Academic journal article Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature

George Plimpton: The Paper Lion and His Legacy

Academic journal article Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature

George Plimpton: The Paper Lion and His Legacy

Article excerpt

I decided to finally pack the football.

With these seven words, George Plimpton began the chronicle of his stint as a back-up quarterback during training camp with the 1963 Detroit Lions, of the then-fourteen-team National Football League (NFL). The first seven words of the critically-acclaimed Paper Lion, which was originally published in 1966, not only began a narrative into the new genre of participatory journalism, but also shed light onto the book's primary theme of amateur versus professional in the 1960s. George Plimpton was one of America's favorite sons--the Everyman, the Man for All Seasons, the real-life Walter Mitty. He is a graduate of both Harvard and Cambridge (was expelled from the esteemed Philips Exeter Academy), was a tank driver during World War II, and was a founding member of the Paris Review literary magazine. He was an avid ornithologist, acted in a number of movies, played the triangle with the New York Philharmonic, and won the International Fireworks Festival of 1979. His social circle was far-reaching including Muhammad Ali, Ernest Hemingway and Robert Kennedy. (In fact, it was Plimpton who wrestled the pistol out of Sirhan Sirhan's hand after Sirhan assassinated Senator Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles.) But for all his eclectic life experiences, George Plimpton is best known as the father of participatory sports journalism. In 1960, Plimpton set out on his path to fame with the idea to pitch against major league baseball players, which he recounts in Out of My League. The year after, he continued his "experiments" by approaching various NFL coaches and owners to take a crack at the sport of American football. He explains his rationale in his proposal to Red Hickey, coach of the Western Conference All-Stars in that year's Pro-Bowl game in Los Angeles:

I told him--somewhat haltingly, finding the proposal increasingly odd
as I went on--that I wanted to train briefly with his team as a
quarterback, never causing him any trouble, just staying on the
periphery of things, and learning just enough to get by, and then
trotting into the game itself in the Coliseum and calling three to four
plays, just one series, I said, nothing much at all; then I'd be able
to write about my experience and enlighten those who had wondered as a
sort of daydream what would happen to them if they actually became
bona-fide quarterbacks playing in a pro game. (Plimpton, Paper 11)

This "Plimptonian" proposal--a term which, in journalism, refers to experiencing the subject of documentation--was not accepted (Fatsis 7). A subsequent proposal to the Detroit Lions management, however, was accepted, and thus began Plimpton's synonymy with participatory journalism.

In his athletic endeavors, George Plimpton was inspired by Paul Gallico, a sportswriter for New York's Daily News in the 1920s. Gallico had boxed with world heavyweight champion and cultural icon Jack Dempsey to better understand what it felt like to face a professional athlete, and documented this experience for his readership. A review of Zachary Michael Jack's Inside the Ropes cites Plimpton and Gallico as the founding fathers of sports participatory journalism, maintaining that "they and their successors are our heroic surrogates who enhance our understanding of the nature of the game by writing sensitively and perceptively about what the sport is like to the amateur participant" (Ardolino 464). In fact, amateur, in this sense, refers to the lack of practice in sport, as opposed to an unpaid sportsman, making the feats all the more intriguing. That said, as a member of America's literary elite, Plimpton is no less a professional than the players he studies, and it could be argued that his self-portrayal as a sporting naif stops him from considering the possible connections between practicing high culture and high-level sports. If anything, Plimpton was simply bringing journalism, as a profession, more credibility in the sports industry. …

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