Frank Deford exits

For a guy whose weapon was a typewriter, Frank Deford lived a dangerous life. He gave his opinions and, on occasion, they chipped away at his legacy.

Deford has been giving sports commentaries on NPR since the Carter administration and when NPR announced in January 2016 that it was cutting his weekly commentaries to once a month, Deford was still smart enough to take the hint.

This morning, Deford delivered his final commentary for NPR.

Deford is an old man now and it matters not that he was among the best and brightest writers when there was no internet to give everyone a platform, no sports talk radio to mollify the angry bleacher bums, and no regard for women’s sports.

The day Deford “mansplained” why women’s sports get so little attention — Sept. 15, 2015, for the record — was the day Deford lost much of what 50 years writing at Sports Illustrated had built.

The commentary earned three separate corrections from NPR and a bucket load of condemnation.

“I don’t think that women have supported women’s sports enough,” he said. “I think that’s the real thing. If you have women going out to see women’s games, then that will drive the attention.”


NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen said at the time it showed NPR’s need for more diversity.

“It’s time for NPR to get even more serious about its long-stated effort to put a wider range of voices and perspectives on the air,” she said. “That Wednesday morning slot is one obvious place to make a change —- even if it’s just adding different voices to the mix.”

It was a stark suggestion for the network, famous for its Bob Edwards-Red Barber exchanges of years earlier. Red went out, his legacy intact.

On his final commentary this morning, Deford was nothing if not gracious, although there was another nod to an old stereotype.

I have survived so long because I’ve been blessed with talented and gracious colleagues, and with a top brass who let me choose my topics every week and then allowed me to express opinions that were not always popular. Well, someone had to stand up to the yackety-yak soccer cult.

And perhaps just as important, I’ve been blessed with you, with a broad and intelligent audience — even if large portions thereof haven’t necessarily given a hoot about sports. Nothing has pleased me so much as when someone — usually a woman — writes me or tells me that she’s appreciated sports more because NPR allowed me to treat sports seriously, as another branch on the tree of culture.

Opinions are dangerous things.

  • Gary F

    If he didn’t like women’s sports and didn’t want to write about them, so what? Get some diversity on the staff that will. Should he be beaten into submission and be forced to like women’s sports? Isn’t diversity having people that don’t always agree with you?

    • Well the problem with the commentary was that it was riddled with inaccuracies and incorrect assertions.

      • Gary F

        He’s an opinion writer with an opinion, its just not the narrative of NPR.

        • Yeah, the fact he’s been doing it for 37 years suggests that’s not it.

        • Joe

          But when your opinion piece says women haven’t supported soccer enough, that is why there aren’t any women’s professional soccer leagues anywhere, and then it turns out there are at least 4 women’s pro soccer leagues, it’s not a good piece. Irrespective of his opinion, the piece is based on false premises that are easily disproven, which makes for not a good read.

        • Rob

          Ummm, no. Opinions that assert facts need to be accurate about said facts. Saying there’s no U.S. women’s soccer team isn’t an opinion, it’s a factually incorrect statement.

    • BJ

      That Women’s basketball piece might have been the first one of his I paid any attention to – it was so bad. The no women’s professional soccer league line sticks out, although it was edited out of the archive version, when in fact the US has one, and Germany, France, and England do as well.

    • Rob

      Focus, Gary. It’s not about whether he liked women’s sports or not, and nobody forced him to like them.

  • Mike

    I’m not a Frank Deford fan, but when ethnic, gender, or other types of demographic diversity get conflated with diversity of opinion, as they almost always do, that does a disservice to everyone. Individuals may or may not agree with the dominant views of their particular group, and don’t we all belong to more than one group?

    Increasing the demographic diversity of a particular group may generally increase the diversity of perspectives – but only to a point. If that blinkered view leads a news organization to not hire, say, a conservative black columnist, or an anti-abortion woman, or whatever, then the so-called diversity they’ve achieved isn’t worth much. And of course, no one wants to extend the diversity argument to neo-Nazis or the KKK, so when anyone starts using the “D” word, it’s best to ask what they really mean by that.

    As your post from last week documented, when the demand for diversity may suggest admitting an older, white, male, Midwestern farmer to the club, suddenly it’s not a priority anymore.

    • There was a really great column in the Boston Globe today about the city’s racial problems that it’s white population spent most of yesterday denying.

      Renee Graham could write it because she lives in the city, she’s black, and she has a perspective than white people do not have .

      It reminded me — again — how Minnesota newspaper readers are completely deprived of this sor tof hting where diversity is defined as ‘get me the most off the wall republican you can find and give her a column.”

      It’s more than politics, it’s life experiences.

      We should, ourselves, be more curious about this sort of thing, but we’re not.

      • Mike

        Good for the Globe for publishing that column. I have to say that, as a native Southerner, one of my biggest pet peeves is the degree to which northern white urbanites are very invested in the narrative that racism and all other bad things happen somewhere else.

        In Minnesota, there seems to be a weird subtext that we’re really just part of Greater Scandinavia (a Nordic diaspora) rather than of this big, messy country called the United States. All the easier to disown national problems.

    • DavidG

      Demographic diversity is still important. Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito are both conservatives and agree on almost everything, but how they get there is informed by their experiences which were affected by their demographic identities.

      • Mike

        If they agree on almost everything, why is their race/ethnic background important to anyone except their friends?

        • BJ

          Ask everyone who isn’t their friend. I would also bet their friends are the ones that don’t care about their race/ethnic background.

  • MikeB

    I was introduced to Deford when I got my gift subscription to Sports Illustrated in my teenage years. Reading those long articles in the back by Deford and others started my appreciation from SPORTS writing to sports WRITING.

    I enjoyed his NPR pieces even though his commentary referenced above was a clunker. Like any recurring voice on the radio you appreciate the rhythm and cadence of a person, especially one you only knew from a byline.

    The other voices NPR has brought on on Wednesday are good listening as well (Pablo Torres) but I’ll miss Deford’s voice, like I have others who are no longer on NPR.

  • Michelle

    I’ve listened to DeFord for years. Although I mostly enjoyed him, in the past years I have found his commentaries becoming very redundant. About 2 lines in and you knew it was going to be the same topics, same gripes–and almost always a gripe. I was ok with him in the rotation but I have enjoyed some new perspectives. As to the Edwards-Barber interviews, I lost a lot of respect for Barber when I heard an interview he did with one of the female hosts when Edwards was off. Barber was completely disrespectful and condescending. The interview was so bad that they pulled it for the second rotation of the morning show–something they never did with Edwards. This does raise the issue of when does age and experience add perspective vs dotage or redundancy. I hope I recognize it when I get there.

    • I imagine for program directors it’s very much like taking the keys away from the aging parents.

  • Jim in RF

    I’ve listened for years, but only because something has to be pretty bad for me to switch it off (Lou Nanne, for instance). There’s the obvious back-in-my-day stuff, but also it just didn’t break any new ground. I do enjoy Howard Sinker on Friday mornings, and try to be around a radio then.