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General News    H4'ed 5/27/21

Tomgram: Robert Lipsyte, The Athlete of the Century?

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

I've always had a complicated relationship with tennis and here's why. In the late 1950s, when I was in my early teens, my father insisted that I get a pass to the New York City public tennis courts and learn how to play. Let's just say that it was not my game. I'm no speed demon and serving into the sun" well, I thought it was hell. I just wasn't (and it was clear to me I would never be) any good, but my dad didn't care. In his mind, tennis was thesport of the upper class and if his son was ever to move up the social and economic ladder, if he was ever to relate to his future peers, he obviously needed to know how to play. End of discussion.

I can also remember my dad taking me to Forest Hills to watch tennis matches. It wasn't exactly his natural environment, so he acted as if we were at a Brooklyn Dodgers baseball game. He would loudly cheer on his favorites in a situation where it was obvious to me a polite, respectful, tension-filled silence was meant to reign. Embarrassed, I can recall quietly trying to edge away from him, imagining that somehow the fans seated behind us might not think I was his son if there were just a little more space between the two of us only to have him put his arm around me and cheer more loudly yet.

And here's the irony, as TomDispatch jock culture correspondent Robert Lipsyte explains: in that very upper-class world, a working-class star began a revolution that's still changing the nature of sports and the roles of its players today. As the former New York Times sports columnist and author most recently of SportsWorld: An American Dreamland points out, Billie Jean King came from anything but an upper-class background, but when it came to tennis, unlike yours truly, she was a natural (as would be true when it came to progressive politics as well) and our world is different because of her. Tom

Billie Jean King, Foremother
And Still in the Game


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.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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