Frank Deford

Jacques Barzun, the esteemed cultural historian, lived 104 years and wrote a multitude of words about the most important issues in society, but when he died last week, his one quote that was invariably cited was a pithy one that he wrote back in 1954: "Whoever wishes to know the heart and soul of America had better learn baseball."

Never mind that that is no longer even remotely true.

It's largely forgotten now — but there was a time when the mere mention of Brooklyn would produce a cascade of laughs. It was like saying "woman driver" — surefire guffaws. Everybody from Brooklyn was supposed to be a character.

Every platoon in every war movie had one wise guy from Brooklyn in it. Brooklyn natives spoke funny. They said, most famously, "youse guys." At a time when African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanics barely existed — visibly — in movies or on radio or television, Brooklyn was the all-purpose stand-in for our great American ethnic diversity.

Of all the strained sports cliches, my favorite was "educated toe." Remember? An accomplished field goal kicker possessed an educated toe. I had a newspaper friend who wrote that a punter had an "intellectual instep," but the copy desk wouldn't allow it. Spoilsports.

My first protocol on rooting in sports is that you should stick with the teams that you grew up with. I know we're a transient society, but that's just it: Continuing to cheer for your original hometown teams is one way of displaying the old-fashioned value of allegiance.

If you grew up in Cleveland, say, and moved somewhere Sun Belt-ish, I know how hard it is, but the measure of whether you are a good person is that you must remain loyal to the Browns and Indians and that team that LeBron James left behind.

So, we found out that the National Football League is too big to fail. But not so big that it couldn't make a complete fool of itself and show to the world that its owners are stingy, greedy nincompoops.

Not so big that it couldn't make its commissioner, Roger Goodell, stand out in front, looking lost and small, so that their erstwhile tough-guy commander suddenly became an errand boy, losing respect and dignity that will be hard to regain the next time he needs it.

We're all familiar with the many sports terms that have moved into general usage: "par for the course," "slam-dunk," "curveball," "photo finish" and so on.

Curiously, though, every now and then something of the inverse occurs, and we get an expression which is commonly used that has been derived from sport, but never used in sport.

For example, that awful, overdone cliche, "level playing field." Never in my life have I ever heard anyone in sport — that is, somebody actually right there on the level playing field — say, "I'm glad we're playing on a level playing field."

All you have to know about the nonsense of college athletic conferences in America today is that the Big Ten has 12 members, and the Big Twelve has 10. Honestly.

But as badly as athletic conferences flunk arithmetic, they do no better with geography. Next year, for example, San Diego State will be in the Big East. This is like, you never could believe that Vladivostok, way out there, was really in Russia, could you?

Hi! Are you a gambler? Do you like to bet football? Then this is your lucky day, for if you'll just stay tuned, I'm gonna offer you a free money-back guarantee: how you, too, can pick an NFL winner. Just don't turn that dial, and listen to this important message.

Well, the Southeastern Conference season has begun. I have it on good authority that other college football teams around the country will also be playing games this fall.

I don't know when exactly the SEC took over America. I know this is hard to believe, but the epicenter of college football used to be in the Midwest. I'm so old, I can remember when Notre Dame actually mattered, and the real tough players were supposed to come from Western Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Certain forms of art are performed in private. The painter is alone when he paints, the writer likewise.

But the most pertinent aspect of the performing arts is that they are watched. Dance, music, drama and sport are most challenging — and most thrilling — precisely because they are real, before our eyes.

Sammy Mack

Journalist Frank Deford’s stories have appeared in Sports Illustrated, HBO Real Sports and NPR. He and his wife spend every winter in Key West, where Deford says he breathes in the island’s different air.

It’s very possible to dismiss Key West, as the British say, as just too much by half. I mean, you arrive at the airport and it says WELCOME TO THE CONCH REPUBLIC – and everybody is quick to let you know that Key West really isn’t Florida … which is to say: it’s too good for Florida, or, for that matter, too good for any mere state of the union.

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