Frank Deford on the state of sportswriting

Frank Deford is one of the most celebrated sportswriters in American history, but he admits to some concern about the present state of the trade that made him famous.

“The trouble is that people are not doing enough reporting today,” Deford said on the Dave Logan Show in advance of a trip to Denver later this week. To be fair, I had sort of led the witness, suggesting that amid the cacophony of voices in cyberspace these days, many sportswriters seem more inclined to self-promotion than journalism.

“They’re just offering their opinions,” Deford said. “And if somebody doesn’t do the reporting in the first place, then there’s nothing to offer opinions about, because you don’t know anything. That’s what scares me, not just about sportswriting, but journalism in general. If newspapers or whoever are not going to pay people to spend time really digging up facts, then we’re all going to suffer because we’re not going to get information, we’re just going to get people shooting their mouths off. And unfortunately, that happens all too often.”

Deford has been plying his trade at the highest level for fifty years, since joining Sports Illustrated straight out of Princeton in 1962. His career will be celebrated Friday night when the Denver Press Club presents him with its Damon Runyon Award, named for another legendary American sportswriter. The most recent of Deford’s eighteen books is a history of the craft: Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter. He will sign copies of the book at the Tattered Cover on East Colfax beginning at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

“The best break I ever got was I went to Sports Illustrated at the lowest level, as a researcher out of college,” he said. “But I had been at Princeton. As a senior, a freshman on the team, and in those days a freshman could not play on the varsity, (was) a guy named Bill Bradley. And nobody had ever heard of him. So I go to Sports Illustrated and I say, ‘You guys aren’t going to believe this, but the best sophomore in the country this coming year is a guy at Princeton.’ And they all laughed and said, ‘You’re just an old (Princeton) Tiger there.’

“Of course, I turned out to be right, and it made me look very, very smart. They gave me a chance to write a story on Bill, and he turned out to be even better than I had boasted. That was really my start. They paid attention to me after that. I’ve told Bill often that he’s responsible for my career.”

Among the changes to sportswriting over the half-century he’s practiced it is a dramatic reduction in the access to players writers enjoy.

“I was really lucky I came along when I did,” Deford said. “It was a long time ago, this was back in the 1960s, but I think it extended into the seventies and maybe even into the eighties, in which you could get to know athletes.

“First of all, there just weren’t as many journalists around, and secondly, the athletes, I think, were a little more willing to talk to you. They didn’t make as much money and they weren’t all hidden behind gated communities. They held real jobs in the offseason and they were like you; they weren’t making a whole lot more money than you, the writer. So there was a facility on their part to sit down and talk. They treated us like human beings. And I know there’s a lot of that that still goes around, but by the same token I think players now are a lot more wary of the press because they don’t know when they’re going to get burned. They don’t trust the press as much as they used to, and a lot of them have a real reason not to.”

Among a younger generation of sports fans, Deford may be better known these days as a correspondent for HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, where he’s been a regular since 1995.

“Being a TV journalist, the producers do all the work,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not supposed to say that. Scott Pelley and Steve Kroft and those guys of60 Minutes, everybody thinks they do everything, and you don’t. You get an awful lot of help. Whereas being a writer, you pretty much do everything yourself, (starting with) making your own plane reservations and getting places. You do get a lot more help and it’s a lot more collegial, being in television.

“I think the other thing is, as a writer, you have your opinion, which you can express much more. I think television, the visual, shows you and doesn’t give you the chance to expand the way that I did as a writer. I would not only write a story, but I would let people know how I felt about the person that I was writing about. I think you have a lot more leeway as a writer. And the guys who are doing it still do. So there’s no question there’s a difference. Both of them have their strengths.”

Unlike most TV work, where a two-and-a-half minute story is considered in-depth reporting. Real Sports allows Deford to be about as expansive as he was as a back-of-the-book takeout writer at SI.

“Writing’s still my first love,” he said. “But Real Sports does give you the opportunity that’s so seldom there on television. I mean, a segment on Real Sports is like a Dostoevsky novel compared to what you usually get on television. You have a real chance to do some stuff. I’ll always be a writer first, but I very much enjoy the time I spend on Real Sports, working with some very good people and doing the same thing, essentially. I’m telling stories. That’s it. That’s what people love and they have going back to the caveman days.”

Still, Deford is not altogether happy about the evolution of his original trade. I asked if he thought sportswriters today render athletes as completely as they once did, considering their more limited access.

“No, I don’t think so at all,” he said. “Back when I was doing it, and even as recently as maybe twenty-five years ago, you walk up to a guy and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to do a story on you.’ (And he’d say,) ‘Sure, let’s go.’  And have a cup of coffee, go out to dinner, whatever. You had the chance to talk to them, get to know them and really get to feel them.

“The players come along now, and let’s be honest, they sort of are born almost by the time they get to the major leagues, to know how to handle writers. It’s all very standardized. They’ve seen how athletes treat writers and treat guys on television. They give very, very standard answers, very careful answers. They don’t really let themselves be natural. And so it isn’t the writer’s fault so much. You’re so restricted.

“I can’t remember the first time that a P.R. guy ever sat down with me when I was interviewing an athlete, but it sure wasn’t the case for a long, long time. It was usually, sit on a plane, chat, have dinner, have a drink, chat, and really get to know somebody as a human being. And I think when that’s the case you feel so much more comfortable writing about someone because you have the confidence that you really know this guy. And if you don’t, you’re going to write a standard story with standard quotes. It’s a shame.”

You can find more information about Friday’s Damon Runyon Award banquethere. You can find more information on his book signing at the Tattered Coverhere.

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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