Sportswriting legend speaks his mind, indulges fans
In a fundraiser for UALR’s radio stations, KLRE and KUAR, legendary sportswriter Frank Deford spoke to a very responsive audience that hung on his every word.
Deford served as the keynote speaker at the event at the Embassy Suites in Little Rock on Sept.19, proceeds from the evening are expected to help upgrade the radio station’s aging audio equipment. Deford, a prolific author, also participated in a book signing afterward.
The Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame member and six-time U.S. Sportswriter of the Year winner was introduced by Arkansas Democrat Gazette writer Rex Nelson.
Deford didn’t disappoint in delivering a message that was both timely and topical. His message – the corruption of college athletics. More specifically, his topic was the plight of amateur athletics in the big business of college sports.
Deford got the crowd on his side early with his opening remark, which he attributed to legendary coach Bobby Knight.
‘The best time in a sportwriter’s life is the three years he spent in second grade.’
Deford discussed the importance that sports has within a community and that the worst thing that you could say about a city is that it was a “bad sports town”.
The tone turned more serious when he began to speak about what he called the “grossly hypocritical” athletic scholarship. “The football and basketball players are, as we know, for the most part poor African American kids; they’re precisely the ones effectively acting as unpaid entertainers, ideally supposed to support the entire athletic budget,” he said.
“They must work on their sport year-round and for my money, they should get paid and get paid big.”
Deford expanded the speech to his thoughts on extracurricular activities other than athletics. “Why do those students (athletes) get scholarships when the college men and women who play in the school orchestra, act in campus dramatics, sing in college musicals, write for the college newspaper, work for the college radio station – why do athletes get money, scholarships for their extracurricular work and those other talented students don’t?”
“Schools make sports seem more important than art, music, or literature, which serves to foster a more anti-intellectual atmosphere,” he said. He said that this is a problem that is present in high schools as well as colleges.
Deford recounted the time that he met then-President Bill Clinton, who didn’t know him though first Lady Hilary Clinton did, and meeting and becoming friends with Bill Russell. He mentioned writing a story about former University of Arkansas head coach Nolan Richardson. He spoke of the importance of National Public Radio, which covers world and national news.
Deford is a commentator on a weekly radio show that airs Wednesdays on NPR, which is carried by UALR’s station. Deford also continues to appear on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.
He also reflected on how in the United States, as opposed to other countries which may be passionate about only one sport, there are many sports that are popular. “In this country, we have four or five – baseball, basketball, football, soccer, and in some parts of the country, hockey,” he said.
Deford believes that the professional sports leagues in the country is the place to see the best at their craft. “The crowd may be huge, noisy, and may even be vulgar, but what you’re seeing is the best,” he said. “And that makes sport in one sense, in a very real sense, our most important art and that does matter.”
“We are so fragmented in society today…but sports have that curious way of bringing us together and making us find some unity. It’s truly a unifying element. Sports is really the lingua franca of the world today.”