Frank Deford on Bloggers, the Olympics and 51 years of Sportswriting

The legendary writer for Sports Illustrated dishes on, among other things, the changing relationship between athletes and the journalists who cover them

Frank Deford of Real Sports for HBO. (2010 Monte Isom/Sportschrome)

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That’s the classic amazing luck story. And I think so much of life is that. Sometimes it’s bad luck, sometimes it’s good.

One other thing that’s so prominent in the book is the degree to which the relationships between pro athletes and writers has changed. How different is it nowadays?

There’s no question that my task was easier. There were fewer of us, we had more access. Because television was not so dominant, print reporters were more important, and therefore the players were more eager to talk to us. Blogging didn’t exist, the Internet didn’t exist. Basically, what you had was a few newspaper reporters, and then I would come along, or another guy from a magazine.

So you could get to know the players, and that’s not true any longer. The players are now surrounded by PR people, and they have so much money that they often have friends who travel with them. Back then, the players liked us writers. They looked upon us as potential friends. Now, there’s a wall of separation, and it’s a much more difficult thing.

It’s unfortunate, because I think we were better able to present these guys as human beings, simply because we got to know them better. It wasn’t because we were better writers, or anything like that, but when you have that access, and that intimacy, you can write about a person with more authority. Now, even after ordinary games, they’ll bring the manager or the coach into an auditorium. In those days, you’d go into his office. You’d sit there, and he’d be having a beer, and maybe offer you one. You’d sit and chat. It was a different world altogether.

At one point in the book, you call blogging and the focus on statistics “the pole dancing of sports writing.” Where do you think sportswriting is going, and what’s your opinion of it?

I think that there are more good sportswriters than ever before, simply because sports writing is more respectable. So you get a better breed going into it. People are not as afraid to go into sportswriting.

But by the same token, because they don’t have access, because they’re so influenced by statistics, the writers don’t tell stories as well as they used to. I look at myself as a storyteller, and I don’t think that there are as many good storytellers around. The writers don’t get the access, and they’re too influenced by numbers. They’re knee-deep in statistics, so I think they get led astray. There’s a feeling that you have to prove everything by statistics, and I think that’s something of a loss.

You wrote for Smithsonian about the history of the Olympics in London. What do you think about it as a venue for this summer’s games?

London is one of the great cities of the world. What’s typically the problem with the Olympics is simply getting around—it’s very hard to get to all the different events. But because London has got the great Underground system that it has, and because the city is used to big, world-class events, I think it’ll be easier.


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