The Emmy and Peabody winner describes the evolution of sports over the length of his career and reflects on who he thinks is the greatest athlete of all time, as detailed in his memoir, Over Time.
Sportswriter Frank Deford
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Frank Deford to this program. The legendary writer and best-selling author is a long-time contributor for “Sports Illustrated” and of course a regular on NPR’s “Morning Edition” and a correspondent for HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.”
Whew, just your jobs (laughter) take the wind out of me. He’s also an Emmy and Peabody award-winning writer whose much-talked-about new memoir is called “Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter.” Frank Deford, after all these years I feel like I know you, but it’s an honor to finally meet you.
Frank Deford: Well, I would reciprocate and say the same thing. I feel like I know you -
Tavis: Glad to have you on the program.
Deford: – and it’s an honor to meet you. (Laughter)
Tavis: Let me start with a faux pas that I may have just made a moment ago, because I read somewhere that you don’t even like the word “memoir,” and I just referred to this as a memoir. So you want to slap me first before we get started?
Deford: No, no, no, it’s just that writers don’t have memoirs. Memoirs are supposed to be about you, right? This is more of a “wemoir.” It’s about me and the people that I have met, because they’re a whole lot more interesting than I am.
Tavis: They may or may not be more interesting, because you are a fascinating guy. I’ve gone through the book, of course. You’re a fascinating guy. They may or may not be more interesting, but let’s jump right in.
They do, in fact, have – how shall we put this? – an elevated and inflated place in our society, and what is it about sport that elevates and inflates these guys to a level that is higher than teachers, higher than physicians who are saving lives – you take the point.
Deford: Well, first of all, of course, it’s not in the United States, so it’s got to be part of the human condition. This is the same -
Tavis: Right, around the world.
Deford: – all over the world.
Deford: They’re glamorous, they’re beautiful, what they can do, we all admire them. I think the fact, Tavis, that we all play games when we’re young, so in other words, we want to be them at some point in our lives, and so that we admire them even more.
I don’t think there are many kids who sit around and want to be actors. I don’t think there are many kids who want to sit around and want to be senators. But so many of us want to be athletes, so we’re envious of them and we put them up on that pedestal.
Tavis: What’s the value of sport today to our lives, and I ask that with the backdrop of a great judge who once said – maybe Earl Warren – who once said that “I read the sports pages first because it tells me of man’s accomplishment.”
These days you read the sports pages and you see all these guys getting in trouble for a variety of things. So what’s the value in our lives today of sport versus back in the day when you started covering these guys?
Deford: First of all, at one level sport is good because it’s healthy. Now we’re not talking about that, we’re talking more about celebrity. I think at its best, sport does bring us together.
Now I’m not thinking that’s the end of the world and that it’s going to cure all our problems, but you go to a ballgame and you sit next to somebody, and you may have nothing whatsoever in common with that guy except all of a sudden there’s a shared experience.
I think we have enough trouble finding community in this country, and sport does provide that. It is a mediocrisy, the greatest mediocrisy. If you’re the best, it shows in sports. Nobody can say, “Well, he’s only there because of his connections,” or whatever. In that sense, I suppose it upholds democracy and the best in us.
Tavis: Speaking of upholding democracy, I had a guest on this program not long ago, to your point, about sport bringing us all together. You go to a ballgame, you sit next to a guy who you don’t know and a great conversation kicks up.
But this guest referred to what’s happening in America as the “skyboxification” of white America.
Tavis: And you take his point, obviously, that all the rich guys are up in the suites -
Deford: You’re losing that.
Tavis: – and so many everyday – who the freak can afford a ticket?
Deford: I have no idea. Every now and then I get a free ticket from someone and I look at the price, and it says $800 and I’m thinking, “A thousand dollars to see,” I said, “There’s no ballgame in the world worth that kind of money,” and yet the attendance for sports is more than it ever has been.
The other thing is, Tavis, you could stay home and see the same game on television. It’s not like this is your only chance. If you want to go see a Broadway show and spend $200, that’s the only way you’re going to see that Broadway show. You can sit home in the comfort of your own home, as they say, and watch it. But that just shows you the extraordinary appeal of sport.
Tavis: Are everyday people being priced out?
Tavis: What’s that do to the sport long-term? If the everyday people are being priced out – this ain’t old Ebbet’s Field, now. If everyday people are being priced out, what’s it doing to sports long-term and who’s actually sitting in those seats?
Deford: The trouble is, of course, sometimes you see, and this is particularly true at a place like Yankee Stadium, you see the guy batting and you see the best seats behind him, and they’re wide open. Those seats, nobody can afford them.
Either that, or even worse, somebody’s sitting in those seats who was given those seats, but they’re back getting a drink. They can’t be bothered to show up. I think worse than that, it’s not so much that people are being overpriced, I think they’re knocking themselves out to bring their kids, say, to one game.
