Frank Deford: Americans obsessed with sports

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ARLINGTON -- One need look no further than golf to become fully aware of how invested Americans are in sports, Frank Deford told his audience.

The longtime Sports Illustrated writer and author recalled a piece he wrote for Sports Illustrated some time ago that included a survey.

"Eighty-one percent of the golfers said that they would rather shoot par than spend the night with the most beautiful woman in the world," Deford said to hearty laughter as part of a frank, witty and, at times, edgy discussion of the culture of sports on the American public at Texas Hall on the campus of UT Arlington on Tuesday night.

"I don't play golf," he quipped, presumably to assure those gathered where he stood on the matter.

But, he said, that "seductive lure" has beget as a byproduct of problems, particularly on America's college campuses.

There are two great myths in American sports, Deford said.

"Next year, soccer will be popular in the United States," Deford said. "And next year, college presidents will do something to clean up college sports."

College athletics is corrupt at its base, Deford said.

Where else in the world, he noted, does "anybody try to enforce amateurism and with such big money at stake."

Deford joked about an administrator in Oklahoma telling the state legislature there that the goal was to build a "university our football team could be proud of." Or Jerry Tarkanian once saying he preferred recruiting junior college players because they "already got their cars."

But all joking set aside, Deford said he fears there is a much larger cultural problem at work.

Soon, 60 percent of college students will be female, not a problem until one realizes that American boys are failing because of the push by parents and others to succeed in sports even when almost all have no future there past high school. (Deford acknowledged that the increase in the enrollment of women could be "because they're smarter than us.")

It's also evident in the fact that more American college students major in sports management than engineering, he said.

The obsession, of course, extends to Americans' sports heroes.

Deford remembered a time he wrote a takeout on former Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, a legend whose most loyal fans in the southern football stronghold probably really did believe he could walk on water.

One very small and simple detail of the story in SI painted an unglamorous picture of the coach.

A firestorm ensued, he said, including hundreds of letters to his editor and petitions of thousands of names asking for him to be fired.

Then a letter from a church pastor arrived one day.

"Dear Mr. Deford, it said," Deford deadpanned before hitting the punch line. "Whenever your parents decide to get married, I would be delighted to perform the ceremony."

But despite its excesses and imperfections, sports is a beautiful art form that should be celebrated in this country with the likes of Monet, its best authors and musicians.

And it has a place as a unifier of a fragmented and uber-splintered society preoccupied by technology that ultimately separates us more and more.

He underscored his point with the example of two students he saw the other day walking together but each communicating with someone else by phone.

"Sports is a unifier," Deford said. "It brings us together more so than ever."

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