Over Time: My Life As a Sportswriter

Jun 21, 2012

Author: Frank Deford

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press

Pages: 354

Price: $25.00

Although he has also had a long career in print journalism and on the television show “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” and has written 7 previous volumes of nonfiction and 10 novels, Frank Deford is best known to listeners of public radio as a columnist on “Morning Edition.” Indeed he has been delivering his frank, often controversial, commentaries for more than 30 years, since 1979. He was recruited, oddly enough, by Ketzel Levine, the titular sports director for a network that did not actually cover sports.

Levine went on to become well-known as a gardening expert.

Deford kept on and has now delivered more than 1,500 commentaries. He has been accused of pomposity but insists that anyone actually offering opinions these days is likely to sound pompous. He denies ranting, while admitting he might sound cockeyed or disagreeable.

In “Over Time” Deford doesn’t do his usual rant about big-time college football and men’s basketball; he simply announces his conclusions, that these sports are “a complete fraud, a fountain of deceit” and the last bastion of hypocrisy. Even the Olympics have decided to admit professional athletes. He mentions almost in passing that “Shameful amateur servitude still exists only in the United States, in college football and basketball, where coaches make millions and colleges make millions and television makes millions and sportswriters make a good living… and the players make nothing except on the cheat.”

Deford also insists that Americans never will join the rest of the globe in being mad for soccer. In fact, he says, soccer matters entirely too much in many countries. Since they don’t have five other sports to turn to, there is a nationwide depression if their team loses.

No worries here though. Even though American kids are raised by soccer moms, as soon as they reach the age of free will they abandon that sport and take up a sport in which they are allowed to use their hands, “those most exquisite, divinely human instruments that God gave us to separate us from the beasts of the field.”

Aside from all these opinions, this is also the story of Deford’s life and of the changes in sports and sportswriting in America in the last 60 years.

He was raised in Baltimore, started Princeton in 1957, where he played basketball, and spent most of his career with “Sports Illustrated.”

Several chapters describe the 60’s at “Timeink,” an environment recently depicted on TV in “Mad Men”: lots of drinking and camaraderie. His career at “Sports Illustrated” got off to a great start when he was able to predict successfully that an unknown fellow Princetonian, Bill Bradley, would be a huge star, and followed that up with the first story on Bobby Orr, the great Boston Bruins defenseman. Deford was hailed as more than a keen observer; he was a seer.

Deford does spend a little time castigating people he met along the way that he really dislikes. These include the boxing promoter Don King and the comic Rodney Dangerfield, with whom Deford did TV beer commercials.

Deford laments that Wilt Chamberlain undid himself by writing that he had slept with 20,000 different women.

Among the sportswriting community Deford praises Grantland Rice, Ring Lardner, Mark Kram, Dan Jenkins, Red Barber and many others.

But Deford believes the whole profession is in decline. Sportswriters used to write about the game. Now fans have seen it live on TV or in highlights and had it analyzed for them right afterwards. So writers write about the players, personalities and other “exotica.” And the players have become increasingly wary. Some are flawed humans; others are real role models.

Among a host of personalities he has known, one stands out for special admiration. His friend the tennis champion Arthur Ashe, who contracted HIV-AIDS from a blood transfusion, was, Deford insists, one of the best-natured, bravest, most talented, human beings who ever lived: “No athlete was ever so mourned.”