I remember when I was growing up in Baltimore we’d get on a streetcar and go down to see the Orioles, and for a couple of bucks you could get a pretty good seat. Kids can’t do that anymore. So I think that changes the whole nature of sports.
They’re supposed to be vox populi; this is supposed to be the common denominator.
Tavis: Sport is about, if anything, it’s in part at least about making money.
Deford: Right, sure, no.
Tavis: I don’t begrudge an owner who makes that kind of investment who wants to make money, but has sport become too commercialized, too profit-driven?
Deford: If the owners are going to make money, I don’t see why the players can’t make money too. As a matter of fact, I’ve turned that on its head, Tavis. I think one of the most immoral things in this country is college football and basketball, where everybody is making money except the players.
To me, that – you can talk all you want about the money in sport, but if the players aren’t getting paid, there’s something terribly, terribly wrong, and that’s true only in the United States. Everywhere else, where money is involved with sport, the players get paid. But these poor kids in college, they’re doing it for free, and that’s just disgraceful.
Tavis: The flip side of that – and I don’t disagree with you on that – but the flip side of that is that over the course of your career you were covering players who are ever-younger, but also more uninformed.
Jim Brown was young, but he wasn’t uninformed. Cassius Clay was young, but he wasn’t uninformed. Jackie Robinson was young, but he wasn’t uninformed. I don’t mean to demonize players across the board, but what is it like for a guy who is as learned and as well versed as you are to try to talk to, get a good interview out of person X, Y or Z?
I’m not demonizing them because they’re young, but they’re just so caught up with other felicities in life, they’re just uninformed.
Deford: The other thing is I don’t think Jim Brown, at the age of 12 or 13, was idolized. He was just a kid who was a real good athlete. But today, somebody with his talents at the age of 12 or 13 -
Tavis: They’re scouting you out already.
Deford: Oh my God. There are already people who keep records of fourth grade basketball players, that kind of stuff. Yes, it is difficult. It is difficult to interview them, because among other things they have sat and watched athletes being interviewed on television. They’ve learned in a sort of robotic way how to deal with people like me, and they point is they deal with very bland answers, and you don’t really get to know them.
I think that’s – they’re depersonalized, and so the public just sees these rather boring, tedious kids who don’t seem to be able to do anything except physically do extraordinary things.
Tavis: What, then, all these years later, is the joy in still doing this for Frank Deford, if that’s what you’re up against?
Deford: The joy sometimes is in the simple beauty. I write in the book that of all the things I saw, there was eight seconds of Carl Lewis running a relay, which to me is as beautiful as looking at the most gorgeous woman in the world combing her hair.
That was it. To see that kind of beauty, to see the glory in sport, where somebody comes from behind and does something, sinks a shot in the last second or throws a touchdown pass or hits a home run, there is a beauty in that, and at the end of the day, that’s why we love sports more than anything else.
Tavis: What did growing up in Baltimore mean to you and for you in terms of the journey that you were on to become this great sportswriter?
Deford: It’s interesting, I’ve always thought that I’m a different person from growing up in Baltimore than if I’d grown up 40 miles away in Washington or New York or Boston, because Baltimore was a working man’s town.
Tavis: Still is.
Deford: Still is.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Deford: We had a certain self-consciousness. There was no high hat in Baltimore. We were kind of fighting to get up, and I took pride in this place that I lived in, but I knew that people looked down on us.
Now, I’m not suggesting for a moment that I came from any kind of abject poverty or anything like that, but I did come from a city that people made fun of and didn’t give much respect to, and I think that changed me.
I think it made me a little more humble, and I know it made me more ambitious. Whether I’m a writer or whatever I turned out to be, a little bit of that is I’m going to show you, and that comes from growing up in Baltimore.
Tavis: So how did that notion, that commitment, of I’m going to show you turn out to be as a writer?
Deford: I was willing to take chances, I think. I was a little maybe gutsier than I should have been. Now I’m also – and I will say this, Tavis – I’m blessed. I had a certain talent. I’ve said I’ve seen an awful lot of natural athletes who didn’t turn out to be nearly as good as some of the guys who weren’t natural athletes who worked harder at it.
So the fact that I was a natural writer didn’t assure me success, but the fact that I had this natural ability and was plugged into doing better, I think the two of them made me what success I’ve been and what provided that.
Tavis: How did you get on the track to being a writer? Why a writer as opposed to – you were an athlete, but why a writer as opposed to an athlete or senator or physician?
Deford: I was a much better writer than I was an athlete, Tavis. (Laughter) My college coach told me flat out, he said, “Deford, you write basketball better than you play it.” So there was no – I was not going to make it that way.
Tavis: You were not going to be in the NBA, yeah, yeah.
