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Rockmonster Unplugged: Is sports writing fine art, or monkey business?

Frank Deford speaking in publisher of the sports daily on June 12, 1991, the National holding a dummy version of the final edition of the tabloid. (AP Photo/Susan Ragan)
Frank Deford speaking in publisher of the sports daily on June 12, 1991, the National holding a dummy version of the final edition of the tabloid. (AP Photo/Susan Ragan)
Susan Ragan, AP

I teach a college class in sports reporting, and though there are plenty of broadcast students who take the course, the focus is on writing. Not so much “hot take” writing, or “analytics” and such. Though those clearly have their place, my hope is that aspiring writers will also learn storytelling, imagery and pace.

Those are in short supply nowadays.

Late last month, legendary sports writer Frank Deford passed away. The man best known for his work at Sports Illustrated, was a lion in sports media — a literary sports journalist. That isn’t the way most sports reporters even want to be described in 2017. It probably wasn’t the norm decades ago either, when Deford first began.

I once had a weary and jaded sports writer tell me, “You could teach a monkey to do this job.”

The way he wrote, I was almost convinced.

Deford was on the other end of the spectrum, a writer more than just a chronicler.

These days, in a landscape in which every press conference is aired live, and access to athletes is restricted to a few uninteresting bromides, quality writing remains something talk radio, live broadcasts and Twitter can’t duplicate. It’s a place where a sense of satisfaction is delivered at the ending.

Most people don’t have the inclination to read a piece for half an hour, and some can't even sit through an 800-word column. But for those who love reading, there are few things more worthwhile. There’s a start, an end, and a mood that can’t be captured in a hurried sound bite.

Great sports writing isn’t limited to long-form features. If I were telling young sports writers what to study — which I do — I would tell them to read John Schulian, Jim Murray, Rick Reilly, Johnette Howard, Tom Friend and many others. Not just read them, but study them.

It takes a few minutes, but no more than reading all your Twitter Moments.

The passing of Deford is the loss of one who helped elevate sports writing to fine writing. Here's hoping the craft doesn't ever get boiled down to just what you can see in the quick takes.