By John Lanier
Editor 

Frank Deford Tackles Sports At Porter Center - Brevard NC

 

Frank Deford spoke to a packed house at the Porter Center for Performing Arts at Brevard College on Thursday, Sept. 25. He discussed hypocrisy in sports among plenty of other topics including his incredible career as a sports journalist and contributor to NPR radio. (Times photo by Kevin Fuller)

Mixing humorous anecdotes with serious analysis of sports in the United States, Frank Deford entertained a nearly packed house at the Porter Center for Performing Arts Thursday evening.

The event was part of the J.R. McDowell Speaker Series, which was sponsored by the Transylvania County Library Foundation and Brevard College.

Deford, who has written 18 books, serves as a senior correspondent for HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel," and offers commentary every Wednesday on NPR's "Morning Edition," spoke on "Sports: The Hype and the Hypocrisy."

Deford began with a quip from legendary college basketball coach Bobby Knight, who said that "the best time in every sportswriter's life are the three years he spent in second grade."

He said that people all over the world love sports, and no matter where one lives, be it Indiana or Indonesia, men claim they have the most beautiful women in the world and they are the best sports fans in the world. The worst thing that can be said about a community is that it is a "bad sports town."


"We love sports more than anything else," said Deford.

He said that American men have come to like sports more than sex.

"Certainly this is true with golfers," he said. "I don't play golf myself."

Deford said there was a interview of golfers in which 81 percent of them said they would rather shoot par than spend the night with the most beautiful woman in the world.

"Athletes are our heroes," he said.

He said that former NBA star and current NBA analyst Charles Barkley said children should not look up to athletes as role models but instead look up to their parents and teachers. But he also noted that Barkley claimed to have been misquoted in his own autobiography.

Deford said he understands children looking up to athletes as role models and heroes, but he is upset that adults also make heroes of athletes.

Deford said he interviewed legendary Alabama football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant during his last year coaching. Though many Alabama fans believed "the Bear walked on water," Deford found an old and worn out coach who had relegated the coaching to his assistants. When writing a long piece about Bryant, Deford briefly mentioned that Bryant, like many older men, had to use the bathroom frequently.


"The hate mail poured in from the great state of Alabama," said Deford regarding his reference to Bryant's incontinence.

There was a petition, written on toilet paper, demanding that Deford be fired. A Methodist minister wrote Deford that "Whenever your parents would like to get married, I would be delighted to perform the ceremony."

Deford said the United States is the only country in which academics and athletes come together at the collegiate level, adding that there are no games between Oxford and the Sorbonne.

"The system is inherently corrupt," he said of major college sports. "We're all indicted co-conspirators."

A former president of the University of Oklahoma once told the state legislature "What we want is a university that our football team can be proud of."

When David Boren, a former U.S. senator and current president of the University of Oklahoma was asked why they were able to recruit better football players than in-state rival Oklahoma State University, Boren said, "for football players, OU is easier to spell."

Deford said college athletics needs more people like former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, who candidly said that he preferred to recruit junior college players because "they've already got their cars."

"The system simply invites cheating," said Deford.

He said sports amateurism may look good on paper, but it does not work in reality. Deford said recent cases are leading toward college athletes being paid and lifting the façade of amateurism. But the obsession with winning football teams will remain because of the money involved and "red meat alumni" whose primary interest is having a winning football team.


Referring to the SEC, he pointed out that the best teams are located in the states with the most disadvantaged populace.

"It's a case of higher distraction, not higher education," said Deford of the SEC.

Deford said there are two great myths in American sports: that next year soccer will become predominant and next year college presidents will clean up college athletics.

Deford said college presidents have never been able to answer the question why athletes in non-revenue sports receive scholarships while students who participate in other extracurricular activities, such as theater or band, do not receive scholarships.

"We've just come to accept it," he said.

He also said that America's obsession with sports, which goes down to the high school level, also has fostered an anti-intellectual atmosphere in the country. The U.S. continues to decline in comparison to other countries regarding our percentage of college graduates and fewer males are going to college.

He said the number males going to college is declining, partly because males are encouraged by adults "who should know better" to spend a great deal of time participating in sports at an early age.

"It's fool's gold they are going after," he said.

Deford said that in a few years roughly 60 percent of college students will be females. Due to Title IX, approximately 60 percent of athletic scholarships will then have to go to female athletes.

Deford said that if football teams take 80 scholarships that does not leave many scholarships for males in other sports.

"That's where we are headed," he said.

Deford said he was fortunate to enter the sportswriting profession when athletes were not highly paid and looked for "ink" to augment their careers and salaries.

He said he was "scared to death" on his first assignment, covering the Los Angeles Lakers. He said Elgin Baylor, who was "Michael Jordan before there was a Michael Jordan," was the team leader and very funny. When he spotted Deford in a tacky jacket, Baylor said, "I didn't know Ralston Purina was making sports jackets."

Deford said that sports play a purposeful role, particularly for males, in creating a bond with others. He said males learn to "care about each other" through participation in sports.

He said that good managers and coaches know how to create care among team members. Former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda said managing a team is like holding a dove: hold it too tightly and you squeeze it do death but hold it to loosely and it flies away.

Baseball manager Casey Stengel humorously said, "The secret to managing is to keep the five guys who hate you away from the five guys who haven't made up their mind."

Deford said the two athletes who had the greatest social impact were Jackie Robinson and Billie Jean King.

He told King after she won Wimbledon that he could imagine how she felt, but she disagreed. He said that when he played basketball before all of his friends and family, "That was the whole world to me."

