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Bad Call

August 4, 2014 | by

The growing redundancy of sports commentary.


Photo via Wikimedia Commons

You’re gonna have to learn your clichés. You’re gonna have to study them, you’re gonna have to know them. They’re your friends. Write this down: ‘We gotta play it one day at a time.’
Bull Durham

They smelled the jugular.
—Sportscaster Chris Berman, during the 2002 NFL playoffs

In 1945, George Orwell’s “The Sporting Spirit” appeared in the leftist weekly Tribune. The essay argued that large-scale athletic competition, rather than creating a “healthy rivalry” between opponents, is more likely to rouse humanity’s “savage passions.” Thus: “There cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of nationalism—that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.”

To a contemporary reader, Orwell’s assessment of the “sporting spirit” may feel exaggerated, if not slightly paranoid. Then again, in an age of rampant merchandising, zealous fandom feels more pervasive than ever. Not long ago, riding the subway, I saw an infant with a San Francisco 49ers pacifier; in the same car, there was a man wearing an Ohio State football sweater bearing the laconic slogan, “Fuck Michigan.” What Orwell might have thought of such displays of allegiance is anyone’s guess.

But what he would find troublesome is sports culture’s continued abasement of the English language. Professional sports jargon has become so vacuous that TV interviews with athletes are increasingly farcical—and tremendously boring. An interview with LeBron James, after a botched play at the end of a quarter:

INTERVIEWER: Lebron, what happened with you and Norris on that inbounds pass?
JAMES: We didn’t execute.
INTERVIEWER: You were talking to him as you guys walked off the floor. What did you say?
JAMES: That we need to execute better.

Perhaps such vagueness is intentional: if LeBron James had, in fact, just told his teammate that if he makes the same mistake again he’s going to rip his face off, he’d be disinclined to share it with a national audience. For similar reasons, a coach interviewed at halftime isn’t going to be too forthcoming when asked to reveal his strategy for the remainder of the game: “Well, Chris, we’ve just gotta keep pressuring their quarterback and not make any unnecessary mistakes.”

David Foster Wallace puts forth a more cerebral take on this trend in his essay “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.” Wallace was fascinated by pro athletes—they could “execute” under insane pressure and, asked afterward how they did it, would resort to clichés:

How can great athletes shut off the Iago-like voice of the self? How can they bypass the head and simply and superbly act? How, at the critical moment, can they invoke for themselves a cliché as trite as “One ball at a time” or “Gotta concentrate here,” and mean it, and then do it? Maybe it’s because, for top athletes, clichés present themselves not as trite but simply as true, or perhaps not even as declarative expressions with qualities like depth or triteness or falsehood or truth but as simple imperatives that are either useful or not … Those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it—and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.

It’s a seductive idea, but ultimately unconvincing. Suggesting that blindness and dumbness are the “essence” of their genius is to ignore that pro athletes hardly hold a monopoly on inarticulateness—theirs just gets a disproportionate amount of media coverage. Most of us are sadly inept when it comes to self-expression. And if, as Wallace suggests, spectators are the only ones able to articulate athletic genius, why is it that TV commentators, who should be the most well-informed and passionate spectators of all, are responsible for the most mundane platitudes in professional sports?

If you, like me, spend an irrational amount of your fleeting time on Earth watching huge men brutalize each other in hi-def, you’ll know what I’m talking about: “It’s hard to overstate what this win means for this organization”; “He’s got tremendous basketball IQ”; “You can feel the momentum swinging”; “They’re a real Cinderella story”; “They’ve got that championship swagger”; “They stepped up and made plays”; “These guys have to keep their continuity”; “He makes his presence known on the field.” Et cetera. The silliness of these stock phrases becomes more apparent in a nontelevised context. The next time you get into a heated sports debate, try describing your favorite athlete as “an absolute specimen with great physicality.” For maximum effect, keep a serious expression and maintain eye contact.

In fairness to the Marv Alberts of the world, sportscasting requires live commentary on the same activity, night after night, season after season. How realistic is it to expect linguistic ingenuity? Criticizing a sportscaster’s lack of originality might be as obnoxious (and pointless) as lamenting the uninspired prose of the user manual that came with your new toaster.

