Frank Deford Still Loves The Game

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Frank Deford has no idea what Deadspin is. Before we started our interview, he asked a couple of times. "That's an interesting name for a sports site." Deford spoke to me last week because his novel, "The Entitled," a fictional morality tale about the modern-day athlete and the modern-day manager, is out in paperback. Needless to say, Deford's a Professional with a capital P and dutifully answered all of the questions.

But he shares some interesting insights about the state of sports writing, female sports writers, Anna Kournikova, and that author who wrote Friday Night Lights who started yelling on HBO.


DS: So, although this is a "fictional" book, is this a composite of the modern-day athlete?

Frank Deford: Absolutely. That's why I wrote it – to be representative of the modern athlete today. To follow that up, the characters are not based on any one person, they're very much part composite and part my own imagination.


DS: Do you think today's athletes get away with more stuff than they did 20 or 30 years ago?

FD: I don't think they "get away" with more stuff. That suggests that they're guilty. I think they do get away more with being celebrities more than they ever did before, they have less obligations than they ever did before — they feel that sense of entitlement more than they ever did before. They're above it all. That's the attitude. I think, actually, they may not get away with stuff like they did before. Nobody gets away things the way they used to. In this world today, everything is so carefully monitored, there's such a trail, so I don't think athletes get away with stuff more, but they feel like they're above it.


DS :Do you think that's symptomatic of the enormous salaries?

FD: Yeah, I think the money plays into it more than anything else. If you're given that much money, when you're that young, it just sets you apart. And when I started covering sports a long time ago in the 1960's, writers were making almost as much money as athletes. So they didn't have this sense that they were different – they thought they were lucky to be doing something that they loved, playing a game. Now, I think they feel "different." They feel blessed. They feel entitled.

DS: Do think that salary discrepancy affects the way the media covers the athletes? That there is this underlying resentment?


FD: I think that's probably true. I think it's human nature. Though oddly enough, we're now entering about the 20th year in which athletes are making huge sums of money. It jumped from 100,000 dollars, to hundreds of thousands of dollar to millions of dollars – so now we're entering a phase where we accept athletes and expect them to make that much money, so I don't think there's as much resentment now, even though they make more money now then there was a few years ago because it's the common nature of things. So journalists come into this profession understanding these athletes make so much money. I think there was that transisition period when both fans and journalists were resentful of athletes. I don't get the question so much anymore as I used to about salaries where before I used to get it all the time. I think that's probably indicative of the way people feel.

DS: Do you also think fandom has changed over the course of 20 years?

FD: I think in accepting the amount of money that athletes make, I think that fans accept that now. It's the nature of the beast, that's the way it is, so they understand it. All I think fans have changed – because the price of tickets has gone up so much – that they feel a certain sense of entitlement when they go to a game. You know? "I'm a big shot! I'm at the game now! I'm part of this!" And I think the fan behavior is worse, there's less civility in the stands, and, of course, fans feel like they know more now because everybody has an opinion with the way the media is today. It's not as separated as it was before – we've got the experts over here, the fans over here, now I think everybody feels like they know enough to be an expert.

DS: What do you think about the way journalism has changed? Do you feel a sense of sadness or do you think it has evolved positively?


FD: In so far as the writing is concerned, the kind of stuff that I did – and maybe I'm mourning my own early death – that there's not as much opportunity to write as there used to be. To write long pieces – or not even long pieces, to write stuff like the columns of Red Smith and people like that. They're different then what it is today. Everything today is based on x's and o's, inside baseball, it's all "who's gonna win?" or your comparing things – it's not as thoughtful as it used to be. For my taste, I liked it better the way that it was. But I'm afraid the public is fonder of it the way it is now. That's the reality and, of course, all of that has been changed by television first and then by the internet, you know, what you guys do.

DS: Have you felt pressured to adapt or have you just maintained?

FD: I think most people have to adapt and live, you know, that's it. It's the law of the jungle, and you wanna survive, you have to do what the market requires of you. Even I have accommodated myself. Look, a lot of the stuff I do now is on radio and television. When I started out, I was strictly a print guy. You either keep swimming, or you sink.

So, given that, do you like the stuff you do for HBO?


FD: Oh, I do like it. To compare writing an article for Sports Illustrated to doing a piece for "Real Sports", the article, it was all me. You know, I'm out there by myself with my pad and pencil. "Real Sports" I've got a producer, an assistant producer, and cameramen. It's an individual game versus a team game. So, I don't think I take as much pride of authorship as I do with an article, but apart from that, I'm very proud of the finished product.

