Skip to main content

Frank Deford Goes One-On-One With A Sportian

Frank Deford, Wikimedia Commons

Legendary sportswriter Frank Deford passed away earlier this year. Since he coined the very word that I use for the title of this site, it seems only fitting that my first new post should feature Deford.

Deford, of course, hardly counts as a Sportian. His 1976 three-part Sports Illustrated series that explained and described the phenomenon of Sportianity was heavily critical of the movement. Sportians, Deford wrote, were "humorless and persevering," afraid to take a stand on moral issues, and far more "devoted to exploiting sport than to serving it." So sharp were Deford's barbs that evangelist Bill Glass, a former NFL star, called Deford's series "the biggest pile of garbage that has ever been perpetrated on the American public."

But there was a little-known epilogue to the "shot heard round the sports/faith world," as one leading Sportian called it. A year after his Sports Illustrated series was published, Deford went into the belly of the beast: he sat down for an extended interview with Gary Warner, editor of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes' official periodical, The Christian Athlete. The two went back and forth, Warner challenging some of Deford's claims and Deford standing his ground. They seemed to enjoy their lengthy conversation. Here is a taste of one section:

GW: You ended the last article by saying we should "look to the veteran GM in the sky and make this a rebuilding year." Has it been that?

FD: I've been away from it. You're a better judge. Did it have any impact? Did it make people think?

GW: Hmmmmmm.

FD: Oh, I see, this drunk liberal comes out from New York and . . . 

GW: No, the devil himself.

FD: That bad, huh?

GW: There were those who felt it was "the world" persecuting them. They had a chance to play martyr.

FD: Yeah, I got a letter from the brother of a well-known former pro quarterback who said it was obvious I hated all Christians. I couldn't believe some of the letters.

GW: Frank, you seem to be somewhat disenchanted with sports and yet you remain involved in it. Why?

FD: I'm always an observer. I've never really thrown myself into anything in life. I'm not part of the establishment. I'm not a writer who starts calling the team "we." I think people are wrong who buy sports hook, line, and sinker and pretend it's some fabulous little world. Look at the article I did on Oklahoma football. That was unreal. People don't want you to critique sports. You can attack the church or the government. People expect that. But not sports.

GW: Sports is a dream world?

FD: Yes, sports is a dream world, so don't attack it. Any comment on sport is multiplied to the fourth power. People call me a cynic. I believe I'm a constructive critic.

Near the end of the interview, Warner turned the conversation to the topic of faith--in particular, Deford's faith. Deford explained that he was an Episcopalian, but that he didn't have the type of belief that would satisfy an evangelical Christian.

GW: What if some of our fire and brimstone brethren put you up against the wall and demanded your testimony. How would you respond? 

FD: By most of these persons' definition of Christianity, I don't fit. By their standard you practically have to be Jesus except you can't evidence any of the kindness or forgiveness he had. And remember, I come from a different part of the country. People don't sit around at parties and discuss faith. I don't ever remember it coming up. If it did I would say I consider myself a practicing Christian who struggles to believe in the divinity of Christ. As I say, I'm jealous of people who can believe. I think that must be a marvelous comfort. I believe in the Judeo-Christian ethic, in everything that Jesus stands for. But I am never convinced in my mind that Jesus is the Son of God.

Although Deford was willing to talk about his personal religious views with Warner, by 1977 he had moved on to other writing subjects. Religion, he told Warner, "is not an easy subject to write about." Despite getting offers to publish a book on Sportianity, he passed. "Frankly," he said, "I was tired of religion and wanted to get on with other things." For the most part, Deford did just that. Few (if any) of the numerous eulogies of Deford mention his work on religion and sport. So much the better for Deford's legacy--one of his apparently second-tier projects became an essential introductory text for those who study the blending of sports and Christianity. 

The forgotten Christian Athlete interview, meanwhile, stands as a credit to both Deford and Gary Warner. Despite the uproar over Deford's "shot heard round the world," and despite Warner's sense that Deford had been somewhat unfair, the two were able to have a lively, insightful, and meaningful conversation. Deford defended his series and charmed just the same. I'll leave the last word to Warner: "We found him the same unpretentious, rapid talking, lanky Easterner we'd come to like the year before."  


  1. I'm quite intrigued by Frank Deford's comments about sports and criticism. Do you know of any specific writings in which he explores that dynamic further?

    1. Good question. There is not a specific piece that comes to mind, but the best place to start, I think, would be with his autobiography: Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

How Billy Graham Made Peace With Sunday Sports

Early in his evangelistic career, Billy Graham had a sermon in his repertoire based on Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s classic baseball poem “Casey at the Bat.” Delivered in the 1940s and 1950s, it was geared towards a Cold War age of atomic anxiety. The threat of nuclear warfare loomed; God’s judgment was at hand; America was like mighty Casey with two strikes against her.
 "Some of us have struck once, some twice. But you'll all, every last one of you, strike out when the Great Umpire of the Ages calls the balls and strikes," Graham warned his listeners. "The count is three and two, the next pitch is the last one. Decide now, before it's too late."
By the 1960s, Graham seems to have retired his “Casey at the Bat” sermon. Yet his take on Thayer’s poem nevertheless fits with two themes that remained consistent throughout Graham’s long ministry: his focus on a moment of spiritual decision, and his interest in sports. Indeed, Graham’s ministry provides a useful lens i…

Historical Reflections on Brian Smith's "The Assist"

Last weekend while visiting my home state of Nebraska, I ran into my old high school basketball coach. He was the leader of my school's Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) huddle group, and is still involved in FCA. Although it's been fifteen years since I played for him, we still keep in touch. In fact, I have it on good authority that he reads this website from time to time (what's up, coach?).

I bring up my former coach because when I read books geared towards sports and Christian living, I often think of him. These books are not written primarily for me, a historian who is not actively engaged in organized athletic competition or sports ministry. They are written for my high school basketball coach and the Christian athletes who play for him.

But even if I am not necessarily the primary intended audience for books in the sports-and-Christian-living genre, I like to read them and consider how they fit within the broad historical context of American Christian engageme…

Last Chance U: About Those Praying Football Teams From The South

On July 21 Netflix released Season 2 of Last Chance U, which documents the 2016 football season at East Mississippi Community College. Since you clicked on this post, I'm going to assume that you are familiar with Last Chance U's basic storyline--if not, this piece provides a nice introduction to the series.

On Season 1 of Last Chance U, it quickly became apparent that the Lord's Prayer was routine and familiar for members of the East Mississippi Community College football team. "Everybody touch somebody," head coach Buddy Stephens would say. Then, players' heads bowed, the words came tumbling out: "Our father who art in heaven...."

Apparently the efforts of the Freedom From Religion Foundation did not halt the prayers at East Mississippi, because Season 2 shows that rapid-fire recitations of the Lord's Prayer are alive and well in Scooba, Mississippi. Although team prayer is a common occurrence on college football teams across the nation, it is…