But King countered that he could not imagine what it was like for her because she was not able to participate in women's team games because there were no teams for females. She said equity would only be achievable when women are allowed to participate in team sports.

"That time may be approaching," he said.

He said the role of women's sports could have a dramatic effect on the future workplace, particularly is males continue to obsess about sports and ignore academics.

Deford said he is still "completely baffled" by the popularity of soccer worldwide.

"I just don't get it," he said, adding that man's hands are what separate humans from the "beasts of the field" and that soccer players use their heads as a club.

"Maybe there's a reason why we're still the only superpower in the world," he said.

While soccer does not appeal to Deford, he said one of the best stories he ever wrote was about soccer. When Cameroon was playing England in the World Cup a few decades ago, he was sent to Cameroon to report on the impact of the game in the country.

"I don't think anything good ever happened there," he said.

He said there were few televisions in the impoverished country and people had to watch the game either in bars or where they had placed a few screens in the streets. He said when Cameroon scored the first goal of the game, a lady beside him started dancing with him. The photographer who was with him snapped a picture – the only sports photo Deford has in his office.

Cameroon, however, lost the game and the people and country were dejected. And unlike industrialized countries where people can return to their relatively good lives, the people of Cameroon returned to a life of despair.

"I never understood the full power of sport until that moment," he said.

Deford said sport is the best aspect of the entertainment industry because it is the only area in which "popularity and talent merge." He said the best movies never make it to the large cineplexes and the best plays rarely make it to Broadway. But in sports the best players make it to the professional level and become the most popular.

"That matters," he said. "It makes sport our most important art."

For all of the hype and hypocrisy found in sports, Deford said, "Sports is truly a unifying element. It does bring people together. Sports is now the lingua franca of the whole world."

Deford also related an anecdote about Yogi Berra, who died last week at the age of 90.

He said Berra and former teammate Phil Rizzutto were looking for a place to eat, when Rizzutto mentioned that the two of them were apparently lost.

Berra responded, "Yes, but we're making great time."

Questions and Answers

After speaking for roughly 50 minutes, Deford answered questions from the audience.

• When asked about Jim Thorpe's place in the pantheon of sports legends, Deford said Thorpe was the "premier athlete" in the world during his time. Thorpe won the decathlon in the 1908 Olympics and excelled in football and baseball. But when it was learned that he had played semi-pro baseball and been paid for it, he was stripped of his medals. Thorpe's baseball career floundered because he could not hit the curve ball and he also had drinking problems.

• When asked if he is prouder of his sportswriting accomplishments or his work with cystic fibrosis, Deford said his work with cystic fibrosis is "my finest achievement." The Defords had a daughter who died at the age of 8 from cystic fibrosis.

He wrote a book about his daughter entitled "Alex," in which he recalls her struggle with the disease. He said it was the "easiest" thing he wrote because he simply had to write what happened.

"I just told the story," he said.

Shortly after their daughter died, the Defords adopted a young girl from the Philippines. She was married three weeks ago.

• Deford said new medical information and studies about injuries from football are resulting in declining participation in the sport. He said football would become more of a "gladiator game" with fewer overall participants but still drawing huge crowds to see those who excel at the game.

He said a positive corollary to the study of football injuries, particularly concussions, is the study of injuries in other sports. He said that women's soccer has the second highest number of concussions.

• Deford said Berra, in addition to his famous sayings, was a "whale of a player" who knew a great deal about baseball. He pointed out that more managers, like Berra, played catcher because a catcher should be the most knowledgeable player on the diamond.

• When asked if marching band is a sport, Deford said he would consider it one if it meets two criteria: it requires physical activity and is competitive.

• Deford said he was personally hurt by the recent scandals at UNC-Chapel Hill. He said he has had a number of good friends from the university, including former coach Dean Smith and Tommy Kearns, who played on the school's first NCAA basketball championship team.

"It hurt me to see all of the bad things that came out of there," said Deford.

He praised Mary Willingham, the tutor who blew the whistle on the school, because she realized those she was tutoring were incapable of doing college work, and that the goal was to keep the athletes eligible, not educate them.

"She just thought that was the biggest sin of all," he said.

Deford said he could not excuse the conduct at UNC-Chapel Hill, but that such things occur elsewhere.

"Chapel Hill should be ashamed, but they have an awful lot of company," he said.

• When asked which coach or player might be most understood from a public perception, Deford mentioned Tarkanian. He said Tarkanian was viewed as a rogue, but he was one of the few who had principles and fought the NCAA.

He said that even legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, "Saint John," had a person named Sam Gilbert who gave money to players. He said Wooden was a fine man, but even he had to make "moral accommodations to succeed."

• Deford said race might have played a role in the NFL's response to "Deflategate," but that is was not the "prime element." He called NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell "incompetent" and said the entire incident was handled poorly. However, he said that Tom Brady, who is white, received a harsher punishment than Ray Rice, the black running back who punched his fiancée in an elevator.

• Deford said the recent ascent of using metrics to judge players' potential has actually been employed for years.

He said baseball manager Earl Weaver always carried around statistics on notecards. Today, however, statistics have been used too often to make decisions, to the point where an athlete, such as a pitcher, may be performing superbly during a contest but statistics indicate he should be pulled out.

He said teams should use statistics but not be ruled by them.

He also said coaches and managers need to look at personal characteristics. He said former Braves pitcher Greg Maddux's fastball traveled at only 88 mph, but that he did everything else right. He also noted that Brady was taken late in the football draft and that baseball sensation Mike Trout was overlooked by many teams.

Deford said it is incredibly difficult to figure out "who is going to be a good player."

 
 

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