Upon becoming the first sports journalist to be honored with the William Allen White Foundation National Citation on Friday, Frank Deford held up the craft of sports writing as something significant, while also worrying about its state in the Internet age.
A longtime magazine writer, radio commentator and television correspondent, Deford spoke Friday morning to a crowd of several hundred in the Kansas Union's Woodruff Auditiorium at Kansas University. His address came after he received the annual award from the trustees of the William Allen White Foundation, established in honor of the famous publisher of the Emporia Gazette to support journalism at KU and elsewhere.
On Thursday, Deford interacted with KU journalism students and faculty and White Foundation trustees.
He said this was not the first time he'd received acclaim around the university. In 1967, he endeared himself to Jayhawks by writing that the KU cheerleaders were "the best-looking in the country," he said.
But between that and other jokes that prompted the auditorium to rumble with laughs, he pondered about the state of sports writing and journalism.
He noted that he's the first winner of the honor to have worked primarily in the area of sports and that William Allen White himself wrote in his autobiography that "athletics did not interest me even remotely."
But few subjects are more ripe for telling stories than sports, he said, where there are winners and losers and ready-made drama.
"That fact it is found in every society throughout humankind history must mean something," Deford said. "Yes, religion and sex are also found in every culture. I wouldn't rank sports quite so high as that, but yes, it does matter."
But he said the digital age had made him concerned about the writing and reading of news in a way he guessed White would be, too.
It used to be that people would get from their daily newspaper an "eclectic" mix of subject matter, a wide-ranging summation of the day's events, he said. But people consuming news online have the ability to narrow in on only those things that interest them the most.
"Ironically the broadband, in many respects, has made us narrower," said Deford, who has received scores of awards for his writing and broadcast work.
Deford began working for Sports Illustrated in 1962, and today he's senior contributing writer at the magazine. He also provides weekly commentary on NPR's "Morning Edition" and serves as senior correspondent on HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel."
On Friday he remembered another experience: serving as editor of the failed daily sports newspaper The National in the early 1990s. Despite producing good content, he said, its leaders knew little about running the business.
"We lasted 18 months and lost $150 million," he said. "That's hard to do in 18 months."
Others have said to him the idea would have been perfect for the Internet, but he said he's skeptical, as the Web has not been kind to newspapers' finances.
Scott Reinardy, an associate professor of journalism at KU, offered a different take after Deford's talk: He said the modern news environment, with different media intersecting and demanding instant updates, is ideal for sports writers in some ways.
"My experience is sports journalists have adopted the Internet much more fluently than news writers in many respects," Reinardy said.
Deford criticized sports writers' inability to shine a light on performance-enhancing drug use and the seriousness of head injuries in football until recently. He challenged writers — sports and otherwise — to not just deliver information but to encourage readers to become well-rounded, educated citizens.
But athletics, he said, will always provide material.
"For better or worse, sports does lend itself so well to storytelling," Deford said. "Only love and war and fairy tales make for better stories."