"Respect," wrote Ralph Wiley. "That's so much of what's missing.... People are so confused today, they can't tell who's earned it or how." Wiley was an expert on respect, having earned plenty of it as a sportswriter before his death last year at age 52. The selection of essays Classic Wiley: A Lifetime of Punchers, Players, Punks & Prophets (ESPN Books, 272 pages, $24.95) draws from his nine years at SI (during which he wrote 12 cover stories), his eight books and his countless spontaneous explosions on ESPN.com.
To some, Wiley will always be remembered as a boxing writer, and his chronicle of the horrific 1982 bout between Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini and South Korea's Duk Koo Kim, which resulted in Kim's death, is unforgettable. But Wiley's greatest gift was his ability to combine his vast knowledge of sports with his discerning, unpredictable views on major social issues. "He was so damn interesting," writes Bob Costas in the forward, because "a sharp left turn off the path of orthodoxy" was always "part of the ride." For instance, Wiley ferociously defended a college basketball player's right to turn her back on the American flag during the national anthem because he believed in "freedom, tolerance, not cloth flags." Too often, he wrote, fans wanted athletes to behave "like cattle ... [to] just give their milk and moo and shut up and not have their own feelings."
Agree with him or not, Ralph Wiley was a writer who commanded respect. The proof is in these pages.