DS: Do you question any of the amount of reporting that's been dedicated to certain topics in sports like, say, the Mitchell Report.

FD: Well, sometimes you disagree with the opinions of people, but I think the Mitchell Report was covered very carefully, I think people in sports took it very seriously, like I said, sometimes I disagree with the conclusions that people come to, but that's true whatever the subject is. I think there's more – and I have to be careful here because I'm one myself – I think there's more opinions than there is reporting. Every week on radio, on NPR, I'm offering opinions. So, I'm part of the problem! That's what I worry about, though, that journalism in general, as we see things being cut back…it's like that old expression, "opinions are like assholes, everybody's got one" and all you're seeing now is assholes. And the wonderful investigative work, the long, long articles that people wrote that took a lot of time, that's the stuff that's gone by the wayside.

DS: And as a younger journalist coming up in this industry, there's probably not many writers people can look at now and say, "Yeah, I want to be like that guy" and…


FD: I was never an investigative reporter…but, god, you absolutely need them to keep this world straight. And those are the kind of people that we are losing. They used to give me six weeks or two months to do a piece for Sports Illustrated and I don't think that kind of luxury exists so much anymore.

DS: But don't you think that since we're in a rumor-driven, gossip-driven society that the public…


FD: Absolutely! Absolutely! That's …

DS: Hold on one you think that because we exist in that society that would be more suspicious of any kind of investigative reporting because there will always be another reporter whose job is solely to punch holes in that story?


FD: Yes, yeah. You just said it, it's gossip-based writing, and celebrity-based, and personality-based. I mean, look at the coverage of the presidential campaign? It's not even that focused on the issues, it's about personality, or strategy…it's like sports. It's not what are they standing for…it's how are they doing? How's the game going? Everything is a sport now. You pick up the newspaper and you don't read reviews about movies, you read how well they did at the box office. So, it's always a question of the game, rather than the substance.

DS: So, have you had any desire to get out of the business because of that environment, or do you feel at this point you'll just continue to do what you do and if people like it, "great", if not, well…

FD: It does force certain people out, people who can't make those type of …I don't know what would've happened to me if this had taken place 20 years ago. This is the end of my career, rather than the middle of my career. SO it's scary… I know it's forced people out who didn't have the tools to adjust.


DS: Interesting. Well, let me ask you this, when you wrote the Anna Kournikova piece for Sports Illustrated you got a lot of crap for that. Do you think that was symptomatic of the ….

FD: What? I'm sorry, C.J.(sic), this is the one time I didn't hear you correctly…


DS: The reaction to that column…

FD: What column?

DS: Anna Kournikova...?

FD: Oh! Anna Kournikova, oh my god… that was to be predicted because… well, first that was a very legitimate story. Totally legitimate story. You had somebody who was the most popular athlete in the world, it was the first time you had an athlete that was accepted as the sex symbol in the world, it was a , and you never had anything like that before, it was a perfectly legitimate story. But…women don't like that kind of thing. Women sports writers in particular. It's okay to write about male characters, right? But you can't write about female characters, it's a different sort of standard. So, I was not at all surprised at some of the reaction, but I was surprised at some of the vehemence, I mean, some of it I felt was over the top. But, the idea that you're supposed to do a story on the #1 tennis player and then after that you're supposed to do a story on the #2 tennis player, and then you're supposed to a story on the #3 tennis player and so on down the line is crap. In journalism you're supposed to focus on interesting people. And Anna Kournikova was in no way the best player – she was better than most people gave her credit for – but she was the most interesting! And to me, that was a perfectly valid story. No more so than any other story I've done on someone who wasn't the best player, but who was the most interesting.


DS: Do you think that if you had written that story, say, 20 years ago do you think it would result in the same reaction?

FD: Same reaction.

DS: Really?

Oh yeah. Because women sports writers have very little sense of humor. And they look upon women in sports with out any kind of freedom. It's like mathematics: you're supposed to look at is a science and not as entertainment. And that would've been the case 20 years ago. It's the same way if you do a story on a small sport, okay? You're going to get more criticism if you're critical about a small sport. If you do critical story on football, football fans don't rise up. If you do a story on soccer, say, and you're critical? Soccer fans get very defensive. It's the same way with women in sports. They get very, very defensive if anybody writes anything that's at all critical of women's sports. Ironically, I'm someone who's stood up for women's sports through the years, been a total defender of Title 9 against all the men who screamed about it, but that didn't cut me any slack. And here I was writing about "booties" as opposed to athleticism and that's a sin. You can't do that.


