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Frank Deford on the Issues

A League of Fans Special Feature

Frank Deford is an author of eighteen books, a long-time commentator on NPR’s Morning Edition, Senior Correspondent on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, and Senior Contributing Writer for Sports Illustrated.

His latest book is Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter, a wide-ranging, informative, entertaining, and often moving memoir. Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins called it “a wonderful book … both a treasure and a treasury.”

Deford is a member of the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame and six times has been voted by his peers Sportswriter of the Year. He has written several highly-acclaimed historical novels on a variety of subjects. In addition, two of his books – the novel Everybody’s All-American, and Alex: The Life of a Child, his memoir about his daughter who died of cystic fibrosis – have been made into movies. Two of his original screenplays — Trading Hearts and Four Minutes – have also been filmed.

The American Journalism Review cited him as the nation’s finest sportswriter. The magazine GQ went a step further and called Deford “the world’s greatest sportswriter.” Author Buzz Bissinger simply said, “Frank Deford is the best there is.”

Ken Reed, League of Fans’ sports policy director, recently interviewed Deford.

Ken Reed: What do you think is the biggest issue in sports today?

Frank Deford: I think drugs. Performance-enhancing drugs. They’re a threat to every sport. I don’t think there’s any issue that’s as all-embracing as performance-enhancing drugs. It crosses all sports, men and women, all across the world.

It affects not only sports, but also peoples’ attitudes toward sports. It ripples out from the very use of the drugs to the point where people begin to get dispirited about sports, very suspicious and cynical.

People are always going to look for an edge and that edge is obviously going to be in the direction of drugs because they’re so hard to detect. But I think we have to remain diligent in the fight against drugs. Because if we don’t it simply becomes a situation where whoever has the best pharmacy becomes the champion.

“I’ve got a better pharmacy than you therefore I’m the champion,” which essentially is what Lance Armstrong was all about.

Reed: You were one of the first sportswriters to give significant attention to women’s sports and the issues of the day in that area. What motivated you to do that?

Deford: I always give credit to Billie Jean King for that. She did a lot of consciousness-raising with me. I was lucky that I was covering tennis when she came along because otherwise I might not have had my eyes opened quite so soon. I came to the conclusion that what she was saying was correct and women should have the same opportunities as men. It was simply an equal opportunity issue.

Not too along ago, she said, “Frank got it.” It was one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received. A lot of guys didn’t get it. But I give her more credit than I do myself. And there’s no question that in my lifetime in sports the single most important change has been women in sports. There’s no question.

Reed: Could you compare and contrast the impact Jackie Robinson and Billie Jean King had on our nation?

Deford: The impact of both was considerable. I’ll go at this two different ways. Number one, there are more women than black people, right? So, in that sense Billie Jean had a greater impact. But there are a whole lot more people aware of baseball than tennis. So, in that sense Robinson had a greater impact.

Also, Robinson was in a team game. Joe Louis had preceded him; as did Jesse Owens and other great black athletes in individual sports. But being in a team game has a special social significance. In the minds of fans, Robinson wore my city’s name, Brooklyn, across his uniform. Billie Jean was just playing for Billie Jean, just like other tennis players. But the fact that all of a sudden a black guy was representing me, my city, that is a huge impact. Playing for a team is very crucial in making a distinction between the two.

I think the impact that Billie Jean had is more of a rolling kind of thunder. It wasn’t like all of a sudden women could now play. It was what she professed, what she signified, all of that led to the advances for women in sports.

So, the impact of Robinson was very dramatic, the impact of Billie Jean was much more of an incremental impression.

Reed: You’ve written about what a sham college sports are – at least at the big-time Division I level. Do you think they can be fixed?

Deford: They can’t be fixed in the sense that they can be reduced to the level they should be, a level which they are at in every other country in the world. College sports are overemphasized here. It’s part of our culture to overemphasize not only college sports but high school sports as well. It’s just American, and that’s never going to change.

