Sports and Psychoanalysis


Robert Lipsyte



Since I'm representing the media today I will go back and forth between mea culpa and defensiveness. Howard had suggested that one of the questions is how the media can help children fulfill their dreams. Our reflexive answer is that it is not our job to help. Our job is to report the truth. But the truth is that we don't know what our job is. What we do is offer mixed messages about violence; about tragedy, a word that we use a lot when a team loses; about courage, which is somebody who has had the Mayo Clinic at his disposal coming back from orthoscopic surgery. We are selling winning over enjoying the process. I'm sure Carole will agree sports is a pleasure of the flesh, that's not really what we're offering. And certainly when somebody has been arrested for a felony, an athlete, our first reaction is how this will effect the team's pennant chances.

I had a very good training analyst, Mickey Mantle. In 1960 I was a young rewrite reporter, very expendable, there was no war going on at the moment so they sent me up to Yankee Stadium to interview Mantle. This was before the time of recreational violence and a fan had jumped out of the stands, raced across center field, hit Mickey in the face and ran away.

Mickey was then seen drinking lunch and dinner for some time after that, which was not that different from his norm. But nobody in those days interviewed ball players, certainly not about personal things or things that they might not want to talk about. So nobody at the time had really asked Mantle what had happened, how he'd felt about it and how he was feeling. A couple of days went by and the managing editor asked the sport editor, "Did we ever find out?"
"Well no our ambassador to baseball really didn't want to ask Mantle."
"Well send the kid up and see what happens." So I went to Yankee Stadium.
I was better dressed than I am today, I know I was wearing a vest and tie and looking very proper. I talked to Mantle right before the game began, he and Yogi Berra were warming up in front of the dugout. I'm sure I said Mr. Mantle. I'm sure I couched the question very carefully and he just kind of turned around and looked at me in a very casual way, well you heard this language before, but he made a rude and impossible suggesture. Now I was a sports page reader, I couldn't believe he had said that. Certainly, why would he ever say that to me? So I rephrased the question. He hadn't understood obviously, I rephrased the question, asked it again, at which point he and Yogi started throwing the ball through my hair. Which is the universal signal that a session is over. My first reaction after that was shame and humiliation. What have I done wrong? How had I evoked such a response from this icon, this American hero, this person who had been given to us in such a godly way by the sports pages? Eventually I became angry and when I finally did work it through, it was by talking to other sportswriters, all of us were boys at that time and certainly we didn't share those kinds of shameful moments, but eventually a couple of us did talk. Everybody had a Mickey Mantle story that was similar and of course stories of so many other athletes who had treated the media in quite the same way.

For a very long time our coverage has been totally stereotypical. We assume or are told to assume that this is what the audience wants and most important it would not be good for the children to hear otherwise. It would not be good to find out that these people, some of them are terrific human beings and some of them are assholes just like us, ordinary people with extraordinary talents. If they're women, well, covering Babe Didrickson was the stereotypical way, the archetyping way we learned to cover woman for a very long time. They were sublimating. This was energy that should have gone elsewhere that was going into sports, basically she couldn't get a date so she became the world's greatest athlete. The way that we have covered minorities, who we always assume should be grateful. How can these black ballplayers act like this and ask for so much money? They could be slaves. This has been media attitude - and then toward children. I don't now at what point that Venus and Serena Williams switched from being manipulated children of this terrible tennis father who turned out to have done a brilliant job, and suddenly became women. Was it at the point that they became viable commodities, when they could really sell products? We don't understand that most of these stars that are acting out have always acted out, it's really not about them becoming stars. Stephon Marbury who is by no means the worst actor in this current wave of hip-hop ball player; when he was eleven years old he played in a league here in Brooklyn, a church league, that required every player to do some community service, it was called doing your hours. and what that generally meant was cleaning the gym, nothing very arduous, or coaching a younger team. In the history of that league only one player has gone on to super stardom, Stephon Marbury and only one player has been kicked out at eleven for refusing to do his hours. This is not how we cover them. The throat slashing incident, which the NFL has banned, which your own chairman, I thought, very smartly tied up to other acts of intimidation. McEnroe and Connors and all the ways of athletes creating these in your face, I'm more the man, gestures. Does this mean that children will start doing this now? What is our role in the media in reflecting this, in reporting on this? I'm much more concerned with the sports fan than the child. My feeling is that the sports fan, the hardcore sports fan, is operating on some level of disturbance, some pathology, I really do feel that way I've just seen too many of them. I think that their reaction to what's going on in the field and of course as others have pointed out the athletes reflecting what they feel from them.

The role of the health profession in all of this is something else that we have not covered very well. I have a theory, which I hope someone in this room will help me flesh out someday. With so many professionals, psychologist and psychiatrist, working for professional teams, not only as consultants but as evaluators of talent and at the same time this growing number, that we are becoming aware of felonious activity among ballplayers, among better ballplayers. What exactly is the connection? On all the tests that are being given are these psychologists and psychiatrists looking for these kinds of risky aggressive personalities? In my time, two of the ballplayers that I knew well and got close to early, Daryll Strawberry and Doc Gooden on the Mets, were both brought up very young by a team that did have a psychiatrist and seems very savvy about consulting..

What went wrong? I would like to know about that. Certainly the athletic temperament is not about analysis. I talked to a pitcher last year, who had lost most of a season to depression. Now he's a spokesman for a drug company. And he explained to me very, very carefully that he had never been depressed in his life but rather he had this small chemical readjustment that had to be made.

Years later I told the story of me and Mickey Mantle to Mickey Mantle. It was after eighteen holes of golf, his not mine, and he was drinking and I told him the whole story, kind of laid it out. He nodded with this wonderful, charming, infuriating grin of his and he said, "Yeah I remember that very well." He said, "I was deeply affected by that, really sorry for what I did to you at that time and it's what started me drinking." These are the people that we are dealing with.

Thank you