Remembering Frank Deford, For Better And Worse

The late legend really was one of the best sportswriters we've ever seen. He was also both worse and better than he's remembered for being.
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Fuck me, but did Frank Deford always have the absolute best ledes. Little jewels of things, a smart paragraph capping the page like a crown, which made Deford, naturally, the King. These were all purple velvet and ermine, names and places, sapphires, rubies, emeralds, actions, details, bon mots, pearls, and hiding there, the most savagely barbed hook you never did see, not until it had bypassed the eyes and cheeks and lodged itself right there in the reader’s brain, dragging any reader easily along with. They should be hung in art museums, dissected in a surgical theater while all the ink stained, novel-in-their-desk-drawers, First Amendment thumping j-school votaries watch. 

I'll be honest: my idea was to try and open this obituary/essay/hagiography with some sort of similar lede. I went rooting in the ol' rutabaga, trying desperately to find a similarly smart and sexy and informative-yet-somehow-opaque opener—and that was another neat Deford trick, his ability to kick off a magazine feature in media res. I wanted an homage, and I soon realized that I could not do it. 

Even if I could have come close, which again I could not, it would've been more akin to swinging at the champ than showing him respect, and that's how you get clocked. I could pepper in some examples, too, but I don't want to transmute my words to scribble so baldly as that, instead imploring you instead to click here or here or here.

What's funny is that, for my entire brief career writing about sports and other things, I've been trying to write ledes like Frank Deford, even before I had ever read a Frank Deford lede. He was the embodiment of what a certain type of journalism could be, like Lardner, Cannon, Wolfe, Didion, Thompson—I'm sorry there aren't more women or, you know, anyone who wasn't a white guy on this list; no one even let them try for so long, and to think of what bylines and beautiful sentences could have existed can drive one to tears. These are the kinds of writers who elevated nonfiction writing towards art, and so they are the ones that anyone would naturally want to emulate.

What’s more, Deford knew sports was the place to do so. In his memoir Over Time, Deford makes mention of how the Time folks just could not wrap their heads around a job candidate—replete with Princeton “affiliation,” as he called it—wanting not to write for Time or Fortune but Sports Illustrated. The fucking Toy Department! But Deford admired the writing in SI, and his spurring of the money-makers at Timeink made him very attractive indeed to a then-floundering sports mag.

You can, and should, read Over Time for any more details then this. There are funny anecdotes and sausage-making sections, of course, and more importantly Deford's grappling with the sexual and racial policies of the time his writing first came of age, the tumultuous 1960s and ’70s. But he can obviously tell you all of that better than I can.

What I want to get across is more about who Frank Deford was on the page, and why you should give a fuck about some old dead white guy now, just when we are finally getting around to ending their attention monopoly. For me, those reasons are simple and two-fold. One, because sports matter and therefore sportswriting matters, and because Deford was one of the best who has ever done it. And two, because the man was downright prescient in his assessment of the sporting—and, in turn, the entirety—media and its future. Everyone who cares about sportswriting and its future could stand to hear it today.

***

When people ask me why I write about sports, instead of some or any other thing, I tell them this: when it comes to social constructs—the membranes and ligaments which hold groups of people together, the bonding agents not visible on a map or in a flag, things that tie us together socially, not politically—there are only three which can rightfully claim true and enduring power: religion, war, and sport.

Those three social constructs reach, bring together, and separate more people than art or music or movies (both so close!) or literature or whatever else is generally deemed “more important” than sport.

And so, should not our writers who cover so important a social construct be admired and examined with the love and seriousness commensurate with what they cover? All of which is a long way of saying, sport matters, sportswriting matters, and Frank Deford was a fantastic sportswriter. His writing matters, and so does he.

And what fucking writing! Go on ahead and Google an image of Deford, because the easiest way to explain his rhetorical stylings is to say that he wrote how he looked. Unafraid of the purple and being picaresque, large but not bulky or intimidating, charming but not unctuous. He's a rakish hero, broad shouldered and be-pompadoured, glossy and flashy but never to the point of inelegance.

Could he also be problematic? God, yes! Let's address it now, and take a break from the hagiography for a minute. There are some cringe-y moments in his oeuvre, mainly revolving around women's tennis; his Anna Kournikova profile especially is wince-inducing. One needn’t go much past the prolix title for the old facial nerves to start firing: “She Won’t Win The French Open, But Who Cares? Anna Kounrikova is Living Proof That Even In This Age of Supposed Enlightenment, A Hot Body Can Count As Much As A Good Backhand” is pretty much as problematic as a header can get. There's no apologizing for it, or even really explaining it.

Further defenses of appreciating female athletes for both their looks and their skill (perhaps a worthy conversation to have one day, when the pendulum has swung further, and when the conversation is led by a woman) dug the hole deeper, and a polemic about the crime of banning women’s players grunting—a policy which is pretty sexist prima facie—closed the casket by comparing the vocalizations of 1970s Romanian player Virginia Ruzici with ecstasy rather than pointing out the prudishness of the proposed change and the misogynistic language of the conversation.

But, also and alas, good luck finding a man of Deford's time, who has worked in the public eye for so long, who doesn't have something uncomfortable in their canon. Deford can be cavalier and mansplainy about how female athletes are portrayed, and the fantastic roguishness which served him so well, so often looks a lot less helpful when viewed from the vantage of 2017.

Deford wrote about women's sports at a time no one else wanted to—see, for instance his exemplary work on roller derby—but never quite managed to do so in a way that defied his own white, male, privileged perspective. Even still, Deford was on balance far less problematic than his peers; it’s telling, in a couple of ways, that Deford claims in Over Time that one of his finest career compliments came when Billie Jean King says he “got it,” i.e., the idea of women in sport, before his other colleagues. King is damning with faint praise, here, but Deford earned the praise all the same.

What cannot be questioned, and does not need any after-the-fact recontextualizing, is Deford's vision for sportswriting. Deford realized fairly early that fans were no longer finding out what happened in a given game when they read about it the next day, and so struck out in search of some of the oddest, most tangentially “sports” stories ever written. These wound up being his best work. From massive frozen whales to wrestling bears to the Air Force Thunderbirds to professional wrestling to tourist traps to roller derby, Deford made himself at home far from the crab-eye cameras of television.

It’s hard to overstate how inspiring this work was to a writer trying to figure out what kind of story he wanted to tell. No one is hopping on Twitter to find out the current state of American cockfighting, and ESPN was not showing the Women's Flat Track Derby Association World Championship. So not only did those places need me, but I needed them. His legacy is bigger than his impact on me, of course, but this is what it meant to me: beyond the style, Deford's charge to write not about games but people has become the locus of my entire career.

Writing about a roller derby championship was one of my first big features, one of the first that made me believe that perhaps this job, which is the only one I can imagine, was viable as a career; this notion still rises and falls like the tides and my moods. Deford, being the dean of derby writing, had been made aware of my piece, and his brief emailed comments were passed along to me. I share them with you now:

“Yes, I liked the article, but I wish it had had more personalities in it. I'd like to know who these women are, as people. But it certainly was comprehensive.”

I'd rarely been so excited to fail someone.


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