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"I really believe that sports is incredibly important. A lot of definitions and values come out of sports and I think that it's really worth looking at," says Robert Lipsyte. "I believe it's a lot more important than a lot of the jerk-offs who cover games and write about tragedy, courage, and revenge, and when some running back is arrested for beating up his girlfriend, the first reaction is 'How is this going to affect the team's chances?' "
That kind of near-to-our-own-hearts statement alone might be enough to earn Lipsyte the honor of being the first repeat winner of The Village Voice's Sports Journalist of the Year award. But in 1999, he had what might have been a career year, producing a body of work that touched on so many of the often taboo subjectsrace, sex, idolatry, and personal responsibilitythat affect sports as well as the culture writ large.
In the wake of the Columbine shootings, Lipsyte wrote a column deconstructing the mixed messages sent by what he termed "Jock Culture." It provoked so much response from readers that the debate morphed into a huge open forum on the Times's Web site. "I got fantastic responses from people who wanted to engage in a dialogue about what happened to them in high schoolfeelings of masculinity, empowerment, entitlement," says Lipsyte. "It was like group therapy."
While Lipsyte still introduces himself at cocktail parties as a sportswriter, his jock-sniffing days are clearly behind him. "I've kind of lost interest in games per se," he laughs. Lipsyte credits his work outside the sports pageshe wrote the Coping column in the Times Metro section for six yearsfor helping to keep athletics in perspective. "When we [sports writers] do try to do a quote-unquote real story, it's the enormous courage of someone coming back from arthroscopic surgery. Meanwhile, real people are coming back from colon cancer," says Lipsyte, himself a cancer survivor.
And indeed his best stories gave us a glimpse into the never simple and often painful lives of real people, who just happened to be athletes. A tiny news item in The Advocate, passed on by a Times marketing guy, turned into Lipsyte's September front-page story on Billy Bean, a former Major League ballplayer who had just come out. It was the first significant story on Bean, who made the decision to go public after missing the funeral of a former teammate, Tim Layana, who was killed in a car crash, because he had distanced himself from all his baseball friends to avoid questions about his sexual orientation. "He said it was like having not paid your taxes for 20 years, and walking around expecting that the IRS was waiting for you around every corner," says Lipsyte in typically vivid style.
As the millennium crawls to a close, no look at our Journalist of the Year would be complete without a quiz about his ESPN Sports Century ballot. Indeed, Lipsyte's choice is typically idiosyncratic, and typically right on the money. "Billie Jean King. There's no question about it," he proclaims about his top choice. "She was exuberant. She was inclusive. She was entrepreneurial. This World Team Tennis thing was a fucking brilliant idea. She was on the verge of breaking down the wall between the professional athlete who gets it off for us, and those of us who try to get it off for ourselves." Sounds like something similar to the wall between writer and reader that Lipsyte chips a piece off with every column.