If art is meant to touch people, some of its more sensitive aficionados felt as if Frank Deford had stiff-armed them.

In his weekly commentary on National Public Radio last month, the famed Sports Illustrated writer and author suggested that athletic feats should be held in the same regard as art works. Deford had recently heard the athletic director at his alma mater, Princeton University, insist that colleges should give academic value to school athletic performances, similar to that received by art or music students.

Deford wondered why collegians can major in music or drama, but not football.

“Is not what we see Michael Jordan do every bit as artistic as what we saw Mikhail Baryshnikov do?” he asked the NPR audience.

His listeners rejected that idea like Greg Oden blocking a point guard’s shot.

“I was astounded by the response to that,” Deford said by telephone last week. “I thought I was going to get some mail, and some people would say, ‘I thought that was very interesting — sport should be considered art, and some people saying, ‘No, I don’t think so.’”

They weren’t that diplomatic.

“The mail was vehement — vehement — and one-hundred percent. It didn’t really address the topic, but it said in effect, ‘You’ve got a nerve. To think that all the things that sport gets, all the money, all the attention, now you’re saying you should equate it [to art]?’” Deford said in a voice that smoothly rises from baritone to tenor, paralleling his intensity.

“They were mad at me, and I said, ‘Hey, I’m just the messenger,’” he added, chuckling. “But it showed tremendous antipathy that’s out there toward college and high school athletics.”

If sportswriting can be considered art, many consider Deford to be that craft’s Picasso. The 68-year-old Baltimore native, who will speak in Tilson Auditorium on the Indiana State University campus at 7 p.m. Monday, was labeled America’s best sportswriter by the American Journalism Review. The Sporting News called Deford “the most influential sports voice among members of the print media.” GQ magazine went a step further, hailing Deford as “the world’s greatest sportswriter.”

To be sure, Deford is indeed a journalist, well-versed in its necessity for balance. Thus, his sport-is-art-too argument doesn’t disregard the realities raised by those irate NPR listeners. Deford understands that sport does indeed get financial and spiritual commitments from schools that the arts long to have.

Those uneven priorities, though, don’t make a Larry Bird jumpshot any less artistic, Deford reasons.

“I had people write in and say, ‘At my high school, we just dropped all the art and music courses, and yet we have a new gymnasium. What do you say about that, buster?’” Deford said. “And that’s very valid. I think there’s no question that we overstate the emphasis of athletics in this country.”

The intrinsic value of his own profession has changed since Deford entered it more than four decades ago.

“When I went into it in the 1960s, it was one step up from being a hobo,” Deford said, laughing.

These days, he sees a greater number of talented writers pursuing sportswriting. “On the other hand, I think the emphasis now is not on good writing,” Deford continued. “It’s on flashy stuff. It’s the ESPN-ization of writing. Everything is inside stuff and picking. And there are just so many games, you just don’t get the opportunity to write the way that it used to be.”

Deford, author of 15 books including a 2007 novel “The Entitled,” continues to write almost every day, except when he’s traveling. Still, he insists he’s not a workaholic. “I’ll sit down and have a cocktail at night,” Deford said. “I’m not crazy.”

He’s also not a sports junkie. He doesn’t play golf. He’s never collected anything besides shampoo bottles from hotel rooms.

“I don’t think you could even say that sports is my hobby,” Deford explained. “It is for a lot of people. They watch games all the time on television and are real authorities. And I’m not a sports authority in the general sense of the word. I think I’m a sports observer.”

This coming New Year, he won’t be watching football bowl game after bowl game. “I think the only bowl game I would watch would be the big one — the championship game,” Deford said.

“Most people who are interested in sports have a discreet interest in one sport or one team — they know the ins and outs of one team or one sport,” he added. “And I’m more of an observer of sport — the institution, the culture. That’s what’s always intrigued me, and what mostly I’ve written about is the people. The people have interested me more than the games.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at mark.bennett@tribstar.com or (812) 231-4377.

Discovering Deford

Who: Sports Illustrated icon, author and commentator Frank Deford.

What: Deford will appear as part of ISU’s University Speakers Series.

When: 7 p.m. Monday.

Where: Tilson Auditorium.

Cost: Admission is free and the event is open to the public.

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