- Sporting Lives: Metaphor and Myth in American Sports Autobiographies
James W. Pipkin's Sporting Lives gives scholarly attention to a genre near the bottom of the literary food chain, sports autobiographies. Except in cases of a highly literate athlete, such as former senator and NBA star Bill Bradley or swimmer Diana Nyad (a one-time PhD candidate in comparative literature at NYU), these texts are produced through the efforts of an athlete and co-author, often a sports journalist who crafts them from tapes and interviews, before reshaping the text based on emerging patterns or suggestions from the athlete. Pipkin, early in the book, provides an informative explanation of how these "autobiographies" are actually written, and then goes on to trace several recurring motifs to provide a sense of athletes "beneath the public image" and "an interpretation of sports from the inside out" (2).
Pipkin establishes five recurring tropes in these texts. The first, which he calls the "Echoing Green," emerges in nearly all sports autobiographies as an extended world of childhood enjoyed by the elite athlete. Covering multiple sporting lives and eras, from Ty Cobb to Tracy Austin, Pipkin unpacks both the pleasures and pitfalls of the athlete's status as grown child. He further relates this stage to a mythic nostalgia for a place "where to desire is to have" (23), but finds American sports figures particularly appropriate inhabitants of this world because American culture lacks "the mists of a distant past that was the haunt of those ancient giants who lived before the Flood" (19). Subsequent chapters are dedicated to the athletes' acute sense of their bodies, their experience of achieving transcendent (near mystical) moments of peak performance, the pain of aging and retirement, and the post-modern self-fashioning of one extraordinary athlete, Dennis Rodman.
Among the most informative and intriguing chapters is "Body Songs." Here Pipkin notes how player autobiographies convey the complexities of existence when the athletic body becomes for both the athlete and the culture a [End Page 494] text to be read. The culture's readings range from the male athletic form "objectified by the gaze of the fan," to admiration for the athletic female body as long as it does not transgress cultural notions of femininity, to awe, curiosity, and revulsion at extraordinary bodies such as those of George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. These three men, Pipkin shows, struggle to forge a positive image against conflicting cultural constructions of them as simultaneously powerful giants to be adulated and freaks to be ridiculed, a dilemma compounded by race for Chamberlain, Jabbar, and other black basketball stars. Aside from negotiating public constructions of their bodies, privately the athletes often vacillate between strong feelings of pride in the instrument they've created and gripping fear of its breaking down.
Equally interesting but less the voice of the athletes is the chapter entitled "Magic: The Performing Body." Pipkin here does a fine job of trying to articulate the near mystical state that athletes call, in today's parlance, being in the zone; that is, performing at the top of their game in perfect bodily execution of the mind's intentions. Exploring this "magic" through a variety of sports figures, most notably Bill Russell and most interestingly Diana Nyad, Pipkin elucidates their words with a critical lens of Romantic thought, particularly Wordsworth's, elevating, for better or worse, the peak experience to "a point of confluence between sports, art, and religion" (88).
Of course, all athletes, no matter their persistent wish to hold onto a Peter Pan existence on the "Echoing Green," must face the end of their playing careers, and the title of Pipkin's chapter, "The End of Autumn," shows he is aware of the old sports cliché that an athlete dies two deaths: one at career's end, the second, when life actually expires. Though this chapter focuses on those players who have difficulty facing life without games, Pipkin differentiates the degrees of severity and variety of reasons...