Which makes me wish I could ignore the current trend in redundancy that has seemingly infected every foot- and basketball announcer on TV. These commentators have developed a verbal tic that compels them to remind the viewer, constantly, which sport is being discussed. Basketball players with consistent jump shots are no longer just good shooters—they’re “good at shooting the basketball”; astute quarterbacks are commended for calling out “excellent football plays.”

If you’ve been exposed to this verbosity for long enough, it no longer sounds bizarre. To the uninitiated ear, though, it’s hard to ignore. I was watching a football game with a friend when the commentator announced that “this offense loves to run the football.” My friend: “Why don’t they just say ‘run the ball’? What other kind of ball is it going to be?”

Conversely, a new shorthand has oozed its way into the parlance of professional and college basketball: centers and taller forwards are now referred to as “bigs,” while a team that prevents their opponent from scoring on a possession has made a “stop.” After a losing effort, coaches and players will now offer this Neanderthal explanation: “We really needed to get more stops, but their bigs really stepped up and made plays. That cost us the basketball game.”

After a prolonged TV spectacle like college football’s Bowl Week (whose contests last year included the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and the Bowl, the latter being only a slight improvement on the all-time most absurd Bowl), watching English Premiership matches or Six Nations rugby on BBC feels like a cultural upgrade. There’s less advertising. There’s less analysis of bullshit statistics (“Headed into this matchup, the Kentucky Wildcats are 11-3 in games played within four days of their coach’s annual colonoscopy”). And, on British television, the commentators’ linguistic repertoires don’t feel as inhibited; there’s more room for an occasional flourish. Why can’t we have a color analyst like Ray Hudson, who, in his exuberance, will announce that we’ve just witnessed “a Bernini sculpture of a goal,” or claim that watching Lionel Messi “softens the hard corners of our lives”?

Surely the hollow phrasings of play-by-play announcers aren’t comparable to instances where bad language is truly malevolent, as when despots employ euphemism to conceal mass murder. The latter is a concern of Orwell’s most famous essay, “Politics and the English Language,” where he argues that much political speech and writing has become a “defense of the indefensible.” But he also insists that the decay of language can be combatted, and that it is necessary to do so, since “bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.” If this fight against banal language isn’t to be confined to the political sphere, then we’d be well advised to choose our words with care, even, and perhaps especially, when we’re discussing harmless distractions.

Fritz Huber is an editorial assistant at Outside Magazine.



  1. Lester Ballard | August 4, 2014 at 3:05 pm

    When I watch sports on TV it’s with the sound muted. The only thing I watch sports news for are the scores and highlights, muted.

  2. Bonhomme Richard | August 4, 2014 at 3:33 pm

    I wouldn’t say Six Nations Rugby has less advertising. Yes, there are fewer commercial breaks, but the field of play has a giant corporate sponsor logo painted in the center at a surreal angle, so it looks three-dimensional on TV. It’s extremely distracting.

  3. Ignatius | August 4, 2014 at 4:34 pm

    Well, give Vin Scully a little listening time. He is the last poet of his clan, stretching back to Red Barber and Dizzy Dean, including the late Dave Niehaus in Seattle. Lots of popular art consists of adroit ordering of cliches and commonplaces. Scully is the best in class in this regard.

  4. Michael Gorra | August 4, 2014 at 9:23 pm

    I’m so used to the dimness of most American sports commentary that I was startled by the pith and clarity of ESPN’s coverage of the World Cup, the athlete interviews included. Especially the moments in which they spoke about failure

  5. J. Miner | August 4, 2014 at 10:02 pm

    Kruke and Kipe (Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper) for the SF Giants. Also Jon Miller.

  6. Metatone | August 5, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    Seek out some quotes and Youtube of Sid Waddell’s darts commentary. Now that’s another world.

  7. Jared | August 5, 2014 at 1:01 pm

    Thus why I watch British Formula 1 coverage instead of the crap on NBC Sports.

