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Vol. LXI, No. 16
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
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Sports Illustrated Legend and PU Alum Deford Returns for Lecture on Sporting Landscape

Bill Alden

There is no question that major college sports has become big business, bringing with it a slew of issues as the pursuit of profit conflicts with ideals of athletic competition.

But legendary Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford will tell you that college sports spawned problems at the outset.

"College athletics started in the Ivy League and there were problems almost from the start," said Deford, referring to the Princeton-Rutgers football game in 1869.

"It didn't take long for college officials to want games cancelled because they thought there was too much emphasis on sports. The Ivy League can't hold itself above the crowd. Of course, problems with college athletics extend far beyond that."

Deford, a 1962 Princeton University alum, will return to his alma mater next week to elaborate on today's sporting landscape as he presents a lecture entitled "Sports: The Hype and the Hoopla " as part of the Jake McCandless '51 Princeton Varsity Club Speaker Series.

The award-winning sportswriter and noted raconteur promises an entertaining evening. "When you are talking about sports, you're not dealing with nuclear war," said Deford, whose talk will take place on April 24 at Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall beginning at 7:30 p.m.

"I will talk about a lot of things, I will tell some funny stories. It will be potpourri of things. When I speak at college campuses, I get into topics relating to college athletics. I'll try to surprise people to some degree."

It's no surprise that Deford is looking forward to his Princeton visit. "It's always nice to come back," said Deford, who has written 15 books, is a commentator with National Public Radio, and a regular correspondent on the HBO show RealSports with Bryant Gumbel.

"I taught American Studies here eight years ago. The last time I was there was two or three years ago to speak at the library in a series for Princeton University authors. It was a wonderful evening."

With a laugh, Deford acknowledges that he may have had too wonderful a time during his college years. "One of the great regrets of my life in terms of the things you can control is that I didn't take full advantage of classes during college," said Deford, a Baltimore native who served as the editor of the Daily Princetonian.

"I sloughed off. I basically wrote for four years — plays, short stories, and the Prince. I knew I was a good writer and I was in a hurry to get out in the world."

That versatility has served Deford well as he has put together a prolific and storied career with his work appearing in virtually every medium. His work at Sports Illustrated helped Deford get voted six times by his peers as the U.S. Sportswriter of the Year and landed him in the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Sportswriters. He has been described by GQ as simply the "world's greatest sportswriter."

His 15 books includes the forthcoming The Entitled, a novel about celebrity, sex, and baseball to be published in May. Two of his books, the acclaimed sports novel, Everybody's All-American, and Alex: The Life of a Child, his memoir about his daughter who died at age eight of cystic fibrosis, have been made into movies. Deford has won both an Emmy and the George Foster Peabody Award for his broadcast work.

Deford's current gigs with NPR and HBO allow him a unique sports platform. "It gives me different audiences," said Deford.

"I'm very lucky to be on NPR. Most sports audiences are limited to the sports pages, SportsCenter, and those listening to games or sports talk radio. I talk to people who for the most part don't care so much about sports. After all the years of writing long pieces with lots of research, its good to turn around and write three-minute essays. The HBO thing is like writing pieces for Sports Illustrated but with a lot more help. I have producers and a camera crew. It's not just me and the typewriter."

The groundbreaking work that Deford did with Sports Illustrated in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, holds a special place in his heart. "I take a lot of pride in my cumulative work at Sports Illustrated," asserted Deford. "I took the magazine form and massaged it. I made it different than before; I improved on it."

But Deford believes it's his efforts in fighting cystic fibrosis, not his writing, that will have the deepest impact on the world.

"If I have done any good in my life, it's through my work with cystic fibrosis," said Deford, who served as the head of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation for 16 years and is currently the group's chairman emeritus. "In 1980 when my daughter died, she was eight. Now the life expectancy is in the 30s. One of these days we hope to find a cure."

In the process, Deford's perspective on life has changed. "Death is grief and we have to put up with it," said Deford. "The death of a child may be the hardest to deal with; it is disorienting. But I learned from her life, not her death. I was living with a noble person who was always up and positive even when things were difficult. She made me appreciate life and the potential in the world."

And those in attendance next Tuesday when Deford speaks will surely be treated to a special slice of the sporting life.

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