Sweetness And Light

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The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

Sports Antics Leave the Fun Behind

The lightheartedness of sports has gone missing. Storytelling and good-natured ribbing between players and coaches has been replaced by player antics that lack taste or humor.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

Of course, tailgating has an entirely different meaning for sports fans. It's a time for food, fun and conversation before the game. But commentator Frank Deford says that the on and off field conduct of some players is hardly worth talking about.

FRANK DEFORD: Sports are not nearly so oral as once they were. The whole world is more visual after all. Just look how videos changed the music industry: It's no longer enough just to hear music. And like that, what we hear now from players simply doesn't have either much weight or lightness anymore.

But all sports once did have a great oral tradition. Road trips led to jokes and tall tales. Now even the closest teams are divided by iPods and cell phones. Teams are no longer connected at the ear.

Perhaps the most evocative old reminiscence came from a fine old pitcher named Waite Hoyt, who said this: In the daytime you sat in the dugout and talked about women. At night, you'd go out with women and talk about baseball.

There were funny players on every team. It was not considered antithetical to a coach's success for him to also possess a sense of humor. Why Casey Stengel was the best manager of his time, and the most comical as well. Al McGuire uttered comic epigrams as clever as Will Rogers ever did. Duffy Daugherty and Jimmy Valvano could do grade-A stand-up. Southern country boy coaches like Herman Hickman and Abe Lemons were about the last of the nation's cracker barrel philosophers.

Genuinely funny players like Joe Garagiola, Bob Uecker, Hot Rod Hundley and Don Meredith went on to become first-rate announcers. Their wit was what recommended them. Now only dull stars are chosen to deaden the microphone with what I call the IO: the inside obvious.

Given this decline of natural spoken comedy in sport, I was genuinely amused when athletes started acting out vaudeville routines, especially in the end zones. Hey, it was just a sign of the times, a shift from the oral to the visual; the players' expression of the sort of comedy they'd grown up with.

When Terrell Owens hid a Sharpie in his sock and signed the football after a touchdown catch, I found it both original and delightful. Alas, with time we have discovered that Owens is not at all a funny fellow. He appears to be primarily narcissistic and the very opposite of funny. He's mean-spirited. His ugly public criticism of his last two quarterbacks, Jeff Garcia and Donovan McNabb, was vulgar and unforgivable. He is simply all for TO, as he is, to his delight, famous enough now to be an acronym.

ESPN, which has all but ceded responsible news coverage in order to supply non-stop, Paris Hiltonian reportage of TO, has only fed the beast. We laughed at Dennis Rodman, but uneasily, for we feared he might really be pathetic. I felt no similar sympathy for Owens the other day when we were dragged through a kinda, maybe, sorta, iffy suicide attempt that was conveniently reported by his personal publicist with a full-scale press conference to follow immediately in time for the evening SportsCenter.

None of it is funny anymore and he does not deserve our attention.

AMOS: The comments of Frank Deford, the senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated. He joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos in for Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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Sweetness And Light

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The Score On Sports With Frank Deford