DS: Well the column kind of veers off into this territory where it's not only that you're writing about her being pretty, it's about how she's sexualized in a way that certain female athletes hadn't been at that point. So once you start talking about her and her beauty – and being positive about it and what her beauty brings to the game, I think that's where people get defensive. You know, is this guy just trying to be a dirty old man and generate some outside interest in this story.

FD: If I had been the one that said Anna Kournikova was pretty, it would've been one thing. But I was responding to the public taste. At that time she was getting more hits on her website or whatever it is, than anybody in the world. So, it wasn't me standing up as the dirty old man, it was me standing up as an observer and saying "this is fascinating" that an athlete is getting this kind of attention for her pulchritude. That's never happened before! That was a very legitimate story. It's not like I was a dirty old man at all, I thought I was a damn good reporter on the subject.


DS: Getting back to what you said about female sports writers, do you think they always have to stand up for themselves in instances like this, even if it's an overreaction, because they're in a minority?

FD: I think that anybody that's in a minority is always going to be more sensitive. I understand that. It does not surprise me. I'm someone who is very blessed – I'm a white male. I'm in the majority. So it's very unlikely that anybody would hurt me in attacking me. If they attack me personally, that's one thing, but as a white male, I don't possess that kind of sensitivity and that's understandable. So I do think that women writers in general are going to be more sensitive about gender issues than men are.


You look at the recent issue with the Chicago White Sox. And I don't know exactly what was going on the way they were explaining it and exactly what it was that was so horrifying, but it was, as I understand, a woman sports reporter who wrote about it first and who was upset.


DS: I think it was actually a Chicago sports columnist – a male sports columnist who originally brought it up and questioned it, but I think it was a woman who did a column to further explain why it was wrong.

FD: Exactly, I think the same way an African-American writer would have his ears up listening for something racial. I understand that. That's perfectly to be expected. What happened with Anna Kournikova, even though I thought some of it was over the top, was expected and I was not the least bit surprised.


DS: Now is there one issue in sports right now that you feel is not being covered enough?

FD: Hmm. That's interesting. I can't think of anything off the top of my head. I think certainly if you asked me that a few years ago we could've talked about drugs, couldn't we?


DS: Of course.

FD: I think one issue that gets some attention but not enough is the physical abuse that football players take. I think football clearly does more damage to the body than we want to admit. And it comes up now and then, it's not like we avoid it, but I think we just pretend that just because these guys are wearing helmets and shoulder pads that they're not as hurt over the long period as much as they are. Apart from that I can't think of anything else. It's a rather dull time in sports, sports was much more interesting a few years ago when you had new franchises, and teams jumping around, and strikes, and when you had women breaking into sports for the first time. Right now it's in a very stable period. Everybody's making a lot of money and there's not a whole lot of controversy.


DS: At the same time, though, with the majority of sports headlines making national news being negative stuff, like steroids, etc…

FD: Well, that's always the case. When something goes wrong, you know, sports aren't going to make the front pages when everything is hunky-dory. Sure, if Big Brown wins the Belmont that's going to get on the front page, if Danica Patrick wins the Indy 500, that's going to make the front page, but by and large, it's issues that get on the front page and issues are negative. Im just speaking relatively , there's always going to be negative things in sports, but I'm saying sports are not as interesting today as it was in the past.


Oh, here's another thing that doesn't get covered enough is the whole business of college sports. It's so fake. Such a sham. And I understand it, that you can't bay at the moon, and we've all come to accept college sports as a shame. We accept it. I understand you can't write about it, day after day after day, but it's a subject that should warrant our attention more than it does.

DS: Well, I think the O.J. Mayo case and USC in general will probably shed a little more light on some of those issues, at least in how it's presented.


FD: But I think besides the money aspect of it, I'm talking more about the academics, that we all know that so many of these athletes aren't really going to class, aren't graduating, aren't remaining eligible in any true way because that's so hard to discover, then something like O.J. Mayo pops up and we pay attention to it. We've come to accept it, the same way we accept that football players are killing themselves.

DS: But what could a writer possibly do to change those things?