Now, we can talk about the specific issue of amateurism. I think that will be changed. There’s a time coming when football and basketball players in Division I will be paid and paid substantially. I don’t know how long it’s going to take but I’m sure its coming. I can sense the mood change. People used to be horrified at the idea.

If you go back 50 years or so, there were all kinds of sports around the world that were so called “amateur.” Skiing was amateur, rugby was amateur, tennis was amateur, swimming was amateur, track and field was amateur. All of those were amateur — and I might have missed a couple others, too. And the Olympics as a whole were amateur. All of those sports have changed.

The only place left in the world where athletes are forced to be amateurs, in sports where there is big money, is in the United States in college football and basketball. Nowhere else. That’s it. Wherever there’s big money, the athletes are paid except in college football and basketball in the United States of America.

Coaches are making $5 million a year, assistant coaches are making up to $1 million a year, and athletic directors are making big money. The TV money’s just being thrown around, to everyone but the players that is. Everybody makes money — including sports journalists, people like myself — off of these kids, many of whom, as a matter of fact, come from very poor circumstances.

Reed: In a recent commentary on NPR, you touched on the problem of screaming and abusive adults in youth sports. You suggested we need more kindness in youth sports. Can you elaborate on that?

Deford: I always use the example of a director of a youth play, or the head of an orchestra. The director of a play isn’t going to say to a kid, “You dumb SOB, you blew your line!”

I think there are certainly limits to the military approach to coaching — and those limits are even lower when it comes to youth sports. Just because you can say and do certain things to grownups in this society doesn’t give you the license to be able to say and do those things to children simply because you happen to be a football coach.

Reed: You’ve called for a ban on fighting in the NHL. Given all the research that’s come out in the last couple years on concussions and brain trauma in sports, banning fighting would seem like a clear step to take. Yet, the NHL continues to resist this move. Why do you think that is?

Deford: They’ve said it. They believe their fans like it. And that’s the end of the story.

Now, hockey without fighting seems to do pretty well outside of the NHL. Hockey’s very popular in Europe where they don’t allow that stuff. In the international game, the Olympics, for example, they don’t allow fighting.

I think it’s inexcusable. But the NHL feels that’s what the people want to see and that’s what they’re going to give them. The fact that certain players are designated as fighters, as goons, makes it even worse. That goes against every ethic of sport.

It’s 19th century stuff for the league to allow it. I’m surprised there hasn’t been more legal action. At a certain point it becomes assault and battery. Anywhere else in society you can’t start fights. I don’t understand how the NHL seems to be able to avoid the law of the land.

Reed: Following up on the issue of brain trauma in sports, is there anyway to save football other than going to the flag version of the game?

Deford: My feeling is that football is so ingrained in the American culture that the sport is never going to be banned or anything like that. They’ll tinker with it around the edges and that’s about it.

Now, I’m talking about the NFL here. But I do believe that at a certain point, some lower league will say, “Why are we playing football?”

For example, at some point I think the Ivy League will say, “Why are we playing football? Except for Harvard-Yale we average about 4,000 – 5,000 fans a game. It’s not like the alumni are crazy for the sport. It’s the most expensive sport we’ve got. There’s no female analog to it so it complicates everything about Title IX. On top of that, these allegedly very bright people that we accept into our schools are risking their brains. Why are we still doing it?”

So, I think the Ivy League, or some other lower college league, will just abolish football at some point.

In other words, I think there’s going to be change from the bottom up. Maybe that’s first going to come from some public school league, particularly in hard economic times. Somebody’s going to sue and people are going to say this isn’t worth it.

The NFL will continue to survive, and football’s not going to go away at the University of Alabama or the University of Oklahoma. Big-time football will survive. There will be changes made but if you change it too much it isn’t football.

The feeling used to be that if you just make the helmets better things would be okay. But you can’t make the helmets better. The helmet doesn’t protect the brain, it protects the skull. The reality is, the more efficient you make the helmets, the more dangerous they become for the people wearing them.

