NPR’s Frank Deford retired rather unceremoniously last Wednesday, May 3rd, broadcasting his final mid-week Morning Edition commentary. Reduced last year from a weekly piece to a monthly feature, his final appearance after 37 years at National Public Radio was met with the exact tapered energy and matter-of-fact emotion that anyone would expect from the station. The text may be found here.
Now let’s get two important points out of the way before we continue. First, Deford was a longtime Sports Illustrated writer. The obvious item to point out that Deford’s quick clean break from the airwaves is surely unlike anything we can expect from a different SI product, Football Night In America’s favorite oral Goodell choad cleanser.
Second, being but a glimmer in my fathers eye when Deford started chairing the Cycstic Fibrosis Foundation, I only knew of Deford for his NPR contribution and, full disclosure, I hate the product he produced. Not like annoyed as I am with Jim and Pheel where I can just mute the broadcast or change the channel. Rather, for years, I’d listen carefully to each word of his dragging out of my car speakers as I cruised to whatever hump day employment I held at the time and studied the craftsmanship of his language as well as his delivery to find out just what it was that I hated so much, as well as to discover what the hell anyone found entertaining about his ramblings. If Deford was sitting right in front of me and asked if I were a fan, I’d answer that no is an understatement.
That said, I think it’s important to mention Deford’s retirement at a time when ESPN laying off hundreds of journalists but still asking them to cover the draft days later is still a news story. First off, Deford took on an assignment to be broadcast on a slow sports day (Wednesday morning time slot) on a station whose sports presence is, to put it gently, weak. Deford knew he couldn’t just Buzzfeed it up and repeat the same, “Did you see that catch OBJ made 96 hours ago?!” #content that even the cursory NFL follower would have already heard about ten times. Second, he took aim to present commentary that was surely not focus group approved but was sincere enough that, apparently, listeners who otherwise didn’t care about bone-crunching hits or missed targeting calls still appreciated being aware of the evils of Roger Goodell or the NCAA.
Deford regularly used his column as a sounding board to discuss the topics that are best described as outside the lines. Again, his delivery wasn’t my cup of tea but even someone who digs at the sports media appreciates that Deford was someone who cared to delve deeper into the major flaws that surround our sports culture. As good editorialists often are, Deford was critical of the establishment but it’d be a stretch to describe any of his takes as #H4WT. He wasn’t simply a toned down Stephen A or Skip; he was a knowledgable communicator who presented facts and used them to accentuate his points. Whereas the still-arounds at ESPN present data points only (1) at top volume and (2) to support their tail-wagging-the-dog positions on every topic from domestic violence to excessive celebration penalties, one can never blame Deford for ushering this era of Ann Coulter style commentating into our televisions and radios.
So this isn’t going to turn into one-man circle jerk of Deford (line jerk? point jerk?) because, like I said, I couldn’t stand his radio product. But one can’t argue the place the man had a professional in his craft; he is a member of the sportswriter hall of fame (subliminal message for Fozz – this is probably a place worth burning to the ground) and has earned both Emmy and Peabody Awards as well as multiple sportswriter of the year commendations. He continues as an SI columnist after a career that includes, in addition to his NPR gig, being editor-in-chief at the first ever daily sports newspaper (when I’m ripping on Deford, I like to mention that it only lasted 18 months) and 18 books, as well as personal charitable accomplishments.
So, as Frank Deford wasn’t one of the worst ones, his signing off from NPR was one more loss for the sports journalism good guys — a dying breed who, sooner than later, is going the way of the dodo because, as we continue to see, sports entertainment > sports journalism.