FD: I'm not really sure, but it requires writers and members of the media being more vigilant and not accepting the status quo. After all, we're supposed to first of all cover the games. And there are so many people who come into this profession that aren't anxious and don't want to tip rocks over. They just want to cover the game. Again, there's the tendency to just cover the x's and o's, who's going to get drafted, we by and large pay attention to the good stuff.


But also at the same time, getting back to what you were saying before, a lot of these beat writers can't look into these types of issues and risk being shut out.

Well, that's always been the case. Any reporter knows that if he's causing trouble, he's risking his access. And when you go into this profession those are the decisions you have to make as to what you want to deal with, if you want people to be mad at you, well, they're probably not going to be willing to talk to you. On the other hand, there are a tremendous number of writers – and not just in sports – who people come to accept as the best in their profession even though they may be critical sometimes. You earn that respect over time just by simply doing a good job. It's the best people that uncover the truth.


DS: At what point in your career do you think you earned that respect?

FD: I don't know, I can't put a year figure on it. I think it depends on how small the universe is that you're writing about. It takes a while but I couldn't tell you how long it takes.


DS:Well, at what point in your career did you reach a level higher than you'd originally aspired?

FD: I'd say 10 years into it I'd felt I'd reached the top. It's just a round figure, but I think after ten years, I'd achieved a certain position of eminence. And I was very lucky, given the fact that I was working for the only weekly national sports magazine at the time that gave me an opportunity to be accepted easier than those who were working for a small or medium-sized newspaper. It wasn't all me, it was me being lucky where I was. Someone working at the New York Times has the potential to earn that kind of respect faster than someone at the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette – that's just the reality.


DS: So, you've never heard of Deadspin?

FD: I probably did, I don't remember.

DS: But did you at least hear about the Costas special that was on a few weeks ago?


FD: Yeah I did see that, I was on the road at the time, but I did see that yes.

DS: Well, Deadspin was the site that was featured on that segment that got Buzz Bissinger all mad…


FD: Oh, the guy that Bissinger took after was the fella from Deadspin? Oh, okay, heh-heh. Well, he contained himself very well, I though in the face of that storm, he contained himself. I spent an evening with Bissinger once, I had no idea that he, heh-heh, could get so worked up.

DS: Well, he's very passionate about this subject in particular I think.

FD: Yeah, somebody was telling me a guy on the radio was asking him a couple of questions and he blew his top then, but I've always seen Bissinger as a very civil and very restrained human being, but he was obviously very emotional about this topic. And he said he was very emotional about this topic and he proved it, didn't he?


DS:Could you see his point in anything he was saying?

FD: Oh, sure, I took to his points well. Now, he was talking about blogs in general, now I don't know the guy that he screamed at, so I can't talk about him, but a tremendous number of blogs are very poorly written. Listen, a lot of articles in newspapers are poorly written too, but there is a higher percentage of poorly written blogs than there is newspapers. I think we remember Bissinger's antics more than we remember his points and I think he had some good points to make.

DS: Yeah, he probably did. But what do you think of his one point about printing pictures of drunk athletes and what not, that they're goal is only to humiliate the person.


FD: I think there's some truth to that as well, but look…I don't know much about this at all, we're getting off track here. My point is that there's always been sensationalist press. I remember the last year the New York Post printed a picture of Rodriguez walking into a hotel room with his girlfriend in…in..

DS: Toronto.

FD: Toronto! Right. I think that's fair game. If he was going to flaunt that sort of thing, then he was asking for it. Again, it's a fine line, and there will be other people who will say, no, no, no…it's his private life and stay out of it. So everybody draws a line differently here. But I do think you should be responsible and not always playing the game of Gotcha. It's easy to play the game of Gotcha, particularly with young me, which is what athletes are. And I think that some of the stuff that's been done, to take another example, to Brittany Spears has been indescribably abusive and unfair. So, where do you draw the line? Yes, she's a public figure but we ought to be more responsible and draw the line. Where it's drawn has to be decided in each individual case.


DS: Well, what about Roger Clemens and the way he's being treated by the New York Daily News?

FD: Aw, Clemens asked for it. Clemens asked for it. He's a classic case If anybody wants to throw a pie in Roger Clemens' face they have a right to because he stuck his chin out. So I have no sympathy for Roger Clemens whatsoever.


DS: Did you ever meet him?

FD: No, I never have met him, but it wouldn't make any difference. Not only did he demand the hearing Washington, he put a defamation suit against somebody else. He threw his wife under the bus. He has, as far as I can tell, acted completely irresponsibly and so I have no sympathy for any criticism that comes to Roger Clemens.