Frank Deford Calls ESPN A ‘Journalistic Disgrace’

I pretty much picture all sports bloggers the same way — wearing footie pajamas at 2 in the afternoon, watching SportsCenter while finishing off the giant economy bag of FunYuns. (This includes me). Frank Deford, on the other hand, evokes very different images.

Frank Deford

Deford brings to mind dry martinis, suits with visible handkerchiefs, wood-paneled hotel lounges, William Holden in “Sabrina,” private boxes at the dog track, a Rolls Royce mini bar. I can easily picture him running from a mounted hunting party with a fox cradled in his arms, laughing, as the voice-over says: “He’s the most interesting man in the world.” That’s why it’s somewhat noteworthy that it was the venerable Deford, and not some blogger, who was taking ESPN to the woodshed.

Relations between Deford and TWWL have always been strained; ESPN THE MAGAZINE lost a bidding war with SI for Deford’s services in 1998, and he’s on the record as saying that if he were in charge, he’d abolish sports talk radio, for starters. But the many times-decorated journalist took it to a new level during his weekly NPR radio show, with the subject being ESPN’s misuse of its monopoly on sports journalism in general, with its handling of the Ben Roethlisberger case as exhibit A.

A couple of weeks ago, ESPN initially refused to report the news that was everywhere else headlined — that Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had been accused of sexual assault. The network’s excuses were too noble by half, because there’s a double standard, and ESPN is known to cozy up to the very superstars it purports to cover.

Just suppose that CNN regularly had cutesy commercials for CNN starring Nancy Pelosi, John McCain and Rahm Emanuel. Well, that’s the equivalent of what ESPN regularly does with top sports personalities. The practice is, simply, a journalistic disgrace, and, because ESPN is so powerful, it diminishes the integrity of all sports journalism.

Deford does pause at one point to issue the disclaimer that he has occasionally written for ESPN. But it’s only a short pause.

ESPN does so much quality work, but at a certain point, in whatever field, if you become omnipotent, and if you are secure, you stop being a conceited smarty-pants and start exhibiting a measure of grace.

Listen to the audio here.

Pretty strong stuff, albeit well-trodden ground here on the Internets. But it’s one thing when a guy writing on his laptop at Starbucks says it, and it’s quite another coming from the man dubbed by GQ in 1989 as The Best Living Sports Writer.

But could the quote above apply to Deford himself? I suppose now is a good time to refer to Glenn Bunting’s 2004 first-person cover piece in LA TIMES MAGAZINE, which does the same to Deford as Deford is attempting to do to ESPN. In the piece, Bunting fact checks Deford’s body of work at the suggestion of his golf instructor, who is constantly complaining about the writer’s exaggerations. (Deford, in fact, accused Bunting of “trying to ruin” him).

In Deford’s world, Camden Yards in his native Baltimore is “the most influential sports structure ever built.” Mississippi prep football coach Robert Victor Sullivan was “the most unique of men.” Race car driver Michael Schumacher is “the most famous athlete in the world.” (Nine months later, Deford called soccer player David Beckham “without a doubt the most famous athlete in the world.”)

While devouring these stories, it occurs to me that perhaps “world’s greatest sportswriter” is, in an odd way, appropriate for Deford. Indeed, “world’s greatest” is certainly no more of an exaggeration than Deford’s assertion that sprinter Marion Jones is “the world’s fastest woman” when, in fact, Florence Griffith Joyner was faster.

No, not even “the most interesting man in the world” is beyond reproach. I take Deford’s comments on ESPN as food for thought, but I’m not going to try and make a whole meal out of them.