Deford Highlighted the Humanity of Sports

Deford Highlighted the Humanity of Sports
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Frank Deford’s biggest contribution to the world of sports was that he took sports seriously. To the scholarly Deford, who died earlier this week at the age of 78, sport was much more than journalism’s toy department. It was an important and impactful part of our culture.

“This (sports) is part of your life – it’s the second tier,” Deford once told NPR’s Tom Goldman. “The first tier is eating, drinking and procreation. The second tier is religion, the spirit, music, art and the physical. Sports. It deserves to have as much attention paid to it.”

Deford came out of Princeton and went straight to Sports Illustrated. He later became a commentator for CNN and NPR, along with performing duties as a correspondent for HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. He also was a prolific author and became the editor-in-chief for The National, America’s first daily sports newspaper.

In his long, distinguished career, Deford was never interested in turning athletes into heroes or icons, as many of the sportswriters and sports columnists did at the beginning of his career. Nor was he interested in being controversial for controversy’s sake, vilifying athletes for slight missteps, as many sports journalists do today.

Deford dug deep when exploring his subjects. He sought the truth in his essays, and he knew that when dealing with human beings the truth was always complex. He realized that sometimes sports figures are driven by their egos and sometimes by their souls – just like the rest of us mired in the human condition. Deford was a master at capturing that dichotomy in his writings. In fact, in some quarters, he became known as Frank DeFreud, for his uncanny ability to delve into the psyches of his subjects.

“A dedicated writer and storyteller, Mr. Deford has offered a consistent, compelling voice in print and on radio, reaching beyond scores and statistics to reveal the humanity woven into the games we love,” said President Barack Obama in presenting Deford with a National Humanities Medal in 2013 for “transforming how we think about sports.”

It’s worth noting that Deford had a small ego for being such a giant in his field. He treated everyone he knew with kindness and respect, no matter their title or status. I can personally vouch for that. Deford was nice enough to spend a lengthy amount of time doing a Q&A feature with me for League of Fans. He was patient and fully engaged throughout the interview.

Deford was an outlier in SportsWorld. He was one of the few progressive-thinking sportswriters and commentators in the heavily autocratic and militaristic field in which he worked. As but one example, he was a consistent voice for both equal opportunity in sports and for human rights outside of our games. Two of the people he admired the most in sports were Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King. He wrote often about their efforts in the pursuit of social justice.

Frank Deford was a good man who found his calling early in life and followed it passionately. As a result, he lived a life of great significance.

And we’re all the better for it.

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