By Scott Robertson
I noticed something unusual during Memorial Day lunch. On the TV in the corner of the restaurant, ESPN was running a “breaking news” crawl in the holiday baseball game, and giving credit to another media outlet for the story.
There were a couple of things unusual about that. First, ESPN is infamous in media circles for stealing other people’s stories and attributing the news to “sources.” That’s considered dirty pool in our business, taking the fruits of someone else’s labor and pretending they’re your own. The second unusual thing about it was that the outlet being credited was CNN.
CNN never breaks sports stories, and ESPN only runs news on their crawl when we go to war or elect a president. Almost never the twain shall meet.
What CNN and ESPN were reporting was that professional golfer Tiger Woods had been arrested around 3 a.m. for suspicion of DUI. I must admit that as I turned my attention back to the grilled chicken, I didn’t have much of a reaction to that story aside from, “Well, at least nobody got hurt.”
The story I did react to broke moments later.
As I walked to the car, my phone buzzed to give me the news alert that sportswriter Frank DeFord was dead. At that moment, I felt small and petty, though not because I jealously envied DeFord’s long, successful career (though I, and everyone else who has made a serious effort to really write about people does, or should). I felt petty because I was angry that DeFord’s passing happened on a holiday when nobody would hear about it, and that it happened on a day when Tiger Woods was gobbling up all the space in the media consciousness.
DeFord, you see, was one of the few grown-ups in the press box when sportswriters gathered. Heck, he was one of the few real writers. Many are glorified transcriptionists for coaches, players and agents (you’d be amazed at how many stories about potential movement of players from one team to another are planted by agents).
Most bio articles and columns you read – whether in sports, politics or business – are either hero pieces or hatchet jobs, DeFord wrote honest profiles of people who were just as complicated as the rest of us, but happened to be professional competitors. In reading one of his profiles, one would notice that DeFord neither smoothed the rough edges of an athlete’s personality, nor invented positive character traits where none existed. In DeFord’s articles, we saw the subjects’ good and bad traits, and how they showed those traits with sometimes-heartbreaking inconsistency. In short, DeFord was thoughtful, nuanced and honest.
In that spirit, I should mention that DeFord was not universally loved. He was widely seen as a fop, and was viewed by some as an Ivy Leaguer who lazily wasted his talent on sports when he should have been tackling sterner stuff. But even those criticisms are disguised praise.
DeFord was a wordsmith. He wrote strategically. By that, I do not mean that he wrote to make the reader feel the subject of the profile was a good or bad person, but rather that DeFord used the language well to serve the narrative. If you go back and read his work (si.com has been running a career retrospective with 10 pieces just a click away) you can see that he organized the words in his sentences for maximum impact, and that he was precise in the choosing of those words.
He even understood the word that was the title he bore: sportswriter. Sports was just a modifier. Writer was the part of the word that mattered.
Sharing quotes from his work with you in this space would not do him justice. DeFord was not a writer who would write 1,590 words just to set up a ten-word quotable line. He wrote the 1,600 words that best told the story. He did not mistake being glib for being insightful.
DeFord’s style doesn’t sell these days though. That’s on us as journalism consumers, and on those of us in the journalism industry who view ourselves now as (shudder) “content providers.” Today we prefer short stories that treat even the most complex and important issues and individuals of our time with the “hero piece or hatchet job” mentality.
Frank DeFord’s legacy isn’t what it should be, and that’s
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