By Ken Reed
The Huffington Post
June 2, 2017
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.
Ken Reed is Sports Policy Director for League of Fans.
Sports Forum Podcast
Episode #17 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Talking Sports With Legendary New York Times Sports Columnist Robert Lipsyte – We chat about Lipsyte’s amazing career and some of the athletes he covered and got to know well, like Muhammad Ali, as well as his relationships with fellow sports journalists like Bob Costas and Howard Cosell.
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Episode #16 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Andrew Maraniss: Outstanding Author of Books That Focus On the Intersection of Sports, History and Social Justice.
Episode #15 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Talking Sports Psychology with Dr. Tim Rice. We discuss the growth of sports psychology at all levels, the positive impact that a number of high profile athletes have had by opening up, and the importance of everyone involved in sports caring for the whole athlete, mind and body.
Episode #14 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Making Sense of the Injury Pandemic in Major League Baseball – Gary McCoy is a strength, conditioning and high performance coach who has worked with several Major League Baseball organizations.
Episode #13 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: A Conversation With Long-Time MLB Exec Dan Evans About What’s Right With Baseball and What Could Be Better – Evans is a former general manager for the Los Angeles Dodgers and is currently a consultant for Go the Distance Baseball, which owns the Field of Dreams movie site.
Episode #12 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: A Fun Chat With Dan Gutman, Author of the Baseball Card Adventure Series for Kids
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Ken Reed appears on Mornings with Gail from KFKA Radio in Colorado to discuss bad parenting in youth athletics.
“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
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