"Knowing more earned-run averages than the next fellow has nothing whatsoever to do with sports writing. As a general rule, in fact, the worst sports writers are the experts, and more sports writers have been done in by becoming pseudo-coaches than were ever ruined by booze, women, or jet lag. In sports writing, a lot of knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
- Frank Deford
In that way that all your favourite things are the ones you first discovered at 15 years old, Frank Deford is my favourite sports writer.
Not a sportsy person, but rather an under-credentialled psychologist who’d got lost in a gymnasium, Deford was the great profiler of his generation. His suspicion of the basic material of pro sports – stats, videotape, jargon – was such that he once referred to football coaches with a German term, fachidioten. Specialty idiots.
Deford was not concerned with how sports are played, but what effect the playing has on people who do it. It doesn’t sound like much of a distinction, but it’s the difference between a textbook on Russian history and War and Peace.
If you are of a certain age, Deford and his contemporaries at Sports Illustrated defined how you thought about sports, at a time when sports were beginning to define the culture.
You read the local paper for scores and opinion. You read Sports Illustrated to better understand your own people. It was less journalism than anthropology.
An idea that aspirational – artistic, even – was always going to have a time limit. That limit came up this week.
At some point in recent years, Sports Illustrated had ceased to be an idea and instead became a brand. Once that happened, it was doomed.
The magazine was flipped around among corporate buyers, stripped of the protection history had built up around it and steadily devalued. The newest owner is one of those vampiric tech outfits that turn a little bit of published gold into a lot of internet lead, bleeding out their host in the process.
Sports Illustrated is not dead yet. It’s something worse. It’s a zombie version of its old self. It’s becoming something Deford would have hated.
It’s a sad state of affairs and makes you wistful. Perhaps you remember getting your copy in the mail and feeling the need to begin reading it in the doorway. Though I did not care anything about horse racing, yachting or high-school football, Sports Illustrated had a way of making those topics urgent.
What Sports Illustrated captured wasn’t just the romance of the games we play. Romance is cheap and easy. It was the tragedy, tedium and ridiculousness that attend all romantic things. The publication put super-human feats into human context. That’s expensive and hard.
SI’s writers had advantages that have disappeared for most sports journalists – time, unlimited resources, heft in the marketplace and, above all, access. People such as Deford, in so thoroughly dissecting their subjects, created the need for the public-relations establishment that now acts as a barrier between players and the media who cover them. Perversely, this means that Sports Illustrated helped ruin Sports Illustrated.
For a golden moment – a good long while, if you think about it – Sports Illustrated got the final word. No achievement could be fully registered until SI had its say. That often took a while and was always worth the wait.
Eventually, the internet showed up and things started to get quicker. I was first alerted to the existence of Google by an article in a magazine. I remember the moment precisely.
Now I learn about every single other thing from Google and can only vaguely recall any of it.
When you can suddenly know about anything at any time, the value of that commodity – knowing – declines.
It also makes it more difficult to discern among what is useful knowledge, what is peripheral knowledge and what is pure nonsense. Eventually, it becomes impossible. After a while, all that knowledge is boiled down to its elementary component – information. We’re now being hit by information – and, especially, information about sports – constantly.
If the compactness of Sports Illustrated was a cool drink, the information that has replaced it is like opening your mouth so that someone can insert a firehose.
So I do not mourn the decline of Sports Illustrated, or at least, not in the way most people who read it back in the day are doing right now. I miss the world Sports Illustrated took such a large hand in creating.
(For others, this could be a different, seminal publication. Rolling Stone, The Paris Review, Interview or what have you. Not everyone loves sports, but they do love something.)
That was a world in which you couldn’t know everything and carefully guarded the things you did. You didn’t just read books, but reread them occasionally to remind yourself of what was in there. You folded pages and underlined passages. You kept your magazines in order in boxes.
An article could live forever then. The topic was closed and, since there was only so much paper and memory available, why keep going?
Nowadays, articles birth more articles about those articles, resulting in articles refuting those articles, and eventually ending in a summation article that wonders why we cared about the article in the first place.
Once you exponentially multiply your points of reference, the result is inevitably self-reference. The thing is about itself. And no one has ever started a good story with, “Here’s what I think about what I heard happened …”
That’s what’s missing now: stories. They’re getting harder to find. There are great storytellers out there, but they’re hidden in a thicket of bad storytellers. Every time an institution such as Sports Illustrated is turned into a factory farm churning out catchy headlines, it gets harder to tell the difference.
You can’t kill stories, of course. They’ll survive. But it pains me in some small way that a generation might grow up without the variety of cultural touchstones I was lucky enough to have or, at least, ones not as obvious. It robs people of a common language, and makes it harder for them to understand each other. That’s a much broader question than the decline of the publishing business and, I think, far more pressing.
In the end, Deford was right about a lot of knowledge being a dangerous thing in sports writing, if not as he meant it.
Deford lived a long and remarkable life, so it is hard to regret his death. He had a better run than most. But I do regret he’s not around now to write about how he got it so right and so wrong at the same time.