Deford is not about soundbites
Appeal Sports Writer
RENO – Standing 6-foot-4, Frank Deford would stand out in most any setting.
But it has been Deford’s ability to stand out with the written – and spoken – word that has drawn the 67-year-old sports writer the most attention.
Deford, who would later speak on sports and several other related topics Thursday night at Nightingale Concern Hall in the Church of Fine Arts Building at the University of Nevada, has six times been named Sportswriter of the Year and twice been named Magazine Writer of the year, among many other accomplishments.
But Deford, the senior contributing writer for Sports Illustrated, a novelist, author, reporter for HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, and commentator for National Public Radio, wasn’t out to talk about his laurels.
Although Deford would likely be conversant on most any topic, what he chose to talk about as he folded his long legs into Legacy Hall’s incredibly cramped plastic seats was a concern he expressed as the guest editor of the Best American Sports Writing of 1993, a self-explanatory collection of articles.
A man of many words, Deford wrote that newspapers – their numbers already dwindling – were doing away with longer “takeout” pieces and instead offering up immensely smaller, less substantive “sound bites” for articles.
It’s a trend, Deford said Thursday, that has only continued with the advent and omnipresence of the Internet.
“It’s not just in newspapers,” said Deford, who was an editor for the popular but quickly defunct National Sports Daily. “Even Sports Illustrated, which used to have a number of long articles, is a different magazine than it was even five or six years ago. There is a growing feeling – and I don’t agree with it – that we have to ‘dummy down’ and play up to the Internet audience. I wonder if SI is becoming a dot.com with its attitude toward the magazine.”
Whether it’s because people’s attention spans have grown shorter or that they don’t have the time or desire to read longer articles, long on to most any Web site – or read most any newspaper – and you won’t find many articles that require more than just a cursory read.
Deford says it all boils down to what passes for news these days.
“It’s all a response to ‘celebrity journalism,'” Deford said. “You have People and Us magazine for the new generation. People and Us and about four or five others. Then with SportsCenter, you have the same thing. My old buddy (Washington Post columnist) Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon have a show (Pardon the Interruption) that is basically a show on various stars.”
News? What news?
“You tune in to SportsCenter and they’re talking about (Dallas Cowboys wide receiver) Terrell Owens every day, all of the time,” said Deford, whom GQ magazine once called “the world’s greatest sportswriter.” “They kept talking about Owens and I thought, do we really care that much about this guy? Now it’s the Vince Young thing, with the (NFL) Draft coming up. There are games being played and all we get is celebrity journalism.”
In this technological day and age, when there is more – not less – news than ever, the newspaper industry, Deford said, is making all the wrong moves.
“I’ve seen papers downsizing,” Deford said. “That’s insane. That’s the death-knell. Give the people the kind of news that they want to pay that 50 cents and wait for that thud on the porch in the morning. If you’re all going to run the same stories with same box scores, what’s the point?”
Deford said the New York Times has stayed true to its past and is truly a national paper and that USA Today has improved recently, offering longer, more recondite articles, but the overall future for newspapers may not be a pretty one.
“In my job at the National Public Radio, they’re bringing in great journalists who were dropped by newspapers,” Deford said. “What we may end up with is a few really great newspapers and journalists, with the rest offering opinions as much as news.”
But for those in love with the printed word, have hope, he said.
“There will always be books,” said Deford, who just finished his 13th book, which is about an Hispanic baseball player. “I can’t imagine that they’d come in a different form. Reading a book on a computer would be hard on the eyes.”
And about as offensive to writing and reading purists as a roast pig at a party for vegetarians.
“To people brought up on the Internet, (reading books on a computer) might be as natural as turning a page,” he said. “But the book in whatever form won’t go away. We need books.”
Many would also argue that we need well written, longer, more substantive articles, much like Deford’s “The Boxer and the Blonde,” about former light heavyweight champion Billy Conn and his wife, Mary Louise.
Written in 1985, the article was reprinted in the Best American Sports Writing of the Century, and is about Conn and his first love. Although the article is one of – if not the best – of Deford’s many great articles, it’s also one that brings him the kind of pain only a writer can truly understand.
“I made the mistake of selling it to the movies,” Deford said with a grimace. “I knew it was a good story. I should have held onto it, but I took it to the movies. Hollywood made a screenplay – I should’ve stayed involved with it – that simply wasn’t that good. It got lost. Other people may want to do something with it, but the screenwriter who bought it has his money invested and wants to make money. It’s gone.”
While Deford said he sold it for a good chunk of change, his rueful recounting of going Hollywood is a good example that money isn’t everything, that good writing is indeed priceless, and that a good love story lasts a lifetime.
And, as ironic as having his heart broken by selling his article/love story to a business that makes its money making love stories is, some of Deford’s best work is collected on archive at http://www.si.com.
But don’t expect any of those articles to be “sound bites.” Pack a lunch, take your time and enjoy writing the way it was meant to be presented – informative, entertaining and with a lot of substance.