  8. Jason | August 5, 2014 at 3:43 pm

    No commentator better illustrates these points than Fox NFL’s Troy Aikman. Not only is he robotically verbose but he abuses superlatives. Sorry Troy, the but the best player in the league isn’t on the field every time you get behind the mic. Not only that but he feels compelled to speak at all times even when there is nothing to say (except the obvious). With no time to gather his thoughts we’re lucky if what he says is just obvious and not actually wrong or silly.

    As a fan, let me hear the game. *Dead air* without your voice is fine. Please jump in when you have something insightful to say but otherwise just let me enjoy what’s left of the games I used to love so much more.

  9. Na | August 5, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    Good call Metatone. Sid Waddell was a master wordsmith.

  10. Shawn L. | August 5, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    The better commentators tend to be on radio (especially in baseball). Since the picture has to be painted in words there’s little need for banal filler.

    Also, the more colorful and artful commentators tend to be chased off. Part of it is too much of a reliance on former players in the booth for color commentary, and a hostility towards non-jocks in anything but the play-by-play or sideline reporter role.

    I loved Dennis Miller and Tony Kornheiser in their respective runs on Monday Night Football. But their being “non-traditional” made them controversial.

    Even the more outspoken and colorful ex-athletes who go into broadcasting, tend to be kept out of the in-game commentary booth, and in studio shows.

  11. MN | August 5, 2014 at 5:08 pm

    Last EPL season, halfway through a tedious match in which Suarez had returned to the field for the first time after serving a suspension for biting Ivanovich, commentator Gary Neville remarked that the game “just doesn’t have that bite.” And his tone was such that he wasn’t making a cute joke so much as taking a piss. We could use more of that.

    NFL and NBA casters tend to be the worst offenders.

    In my view, what the NFL offers is so boring it doesn’t deserve to be narrated. Writing about American football is like dancing about indigestion.

  12. Mo | August 5, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    The Barclays Premier League has less advertising? Perhaps if you ignore the fact that the jerseys are giant advertisements with small team logos on them and the league itself is sponsored much in the way that bowl games are. Not only are all of the players walking advertisements, but anyone who supports the team by purchasing their jerseys also end up being walking ads for the teams’ sponsor.

  13. Andrew Lochart | August 5, 2014 at 6:19 pm

    I wish there were more Marv Albert’s because he used to come up with some dandies. I recall two of his best descriptions of slam dunks from hers ago: “An in your face disgrace”, and “A no playin’, get out of the wayin’, backboard swayin’, game delayin’ jam.”

  14. Paul Brennan | August 5, 2014 at 7:24 pm

    There was a British darts commentator Sid Waddell, dead now a few years, that really made the sport. It is the only time that the commentator has added anything to a sporting event in my long life.

    Some of his quotes…

    “It’s the greatest comeback since Lazarus”
    “When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer….. Bristow’s only 27.”
    “He’s burning the midnight oil at both ends!”
    “There’s only one word for that – magic darts!”
    “It’s like trying to pin down a kangaroo on a trampoline”
    “The atmosphere is so tense, if Elvis walked in with a portion of chips, you could hear the vinegar sizzle on them”

  15. Dan Piepenbring | August 5, 2014 at 9:18 pm

    Paul, those are incredible!

  16. Nate | August 6, 2014 at 5:18 pm

    I fully agree with your NBA and NFL points. If you want to hear some great commentary, have a listen to Mike Emrick announcing for the NHL. I have always enjoyed his vast vocabulary.

  17. TheRealCBONE | August 6, 2014 at 9:05 pm

    It’s no surprise that the most bombastic wordsmiths are paired with the most boring sports. Of course the guy commentating baseball, darts, soccer, cricket, etc. is needed to sass things up with over-the-top descriptive wordplay. Those sports would be like watching paint dry in a darkroom without it. Most NBA and NFL color commentators are terrible and mostly unnecessary. True analysts add value to the event.

4 Pingbacks

  1. […] the sense of belonging was also addressed in “Bad Call” (2014) by Fritz Huber, while referencing a George Orwell piece: “The Sporting Spirit” […]

  2. […] Foster Wallace’s “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart”; Fritz Huber’s “Bad Call: The growing redundancy of sports commentary”; Justin C. Staley’s “The End of the Game“; and William Zinsser’s […]

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