Deford: How many kids at the age of eight or nine know what they want to be? I did, and I was really lucky in that regard. Now of course if I had not succeeded, what a huge disappointment, but nonetheless, that made me, the fact that I wanted it. I wanted it desperately. I’m not afraid to say that.
Tavis: What’s kept you writing when others start writing and become editors or move on to do something else?
Deford: I couldn’t stand editors, Tavis.
Tavis: Oh, yeah? (Laughter)
Deford: I must say the one time I was an editor was for the “National Sports Daily.”
Deford: (Unintelligible) short-lived. I lost $150 million in 18 months. Now, that kind of tells me maybe I shouldn’t have been an editor. I’m not blaming myself entirely for the failure of that newspaper. There were a lot of business reasons, and in fact I think it was a creative success.
But I never wanted to be an editor. I never wanted to be a boss. I just wanted to write, and it didn’t make any difference whether it was fiction or nonfiction or short stories or whatever. I just – that’s what I was destined to do. That sounds a little highfaluting, but that’s the way I feel.
Tavis: It is impossible – which is, I think, the beauty of your career – it’s impossible to talk about your career without talking about a couple of things. One, the people that you’ve covered and been friends with, and we’ll get to that in a second.
But also it’s impossible to talk to you without talking about the color line, because you have seen it, you’ve been on it, you’ve covered it. Let me just ask a broad question and then we’ll get more specific here.
Tavis: What’s your sense of the role that race plays in sport? I think now of our friend William Rhoden’s book, “Forty Million Dollar Slaves.” After all these years, that’s Rhoden’s take on it even today.
But you’ve seen this, you’ve covered this. What’s your sense of the advance, or the lack thereof, of the color line in sports?
Deford: All you have to do is look at the NBA playoffs and you see an African American coach. Now, nobody would have dreamed of that when I first got into the business. When Bill Russell was made a player coach, oh my God, this was a huge thing.
There was sort of an unwritten quota in the NBA back when I started. I don’t think anybody got together and there was any great conspiracy, but there was the old expression that coaches would say with a wink – “You start three at home, four on the road, and you play five when you’re behind.”
There was a fear – we can’t play too many Black players, that people won’t accept it. We wrote all the time about Black athletes, the great ones, did not get endorsements, where lesser white players did. All of that was blown out of the water by OJ Simpson.
Then it changed, and who got more endorsements in history than Michael Jordan. So if you look at that, there’s been an extraordinary change. I also think it’s important to say that this has had an effect beyond sports. If you’re a white kid growing up and you see a Black player and he’s got the name of your college or your town across his chest, that means something.
In the long run, I’m not saying that leads directly to the election of a Black president, but I think it plays a part in it. It becomes an acceptance, and that’s what sports has provided.
Tavis: So what’s the rationale, then, the reason for those arenas, those institutions, where they have not caught up with respecting Black coaches? Players, yes, but not coaches. What’s holding them back?
I’m thinking now the NFL, I’m thinking now college division I football, I’m thinking now – what’s holding those institutions that are being held back, those arenas, what’s holding them back?
Deford: I think the NFL has made great strides.
Tavis: They’re getting better, but yeah. They’re not the NBA, obviously.
Deford: I criticize the NFL in many ways, but I think it’s made great strides. I think college basketball, great strides. College football means so much to alumni, doesn’t it? It sort of represents the school. It’s when you go back; it’s at the beginning of the school year. Homecoming, right?
College football in many ways, for many alumni – and I’m really talking about old boys, white – is a representation of the school, almost more so than the college administration.
I think there are white alumni out there who wouldn’t mind having an African American president of their school, but would be reluctant to have an African American coach, because he represents the school so. I think it’s just sheer backward racism. I don’t think there’s any question about that.
I don’t think you can explain why all these other sports and college basketball have a fair representation of African American coaches, but college football doesn’t. You can dig and scramble and scratch, but at the end of the day I think it’s just pure, old-fashioned racism.
Tavis: Mm-hmm. When we talk about racism, I go back to the book now. I think of a number of figures that you’ve covered, some who have been friends of yours. So here’s the fun part of the conversation. I get to throw names at you.
Deford: Okay. (Laughter)
Tavis: I’m going to let you know, go.
Deford: All right.
Tavis: The gun’s going to go off, and you just run. In no particular order, Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali.
Deford: The most fascinating thing about him is the attitude that has changed through the years. Usually when an athlete gets a reputation it sticks with him, even when he’s an old man.
It changed completely with Clay, and of course when he became Ali it went down even more for an awful lot of people. Now he’s beloved. I saw him one time at the Vietnam Monument, and with the possible exception of Jane Fonda, no one was more distinguished in opposition to the war.
Tavis: Jane Fonda, Ali and Dr. King, but go ahead.
Deford: Okay, all right. He was having his picture taken there, and I thought when people started coming toward him, I thought we were going to have a problem. Instead of that, they embraced him, and it was dear.
