America's athletes have had the enduring luck to be covered by a few sportswriters who are better at journalism than most of them are at sports. One of these is Leonard Koppett, the executive sports editor of The Peninsula Times Tribune in Palo Alto, Calif.
During his years in bigger -- and more sharkish -- ponds, Koppett reported for The New York Herald Tribune, The New York Post and The New York Times. He began with The Tribune in 1948, went to The Post in 1954 for nine years, and from 1963 to 1978 enhanced The Times. I was too young to have read him in The Trib and I remember him only vaguely in The Post. That newspaper had Jimmy Cannon, a stylist who made the copy of everyone else on the sports page read like truss ads.
At The Times, Koppett had a byline that readers looked for. His beat was mostly professional baseball, basketball and football. His reportage had depth. For Koppett, the wide world of sports was the narrow world of sports, a limited enclave with its own politics, economics and social rites that were as much to be observed by the journalist as the heroics on the field. If you went to the sports page with questions on your mind -- Was this a game that was played or staged? What's the latest con of the commercial sports establishment? Are the spectators being entertained or conditioned by the event before them? -- Koppett could be trusted to be at least aware that some answers were needed. Often enough, he gave them.
In "Sports Illusion, Sports Reality," Koppett is giving still more. He examines the sports business, sports journalism, the cultural way that sports reflect rather than cause social conditions, and concludes with some "immodest proposals." By defining sports limitedly -- "only to the commercialized segment of athletic games aimed at a large audience" -- Koppett is able to analyze closely what others before him, the mere debunkers of sports and demythifyers of athletes, have ignored.
"In order to explore the many and profound effects that mass spectator sports have on American society," he writes, "one must begin with the recognition that the producer -- the promoter staging the event -- and the consumer -- the fan -- can touch each other only through the journalistic media. One must then determine how the sports business works, how journalism works, and how the two interact. Only after that, from a firm factual base, can one examine how sports affect society (and vice versa), which effects are desirable and which are undesirable, and what can be done about any of it."
The challenge of Koppett's book is that he wants sports fans to engage in an activity -- careful reflection -- which, often enough, they are paying $15 and $20 a ticket not to do. Why think when you can root or jeer? Even if ticket prices are thievishly high and the stadium was built with public money, most fans have no taste for the figures of an entrepreneurial hustle when the figures on Charlie Hustle can be toted. With commercial sports functioning as propaganda for a stability that can't be found in other parts of the nation's life, a reverential gee-whiz attitude is as necessary for the fan as physical talent is for the athlete.
To beef about ticket prices or quiet deals between team owners and city councils is to get "political," and the politics best-suited for commercial sports is the kind of patriotic gush promoted during half-time at pro football games. "The political Right," Koppett writes, "along with many nonpolitical sports fans, believed that sports represented one of the glories of American democracy. They considered competitiveness, team loyalty, preoccupation with success, insistence on fair play, and physical exertion to be basic virtues of free enterprise, traditional family morality, and the Puritan ethic."
So what? it might be asked. What's wrong with any of that? Nothing, if it were the reality. But Koppett is writing about sports illusion. The large value of his analysis is in his point that efforts to understand sports are worthwhile if they go beyond "accepting superficial myths." It's necessary to "deal accurately with how things work, because understanding how we operate can tell us what we are. Precisely because mass-entertainment sports do reflect our social values, their highly visible manifestations can illuminate the true nature of those values."
With that kind of talk, there won't be any half-time shows for Len Koppett, nor is he likely to rate even a syllable from the many sports toadies who pass for journalists on the local evening news programs. Koppett's cheering section will be the small group that values athletic play apart from attendance figures, salaries and won-loss percentages.
It's been a while since I've read a book on sports as tempered with reasoned judgments and well-written analysis as this. Out of the press box now, Koppett can see the scene whole. As it was during his days in New York, his focus is sharp.