I believe that over time a lot of high schools and colleges will drop football. I’m waiting for that first shoe to drop. The game will survive because it’s so popular, but eventually the middle classes won’t play it. It will be a lot like boxing.

Football will eventually reach a point like smoking where it no longer can be justified.

Reed: What are your thoughts on sports welfare, i.e., taxpayers financing new sports palaces for wealthy sports franchise owners?

Deford: Well, I do think there’s a difference between number one, indoor arenas, number two baseball stadiums, and number three football stadiums. I think it’s totally unjustified for taxpayers to build a 100,000-seat football stadium, which is used maybe 12 times a year, if you include a concert or two in addition to the football games. I think that’s the hardest thing to justify.

I think a baseball stadium, that’s used almost 100 times a year, may be justified. It would depend on the city’s economic situation, how much the owner is going to pay, etc. But it may be justified for the city to put up 20-25% of the cost of a baseball stadium – based on the crowds the stadium brings in. I think you can at least listen to the argument for some public financing when it comes to baseball stadiums.

Now, indoor arenas are an entirely different thing, because arenas not only have sporting events but so many other events that appeal to the broad population — circuses, ice shows, concerts, rodeos, you name it. I look upon these arenas as almost old-fashioned community halls. I think you can justify arenas, in the sense of the community aspect.

Arenas can be a good thing for communities — if you have fair leases. It shouldn’t be “Okay, Mr. NBA Owner, we’re going to give you an arena.” I think arenas can be justified but it shouldn’t be a giveaway.

Reed: Would the community ownership model of pro sports franchise ownership, e.g., the Green Bay Packers ownership structure, solve a lot of the problems in pro sports in terms of pro sports franchises holding communities hostage for new stadiums, etc.?

Deford: I think it’s very idealistic. However, in concept, if the community owned the franchise it would help. Nobody says we’re going to take the Cleveland Symphony and move it to Portland, Oregon but that’s what happens in sports. I think it’s a fine idea but you can’t even do it in the NFL anymore. It’s not allowed in their bylaws. But the option should be available. I think it’s a wonderful idea and I think people would be delighted with that option. It probably would work better than the system we’ve got but it ain’t going to happen.

Reed: You touch on your relationship with Jimmy the Greek in your new memoir Over Time. He was probably the one person most responsible for taking sports gambling mainstream. What are your thoughts on the possibility of legalized sports gambling in the United States?

Deford: I don’t understand how one state (Nevada) can be granted a license to do something (sports wagering) that the other 49 states can’t do. I’ve asked a couple lawyers if they can think of anything similar and they can’t think of anything like that. It would be like if only Georgia could grow peaches.

It’s financially ridiculous for the United States not to allow sports gambling because all it’s doing is sending the money offshore. The amount of online gambling is amazing.

The reality is that gambling is here to stay. States already can have lotteries and horse racing. How the federal government can accept the argument from the pro sports leagues and NCAA that somehow illegal gambling is okay but legal gambling isn’t makes no sense to me. New Jersey seems determined to fight the law that only Nevada can have sports betting. So, obviously it’s going to be played out in the courts.

I just don’t see how you can run a society by saying it’s okay to have lotteries, it’s okay to have casinos, it’s okay to have this particular form of gambling, whatever it is, but only in the state of Nevada can you bet on sports.

I’m very much a realist when it comes to gambling. I’ve been in London so many times where betting on sports is legal, and having sports betting parlors doesn’t seem to be destroying the British civilization there.

Reed: There’s a moving story in your book about your trip to South Africa with Arthur Ashe. Could you talk about Ashe’s legacy?

Deford: Arthur Ashe did so many good things, thoughtful things, bold things. Fighting for players’ rights among other things while he was a player. Fighting for human rights outside of sport. I think he was always recognized as the ultimate gentleman. Everyone thought Arthur Ashe was a sportsman and that we should all play the game the way Arthur Ashe did. And I think people thought, “Gee I wish all athletes were as bright and caring and curious as Arthur Ashe.”

