Bad Call


On Sports

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.