For Some Athletes, the Name of the Game Is Telling a Good Story; the Autobiographies of Sports Stars Reveal Much More Than Play-by-Play Commentary

By Shale, Rick | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

For Some Athletes, the Name of the Game Is Telling a Good Story; the Autobiographies of Sports Stars Reveal Much More Than Play-by-Play Commentary


Shale, Rick, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


Sports autobiographies often are dismissed on the grounds that they usually are written by someone other than the athlete. NBA star Charles Barkley, for example, complained of being misquoted in his autobiography but admitted, "That was my fault. I should have read it before it came out."

However, James Pipkin (Phi Kappa Phi inductee at the University of Houston) argues that these books--ghostwritten or not--deserve careful examination. In Sporting Lives: Metaphor and Myth in American Sports Autobiographies, he finds thematic and linguistic patterns in these texts that will interest both the scholar and the sports fan.

"In the best sports autobiographies," Pipkin writes, "there is a clear selection process that tells a fuller and richer story offering not just facts and statistics but an interpretation."

He adds, "The factual accuracy--the historical truth--of an autobiography is important, but it is less interesting and usually less significant than the different--and deeper--kind of truth athletes reveal in telling about their experiences."

Some professional athletes seem never to grow up

A frequent theme is that childhood sports represent an innocence prior to the rigid and sometimes corrupt world of professional competition. "The world of sports," Pipkin notes, "is in certain key respects a sanctuary, a womblike pod that shelters and protects the athletes but also keeps them dependent." Coaches, agents, and owners often become surrogate parents who shelter the athlete from the adult world of decision-making and, sometimes, the consequences of misbehavior.

Many of these professional athletes, he suggests, are more like the Lost Boys than Peter Pan. As former major league pitcher Jim Bouton admits in his celebrated memoir Ball Four, "Being a professional athlete allows you to postpone your adulthood."

All athletes must confront the limits of their bodies

Injuries and their consequences form an almost obligatory part of most sports autobiographies. Fear of getting hurt and the pressure to play through pain are common refrains of the athletes' body songs, especially in football. Former Dallas Cowboy wide receiver Pete Gent, who drew on his experiences in his acclaimed novel North Dallas Forty, describes his fellow NFL players as "a brotherhood of mutilation."

Athletes often must face issues of body image, and women athletes are particularly vulnerable to questions regarding their femininity (along with gender orientation). Pipkin cites tennis great Billie Jean King, all-around athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias and many others who address this problem of being in shape versus being shapely.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Sports figures battle with the realization that they'll ultimately end up in the stands

Perhaps the most interesting chapter is "The End of Autumn" in which the author explores how athletes confront the end of their careers. Retirement (often a euphemism for being cut or released) does not come easily to elite athletes.

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For Some Athletes, the Name of the Game Is Telling a Good Story; the Autobiographies of Sports Stars Reveal Much More Than Play-by-Play Commentary
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