SBJ/March 15 - 21, 2004/One On One

‘It’s so hard for anything to be special’

Deford says the glut of sports today has turned some fans away.
Voted Sportswriter of the Year six times by his peers, Frank Deford has written for newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, Internet, movies and Broadway. He is a senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated and a longtime correspondent for HBO's "Real Sports." His commentary can be heard each Wednesday on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition." His latest novel is "An American Summer." Deford spoke recently with SportsBusiness Journal New York bureau chief Jerry Kavanagh.

You wrote a cover story about Howard Cosell in Sports Illustrated many years ago ...

Cosell
Deford: More negative mail on that particular article than any other. Because I dared to say, you know, "Cosell ain't all bad." There were so many people who hated Cosell, unreasonably, most of them. And it was because he was contrarian, and he wasn't what we expected sports announcers to be.

The disagreements are always more interesting than the agreements, aren't they?

Deford: You know, I have to accept it if I'm going to shoot my mouth off, as I do every Wednesday on NPR. In a way, I hate every letter that disagrees with me. I'm human. Notwithstanding, when I can sit back and look at it rationally instead of emotionally, I know that if I didn't get those kind of letters, I wouldn't be doing a good job. Because it's important to take positions. You have to be honest in what you believe. I could not have written about Cosell in the way that I did unless I felt that way.

You have interviewed and written of some of the great "characters" in sports: Al McGuire, Bobby Knight, Jimmy Connors, to name a few. Who are the most interesting personalities in sports business today?

Deford: Nobody pops into my mind right away. There was a time when sports was in a great state of flux, when everything was changing. When there were new teams, whole new leagues, when free agency came in. There were a tremendous number of characters then. Al Davis comes immediately to mind.

You called Mark McCormack brilliant, saying he created the only dynasty, ever, over all sport.

Deford: Yes. Mark was a dull guy, though. You asked me who the interesting personalities were. Mark was a brilliant man, and he was kind of fun to interview because he was so bright and you could have great discussions with him. But he certainly was not any kind of fascinating character as, for example, Al Davis is. It will be interesting to see, as a matter of fact, if the McCormack empire can survive the death of the king, or I guess I should say the emperor. And we don't know that, do we?

Is it possible that our appetite for sports is overstuffed but undernourished?

Deford: Yeah, I think that's fair. Obviously there's such a glut, and I think this is one of the reasons that young men — who we all know are the most elusive audience of all — have turned away from sports. Because if it's just out there all the time, there's no mystery to it anymore. And when something loses its mystery and its enticement, it loses its charm.

They used to say that there was a Tarzan movie playing somewhere in the world every moment of the day. Well, now there's a basketball game playing, not somewhere in the world but on your television set every moment of the day. After a while, I think it all sort of blurs together. And that's basically true with all sports.

It's so hard for anything to be special anymore. I really don't pay attention to anything until it gets to the championships. I can't keep it all together. I sort of watch it all with one eye. But the championships are the only thing that matter to me anymore. And God knows there are enough of them.

What's the worst thing about sports?

Deford: Drugs. Simple. End of story. You can go on and on and say the violence in sports, the ugliness that we hear and see in the stands now that we didn't use to. Athletic scholarships and the entire fraud that big-time college athletics are. You can go on and on, but indisputably the threat to sports today is drugs.

How do you assess the state of sportswriting today?

Deford: I think that there are more good sportswriters than there ever have been before. It's a much more respectable profession to go into. When I started, it was sort of like being a free-lance model. It wasn't something a gentleman was supposed to enter. There was, I hate to say this, a lot of corruption in sportswriting. If you were a sports editor and the boxing match came to town, the promoter would come over and grease your palm if he wanted to get some publicity.

So, sportswriting itself, in being more respected, has more good sportswriting. Unfortunately, we are more and more handmaidens of television. We're really not allowed to write a whole lot about things that don't appear on television. And there are just so damn many games that it takes up all the space. And so I think there are a lot of good sportswriters who unfortunately are not given a chance to write their best.

Any favorites?

Deford: Sportswriting is so local. I love Scott Ostler in San Francisco. But how often do I see his column? Twice a year, maybe?

You have written that radio and TV sports talk — babble, you called it — mostly rewards the loudmouths and the meanies.

Deford: I can't improve on that. And that's not to say that there aren't guys in the business who are honorable and fine journalists. Unfortunately, it's the guy who makes the most noise, who gets the most attention and says the most outlandish things who rules that market. And, by the way, that's not just true in sports talk. It tends to be true in political talk as well.

Who's the greatest competitor you've seen?

Deford: Bill Russell.

Sports Illustrated, NPR, HBO ... what's a typical day off like, assuming you do get a day off?

Deford: I write movies and books. This morning, I went and did my commentary for NPR. I've been working on a speech. I'm finishing up a movie. I'm very good at being able to compartmentalize myself.

Having said that, I'm not any kind of workaholic at all. I know when to stop and sit down with my wife and drink a bourbon or two. I go to the theater. And the main thing is, I don't play golf. It's amazing what you can do if you don't play golf.

In one of your columns you cite Socrates' belief that the two main keys to a young person's development are the fine arts and athletics.

Deford: Absolutely, and those are the first two things cut in school funding. More and more, they're cut because it's important for kids to take standardized tests. And they have to study for those standardized tests. I think that's one of the worst things about American education.

I'm the first one to scream about the overemphasis of big-time athletics. But to cut athletics at the elementary and the high school and junior high levels ... athletics teaches people to work together on a team. I think those things are so very vital.

The same thing with the fine arts, because the appreciation of music ... I can't hold a note and really don't understand music, and I'm not much better with art. But at least having had that background was one of the richest things that I learned. We just don't understand how shortsighted we are with these damn standardized tests, which teach everybody how to take multiple-choice questions and not to understand Michelangelo or Renoir or Beethoven. It's just insane.

Why does the NCAA care about where or how a college athlete — Jeremy Bloom, for example — makes money outside of college?

Deford: Because they want to control it. Simple as that. That's all the NCAA is about. It's about controlling athletics and athletes so that the colleges spend as little money as is necessary and make as much money as they possibly can. And once they allow a Jeremy Bloom to cross over that line, they've lost control. The NCAA, as far as I know, is the most successful, potent cartel in this country. And why it survives without any court challenges is beyond me.

And I've heard this, I promise you, the day I got into sportswriting, "The college presidents are going to take over. Don't you worry, once the college presidents take over, this is all gonna be straightened out." And they don't want anything to do with it, except to stand up every now and then and say they're going to take over and they're going to straighten this out. ... If anybody thinks college presidents are going to save college sports, they believe in the tooth fairy.

Look for more of this conversation in our sister publication, The Sports Business Daily, located at www.sportsbusinessdaily.com.

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