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Professional Athletes Today Far From Paper Lion

Paper Lion
George Plimpton
(Harper & Row, 1966)

It was no surprise reviewers and readers alike spoke so highly of George Plimpton after reading his book, Paper Lion, his firsthand report of playing for a professional football team.

Plimpton’s account of his experience in training camp and the first couple of games with the Detroit Lions in 1960 was a look not only into the mechanics of playing football, but also the life of professional athletes during that time.

Plimpton entered training camp with the team, essentially as a rookie. He was subjected to the veterans’ playful hazing and pummeled through the same hard drills and plays as the other players. He sat in on film sessions, was given a playbook and took every position at one time or another to offer his attempt of on-field execution.

In addition to literally putting himself in the same shoes as the players, Plimpton also sat down with individual players to talk about subjects he maybe couldn’t fit his outsider’s foot into. He was inducted into the Lion’s family on Rookie Night with an intense trip to the bars, played cards and swapped stories with the players, offering the reader a glance into their lives.

Plimpton’s account was descriptive as well as well done for firsthand reportage. Typically the style is off-putting with a story that considers itself reporting or journalistic. But after reading, the first-person approach works well with this story because the point is it isn’t easy for an outsider, a normal observer, to just waltz onto the field and be able to throw passes, dominate drives and kick field goals.

Paper Lion was first published in 1966; Plimpton was on the team in 1960. Even though the veteran journalist went through a number of teams before he found one that would be willing to let him join their squad, the idea of media personalities being so deep into an organization seems foreign to my modern-day concept of journalism.

With the rise of social media, there is no need to go as deep as Plimpton did, into the locker rooms and the lives of these athletes because today, the athletes provide this service for the readers, the audience, already. An athlete tweets what happened inside the locker room or shares pictures of his life at home. There are no surprises.

The editorial decision to send Plimpton into the fire to bring back the story would not only not be viable option in this media landscape; it would be laughed at in an editorial meeting. For as open and honest as these athletes are off the court, and for as much information becomes available to media members today, leagues, owners and coaches are extremely private.

Plimpton’s era of journalism has disappeared, which is why his humble account of being accepted onto a professional football team by the coaches and players as if initiated into a special fraternity stands as a not only a direct, no-middle-man report of what it’s like to be on a professional football team, but an account of simpler times when professional athletes weren’t that much different from everybody else.

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