Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

The Two Faces of the Sports Reporter

Several years ago, when I found myself the editor of America's daily sports newspaper, The National, I was shocked to learn that I had been chosen as an elector for the Heisman Trophy. As sports writers, we are not only the chroniclers but the gatekeepers, too.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We now turn to the sports pages, where you'll find not just news but plenty of opinion. It turns up in reporting and in voting for sports honors like the Heisman Trophy. Here's commentator Frank Deford.

FRANK DEFORD: Several years ago, when I found myself the editor of America's daily sports newspaper The National, I was shocked to learn that I had been chosen as an elector for the Heisman Trophy.

That of course is the consecrated award given to the nation's best college football player - Troy Smith of Ohio State winning this Saturday past.

While being a Heisman voter is something more selective than, say, casting a ballot for the American Idol, it isn't quite like sitting on the Supreme Court. There are about 900 Heisman franchise holders. Most all of them are sports journalists, so by profession I was a fair choice. By any other standard, however, I was woefully unqualified. I had never covered college football and had written about it mostly as a novelist.

I thought about not casting my ballot, but then I decided that I sort of represented that vast hoard of fans out there who don't really know much about a sport but possess strong, unsubstantiated opinions. I was every man. Anyway, I figured if the Heisman folks had ordained me as a voter, there must be a lot of other bozos also casting ballots. So I dutifully exercised my franchise.

Well, hey, that is the divine right of sportswriters. Political reporters only get to write about regular people who are polled. In sports, we are the polls. It is our votes which decree who are the top teams in almost all college sports. By our votes we determine who the most valuable players are and who gets into most halls of fame. Yea, we are not only the chroniclers but also the gatekeepers.

Most of us sportswriters do try to be fair, but we are human, or subhuman, as many players would have us. And certainly we're less prejudice than coaches who vote their own self-interest in companion polls in college football and basketball. I see the coaches as sort of the House of Lords to our fourth estate Commons.

Many newspapers now refuse to allow their sportswriters to vote. And given this trend, at a certain point there won't be any writers from the major newspapers left eligible to vote. Of course, at a certain point there may not be any major newspapers left. Then we can just determine who's number one by who screams loudest on talk radio.

In any event, the question about sportswriters' suitability to vote is going to come to a boil next month when the hall of fame votes from baseball writers are announced. Mark McGwire is eligible for the first time, and given the drug suspicions attending him, it's going to be a big fuss.

Almost surely McGwire won't get many votes, but then it's only a throwaway election like the kind Joe Liebermann loses. McGwire will be on the ballot for another decade, and voters can, in effect, keep McGwire bottled up in committee while they wait for more evidence. Don't take this election seriously.

And as for me, as soon as my newspaper failed and I went back to just being an NPR commentator, the Heisman Trophy people immediately revoked my vote. My ignorance was, once again, simply bliss.

MONTAGNE: The comments of Frank Deford, 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 Renee Montagne.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford