Friday, July 12, 2013

Reaching Beyond Scores And Statistics

TigerBlog can't remember exactly how old he was when he first got a subscription to Sports Illustrated.

It was definitely in the early ’70s. He knows that for sure.

Among the earliest issues he remembers was the one with the 1973 Indy 500, which was one of the more tragic sporting events ever conducted.

Through the years, TB would get his magazine every Thursday (he's pretty sure it was Thursday) and then read it cover-to-cover.

The writing is what stood out mostly for TB.

Whenever someone asks TB for writing advice, his answer is always the same. Read good writers.

So while TB didn't realize it at the time, his own future as a writer was being shaped, in part, by reading Sports Illustrated every week.

TB thought of that when he saw that Princeton's Frank Deford was being honored by President Obama this week as one of the 12 recipients of the National Humanities Medal.

Deford was one of the writers for SI whose work TB read all the time. At the time, TB had no idea about Deford's connection to Princeton or, for that matter, about what TB's own connection to the University would be.

Deford, a one-time sports editor of the Daily Princetonian, is a member of the Class of 1961. This is the wording for his medal:

His citation for the National Humanities Medal reads as follows: Frank Deford, sports writer, for transforming how we think about sports. A dedicated writer and storyteller, Mr. Deford has offered a consistent, compelling voice in print and on radio, reaching beyond scores and statistics to reveal the humanity woven into the games we love.

The key words here for TB are "in print and on radio."

Way back when TB first started reading newspapers and magazines, there was a huge difference between those who were writers and those who were on TV and radio. None of those who wrote were ever visible, except if they had a small headshot next to their column or something like that.

Today, of course, it's all different.

The crossover between print and broadcast is everywhere. In fact, many of the top writers have become the most visible faces on television. Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, for instance, were both Washington Post writers long before they were ever on Pardon the Interruption on ESPN every weekday.

TB hasn't always been a huge fan of this crossover, partly because of the self-promotional aspect of it and partly because of how much of it has become a "notice me, let me see how outrageous I can be" race to the bottom.

When that story came out a few week ago about the sports-talk radio announcers who made jokes about Steve Gleason, the former New Orleans Saints football player who has ALS, TB couldn't help but wonder what the surprise was. Yes, it was completely tasteless.

But hey, what do you expect? The world is flooded now with those whose job it is to stand out, to be the most noticeable. Someone lowers the bar. Someone else needs to go lower. Eventually a dignified man with an incurable disease is the subject of knock-knock jokes.

All of this brings TB back to Frank Deford.

He was one of the first to go from writer to broadcaster. He did it on HBO, on National Public Radio, on other outlets. In many ways, he was a pioneer of the movement.

The difference is that his way was to elevate the conversation. He stood out with thought-provoking ideas, not schtick.

He has written extensively in his career about Princeton basketball, including a piece in Sports Illustrated from 1965, when Princeton reached the NCAA Final Four. Deford writes a great deal about Bill Bradley, and he also talks about Princeton's then-sophomore point guard.

Deford has returned to campus many times through the years. In fact, that former point guard, Director of Athletics Gary Walters, has brought him here for Princeton Varsity Club events.

TB has met Deford a few times, and there's a certain dignity to the way he speaks and interacts with people. He is a tall man with a soft voice, which only adds to the dignity. He is not screaming to be heard above the crowd; he is speaking ideas that rise above it.

And now he has been honored with a National Humanities Medal.

Those are given out by Presidents, and as such, they are not given to just anyone. The exact wording is this:
The National Humanities Medal honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities, broadened our citizens’ engagement with the humanities, or helped preserve and expand Americans’ access to important resources in the humanities.

Frank Deford clearly deserves his. He has spent his entire career engaging those who read his work or heard him speak to think differently and clearly about issues in a great range of areas, most particularly in athletics, with its unique issues and complexities.

That he's done so the way he has - with such a large degree of class - shows that it doesn't have to just be about who can scream the loudest.

Maybe those who feel inclined to will learn from him.

At the very least, it gives TB hope.

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