Tavis: What’s caused that? Is it an empathy for him, a sympathy because of the Parkinson’s, or something else?
Deford: I think it’s part of that. I think it’s part of that and I think it’s part of an understanding and a tolerance that’s came in, and a sort of a respect for the fact that he stood up for what he believed in. At the time, that was very visceral, and people couldn’t tolerate that.
But over time, I think they came to think well, we should admire him more just because we disagreed with him at one time. He was honest in his beliefs.
Tavis: Can’t talk about Ali without talking about Howard Cosell. There was just a picture on the screen a moment ago of Ali and Cosell together, as they often were. You have a moving story in this book about going to see Howard Cosell when he had dementia near the end of his life. I’ll let you tell the story, but it’s a powerful story.
Deford: Well, a lot of people thought that Cosell and Ali really didn’t like each other, that they were just using each other. And look, they were both smart guys and they did use each other, okay. But beyond that, I think they really came to love one another.
When I went to see Howard, and he was far gone at that point, and he was showing me things in his apartment. He picked up this little item, this statuette, or whatever, and he said, “Frank, Muhammad gave me this,” and he literally held it to his chest like this.
He said, “Muhammad Ali gave me this,” and started to tear up. And all the other things he showed me, there’d been no expression of emotion like that. It was very touching.
I saw Ali at Howard’s funeral and I told him about that. So at the end of the day they were two men who did use each other, but also used each other’s hearts in the right way.
Tavis: Have you felt used in any way by this business?
Deford: Sure. But I’ll quote Arthur Ashe. When he was going to South Africa and there were some South African Blacks and what were called “coloreds” who came to him in London, and we were sitting in the hotel, and they said, “Don’t go, Arthur. They’re using you.” Arthur said, “I know they are, but I’m using them too.”
It is – yes, I do a story on an athlete or a coach or whatever and I may be helping, mending his reputation. But by the same token he’s giving me a good story, isn’t he? There is a certain quid pro quo that works both ways, and that’s part of being a writer.
Tavis: To my read of your book, of all the athletes you covered, Arthur Ashe wasn’t just another subject, he was your friend.
Deford: Yeah, we – I never set out to be buddies with athletes. I think you should separate, to some degree. But we were about the same age, he lived in New York, I lived in New York. We just seemed to have the same interests. We got along. That’s the best way of describing it.
We were just a couple of guys that got along. He just happened to be the tennis player and I happened to be the writer. I look back on him with a tremendous amount of affection because he was so much fun. He was so identified with serious causes, and of course he died so tragically, people have forgotten, or never knew, what a good guy he was.
He was just a whole lot of fun to be with, and we enjoyed each other’s company. Now beyond that, I had the greatest respect and admiration for him in the world. He was the most feeling athlete, I suppose, that I ever met. He was smart as a whip. But not just intellectually smart; caring and gutsy.
Tavis: I’ll close our conversation on this note – I did not know what the answer to this question was going to be when I went in search of it, but I knew I wanted to know. It’s such a simple and such an adolescent question, (laughter) but we always want to know. Who’s the greatest? Who’s the greatest? I guess I was surprised by your answer, but you put Jackie Robinson.
Deford: Yeah (unintelligible). But Tavis, it’s a great bar argument, right?
Tavis: Yeah, it is. It’s a great fight. (Laughter)
Deford: You could get 10 people -
Tavis: Across all sports, you got Jackie Roosevelt Robinson.
Deford: Okay, all right. You’ve got to pick – you said pick somebody.
Deford: All right. Baseball may have been his fourth best sport.
Tavis: Yeah, I got you.
Deford: He was an all-American in football -
Tavis: Track, yeah.
Deford: – he would have won the gold medal if it hadn’t been for the war in the long jump, he was a darn good basketball player, and he picks up baseball almost – well, because that’s where he could make a living in the Negro Leagues at the end of the war. Well, that’s good enough for me. (Laughter)
But if somebody wants to make an argument for Jim Brown, say, or Jim Thorpe, okay, I’m not going to fight them.
Tavis: Frank Deford, I would never argue with you about anything that has to do with sport. (Laughter) What you say is gospel for me, and I’ll leave it at that. Jackie Robinson is good enough for me. I’ll take that.
The new book, which I can’t’ do justice to in one conversation, is called “Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter.” But I think you get a sense of what Frank Deford has to offer in this book.
It is a book, as he said earlier, that’s not so much about him, but about his life and the persons he’s encountered, the stories he’s covered, the stories he’s helped to break over the years.
It’s a wonderful read, and Frank Deford, I am honored to have you on this program. Thanks for your time, sir.
Deford: Tavis, thank you so much. I really enjoyed it.
Tavis: Glad to have you. I enjoyed this immensely. Thank you, sir. That’s our show for tonight.
“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.