He was simply the ideal of a great mind in a great body.

Reed: What do you think the future of sports journalism is?

Deford: I think it’s the same as journalism in general. I don’t think sports journalism is any different than any other kind of journalism. The Internet is going to have the same kind of effect on sports journalism that it will on all aspects of journalism. I think we already see more short stories, more numbers, less investigative journalism.

The Internet is probably the most important thing to impact journalism since Mr. Gutenberg invented the printing press. I don’t think any of us know yet how it’s going to play out. All I know is that people are fans and there will continue to be sports journalism. It’s not like we’re going to run out of sports journalism. In fact, we’re going to have more and more outlets. We already have all the bloggers, tweeters, sports talk shows and websites devoted to sports.

Reed: Do you think the sports media in general today does enough on the social, cultural, and economic aspect of sports?

Deford: No, it does not. I think that’s one of the things that has been lost. I don’t think there’s any question. The big picture has been lost in sports. For the last year, I’ve cited the example of Taylor Branch’s wonderful story in The Atlantic about the NCAA. That was an excellent piece of journalism. It’s interesting, here comes a guy who has nothing really to do with sports journalism, he writes this great piece, and yet nobody’s followed up on that work.

The answer is that people are interested in the games. They’re not interested in the rest. With the fragmentation of the media today you have very few big newspapers and big magazines that have the money to go after the big issues. Nevertheless, the answer is sports media is not doing a good job in covering off-the-field issues. Not enough people are doing investigative sports journalism today.

Reed: Do you see any way we can mitigate the influence of win-at-all-costs and profit-at-all-costs ethos in sports today?

Deford: I can’t see any way these things are going to be mitigated because there is more money in sports today than ever before. It’s a bigger and bigger enterprise.

We started this conversation talking about drugs being the biggest issue in sports today. Using performance-enhancing drugs is the classic win-at-all-costs example.

I don’t want to be pessimistic but I can’t see how the situation in terms of win-at-all-costs and profit-at-all-costs is going to change much.

The good news is that discrimination against certain races, and against women, has to a large degree been knocked down. There’s more opportunity in sports than ever before. I do think we can say that.

And the mere fact that the United States used to completely dominate international competitions, besides soccer, isn’t true anymore. There are facilities, trainers and expertise around the world now. So, sport is a much fairer enterprise than it ever was before. If you’re good in sports, whoever you are, wherever you are, you’ve got a much better chance to succeed at it today. I really do believe that. Merit will rise to the top in sports. That’s one of the allures of sports. And it was less true 50 years ago.

Reed: America has been called a sports-crazed country. However, in reality, we’re a nation of sports-crazed fans, not participants. Our level of adult sports participation is actually quite a bit lower than many other countries. This is particularly troublesome given the obesity epidemic in this country. Do you think our sports media should cover participatory sports more?

Deford: No, I’m sorry, I just don’t think anyone would read about it. We don’t cover people doing ordinary things. Who wants to read about it?

Now, the decline in physical education, recess, and intramural sports in schools is awful. The citizenry should be concerned about that. That’s not necessarily a sports page issue though. That’s more of a cultural issue. I think that’s up to the editorial pages. It’s going to get lost in the sports pages. In fact, let’s get it off the sports page. If it’s going to have any effect at all it’s got to be in the general interest areas of newspapers, in general interest magazines. It’s got to be on the six o’clock news. That’s where it’s got to be, not tucked into the sports area, because nobody’s going to pay any attention to it there.

Reed: Looking back, what’s been your most rewarding article, book, column, or commentary in your career?

Deford: Nothing in sports would compare with the book I wrote about my daughter who died of cystic fibrosis. Everything else is a distant second. I wish I could say “Well, there was this sports article, or that sports article.” There are some that are my favorites, pieces I think were the best written … and had the best storytelling. But in so far as being important to me, the book I did about my daughter is just way out in front.

(Note: Deford’s book about his daughter is entitled Alex: The Life of a Child)

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