians, and celebrities who merely entertained us.

But as sports crossed-over into manufactured televised spectacle and athletes became rappers with muscles, our games seemed to become a way of distracting us from work and war, an opiate instead of an inspiration. The Super Bowl became as much a part of the cultural landscape as the Academy Awards, its half-time variety show a coveted showcase. Jocks were just a bigger breed of show-biz celeb, similarly insulated by agents, publicists, posses, bodyguards.

Fans grumbled at their perceived ingratitude for their rich, easy, charmed lives. The media ran their salary charts and their police reports alongside box scores. The professional witnesses, led by ESPN, affected an ironic tone, appearing to distance themselves from the hype while wallowing in it: Yesssss, this is great fun; we’re en fuego, dudes, but let’s not take it too seriously, only 24/7.

Athletes were swept along with their industry. As the ideals of sportsmanship (often elitist and hypocritical as they were) gave way to the tactics of gamesmanship, as totally dominating your opponent became the ultimate test of victory, as cutting corners, intimidation, and living large became marks of the winning style, Jock Culture developed new values and definitions that spread into the larger culture of politics and big business. (Or, as the sports apologists claimed, societal values leaked into the leagues.)

Whatever, dude. So why should we — Botox’ed, Viagra’ed, silconed — be surprised that athletes are enhancing themselves, too? And why should we care?

On one level, I don’t. The jock’s capital has always been his body, and he should be free to spend and invest it. Policing that should be a function of the team dynamic. It is very telling that athletes, as competitive and violent as they can be in every aspect of their lives, have not dispensed locker-room justice to the steroid-users who are presumably tilting the playing field and stealing jobs from team-mates who stay clean. Obviously, most everybody is using drugs. That genie is out of the bottle.

Where Dr. Miletic and I feel great concern, however, is in the unregulated use of performance enhancers on the high-school level, where thousands of kids whose minds and bodies are still in stages of vulnerable development are taking drugs with the complicity of parents and coaches. Test them, we say. Clean up that generation, then you can gasbag about Barry Bonds.

“I don’t believe kids are taking steroids because they think it helped Barry Bonds,” says Dr. Miletic. “They’re taking it because team-mates, opponents, a strength coach, a gym owner is telling them it will make them better. And often it will. I’m more worried about other drugs. Diuretics can kill you quickly. And pain killers not only mask athletic injuries that should be attended to, they offer an addictive high.”

Steroids offer a high, too, a more subtle feeling of wellness, of strength, of optimism that is best understood in its absence. I’ve been shooting steroids for almost fifteen years, since a third cancer operation left me unable to produce testosterone naturally. Once a month, I nail one of my quadriceps with a 22- gauge needle and pump in the oily yellow fluid. Without it, my prescribing surgeon tells me, I would be physically fatigued and mentally sluggish, lose my sex drive, be achy and depressed. And I certainly wouldn’t be pedaling up the Ram Island hill yelling “Floyd Landis” to give me a boost.

No question I’m taking a performance-enhancing drug — and one that seems as cutting edge as that old friend penicillin, as this steroid summer turns chilly and quaint. In England, according to London’s Sunday Times, a number of top soccer players have been “storing stem cells from their newborn babies as a potential future treatment for their own career-threatening sports injuries.”

Now they tell us. Maybe that could have helped Floyd’s hip or Barry’s damaged back and knee, or Marion’s post-partum blues. Our blues, too.

Robert Lipsyte, a former sports and city columnist of The New York Times, was a finalist for the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in commentary. He won an Emmy as host of “The Eleventh Hour,” a nightly public affairs show on WNET. He is most recently author of the Young Adult novel, Raiders Night. His website is

Copyright 2006 Robert Lipsyte