Deford was the recipient of this year’s Red Smith Award by the Associated Press Sports Editors. For nearly 30 minutes, he entertained with stories and insights of a legendary career at Sports Illustrated and beyond.
Then, as any good writer does, Deford saved his best for last. He talked about his concern for the direction of sportswriting and the overall impact the new media age has had on dumbing down society.
Pay close attention:
Like everyone else, I have no idea what’s going to happen to the future of our profession. The great thing about sportswriting is that it’s about storytelling. The drama, the glamor. Every day, somebody wins and somebody loses. The secret, the reality is, if you can’t write about sports, you can’t write. You ought to get out of the business.
I don’t want to see sportswriting be overwhelmed by statistics. I want to read about the heart and blood of athletes and their stories, which has made sportswriting so special.
I worry who is going to pay for the expensive stuff. The long, expensive, investigative pieces, the enterprise journalism. The work that matters more than anything else and justifies the whole experience as journalists.
I worry about creating a large class of college educated people who may be optionally illiterate. Yes, they can read and write, and yes, they have a diploma, but they’ve chosen not to read and write. Texting is not writing. Text is clearing your throat. The best writing is about seduction. Texting is the literary equivalent of air kissing.
I fear we’ve created a small intellectual elite and an otherwise unlearned class of people. I can’t conceive of anyone who doesn’t read anything substantial. If you can see too much through video, you lose the capacity to try to deduce, and more importantly, you lose the capacity to imagine. That’s what writing allows us to do.
I see the future being so bright, and yet at the same time blurry. That’s where we are at now.
Deford then concluded by holding up a piece of paper that said -30-. “For those of you who remember what this means,” he said.
It was a powerful speech that packed so many truths. Hopefully, people in our business will take note.
Here are some other highlights from the speech:
On Red Smith: The most literate, entertaining columnist ever. He showed great writing belongs in the newspaper as much as anywhere else.
On covering Billie Jean King: If there was a Title IX that changed things, Billie was Title XIII. She was the most significant (athlete) of the 20th Century. Culturally, I was so lucky to have her at the beginning of my tour.
On the late great National: It was the last great newspaper adventure in the country. (While on his book tour) Invariably, there’s always somebody who comes along with a first or last copy of the National for me to sign. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get it out. Only a week after we started, I couldn’t get it delivered to my house. I thought to myself, ‘We’ve got a problem here.’
On editors (early in the speech, Deford paid tribute to Tom Patterson, a former editor at the National who died last week): A wonderful old newspaper man Gene Fowler once said, ‘Every editor needs a pimp for a brother so they would have someone to look up to’…I don’t want to be soupy, but editors are the soul of our profession. Before my experiences at the National, I was too damn conceited to fully appreciate that.