Yeah, Frank Deford. There’s something inarguably weird and man-out-of-time-ish about Deford — there he is, storklike in pastels on HBO’s Real Sports; sprouting bristles of snow-white hair in a strange mustache-n-Dagwood-wings combination; railing against the Olympics for reasons unclear, and so on. But every time I’m confronted with something he writes I come away pretty impressed. Not by his masterfulness — that’s not him, really — but by his work’s general unassuming solidity. It doesn’t sound like a high compliment, but consider the scene at present.
With the exception of the much more literary Roger Angell, most journalists of Deford’s generation have shuffled off into full-time curmudgeonhood or all the way out of the game, while Deford is still kind of grand-old-manning it on his own terms without ever making a big deal about how things got done in his day. Dude was a few years ahead of my Dad in college, and my Dad sometimes calls me on the phone with concerns that “the internet is still on and I can’t get it to boot off” and stuff like that. I mean, they’re both pretty together dudes in their late 60s, but sportswriting kind of seems like a young asshole’s game now. You’ve got the Gregg Doyels and his Aggressive Takes and the sub-Deadspinnian Sweethearts of the Brodeo, with a lot of the older scolds adapting effortlessly to the new sportswriting’s I-am-the-story aesthetic. Whitlock giving himself sensual backrubs every column and Mariotti fuming with the sort of intensity that can only come from gored vanity. I kind of wonder why Deford doesn’t just hang up the mustache and play with his grown-ass kids.
But the reason why he hasn’t becomes clear in reading over the short, economical essay Deford wrote for NPR about ESPN’s bestriding-colossus status and the abundant conflict-of-interest issues that raised during the Roethilsberger Rape Charge Blackout last month. While there’s something nicely stately and distinguished in how well Deford does his thing, what I liked most about this piece is the fact that he obviously still cares about his topic. There’s no fake-it-till-you-make-it outrage, no self-aggrandizement. Just a pretty solid argument, clearly and reasonably stated: “Imagine if The Wall Street Journal was not just the nation’s only powerful business outlet, but it also owned the rights to the listings on the New York Stock Exchange,” he writes. “Well, essentially, so it is with ESPN and sports.”
I don’t come to criticize so much as to just nestle up to the elephant in the room and ask, perhaps, that it act with a wee bit more humility and a lot less self-promotion. For instance, the network has a very unbecoming habit of subtly claiming it alone uncovers all the news. Typically, a valid report will come out, but hours later, ESPN will declare that it has “confirmed” such-and-such. That’s kind of tacky stuff. Exclusive: ESPN hereby confirms that it is Wednesday.
A couple of weeks ago, ESPN initially refused to report the news that was everywhere else headlined ” that Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had been accused of sexual assault. The network’s excuses were too noble by half, because there’s a double standard, and ESPN is known to cozy up to the very superstars it purports to cover.
The whole thing is just a little bit longer than this post, and I recommend reading it. It’s not transcendent, but that’s what makes it work so well.