There is a famous scene in ‘Bull Durham’ in which veteran minor league catcher Crash Davis (played by Kevin Costner) tells the rising, young fireballer Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) that to be successful in pro ball he has to ‘learn [his] clichés.’
‘You’re gonna have to study them. You’re gonna have to know them. They’re your friends,’ says Costner, feeding his pupil three crucial examples: “We gotta play them one game at a time”; “I’m just happy to be here. Hope I can help the ball club”; and “I just want to give it my best shot, and the good Lord willing, things will work out.” Punctuating the lesson, Costner adds, “Of course it’s boring; that’s the point.”
Anyone who has ever interviewed a professional athlete knows just how often these and similar clichés are used. Still, Costner’s primer wouldn’t even begin to prepare a rookie athlete for the bluster bonanza that is Super Bowl week. For all the hype and media coverage leading up to the big game on Sunday, in the end we will learn very little about the teams and individual players involved. That’s because players and coaches will deflect reporters’ questions with meaningless statements and banal expressions to avoid pregame controversy. Worse yet, the reporters will generally let them get away with it.
“An awful lot of sportswriting is driven by quotes because you want to show the reader that somebody will talk to you,” says Kevin Kerrane, a former sportswriter who is currently a professor of English at the University of Delaware. “But athletes and coaches never want to say anything controversial. The result is a lot of hot air.”
In an age when professional sports teams are teaching players media relations skills in preseason seminars, the use of the sports cliché in interviews and press conferences has become more pervasive than ever. But Kerrane, who has written and edited several sports books (including work as the editor of the recently released Batting Cleanup by veteran Philadelphia Daily News sports columnist Bill Conlin), says the style and tone of today’s sports clichés have definitely changed.
“Fifteen or 20 years ago, sports clichés came out of the pretentiousness of the people covering the games,” he says. “Players would hear Howard Cosell say ‘Revenge is sweet’ during Monday Night Football broadcasts and start incorporating that into their postgame comments. The trend of the ’90s was more toward street lingo or popular culture terminology. The lingo may be changing, but the subtext remains the same. ‘Stepping up’ was ‘we really came to play’ in the ’80s. The idea is to say something that won’t get you in trouble.”
With that, we offer this guide to the most overused examples of sports-speak found in a sports section near you:
* Smashmouth football. On Monday, Houston Chronicle columnist Fran Blinebury wrote that by beating the Bucs, the St. Louis Rams had shown they could “win a smashmouth game.” The writer went on to describe the NFC Championship Game as one filled with “punishing body blows” and “hand-to-hand combat.” Hmmm. Physical contact in a football game? Fact is, the term “smashmouth” once described a style of play that was more hard-hitting on defense and more run-oriented and laborious on offense. Because of overuse by coaches and commentators, however, virtually every NFL team at some point this season could lay claim to playing “smashmouth football.” Expect to hear the term a lot this week, particularly in connection with the Tennessee Titans, a truly run- and defense-oriented team.
* Make plays. Giants coach Jim Fassel likes to pepper his postgame press conferences with this one. Simply put, the phrase might describe how well an individual performs (“so and so just makes plays”) or how he needs to perform (“so and so needs to get out there and make plays”). Does it mean tackles? Receptions? Interceptions? Passes? Touchdowns? All of the above? No one ever asks. Worse, players now use the phrase to describe the good fortunes of a team during a game. After last Sunday’s playoff, for instance, Rams QB Kurt Warner told ESPN that he felt good about his team’s chances all along because “when it comes to making a play, we’ve made plays all year long.”
* A blue-collar guy. Often, valuable players who don’t have the best statistics can be given the honor of being dubbed a “blue-collar guy” (sometimes referred to as “a guy who brings his hard hat/lunch pail to work with him”). Players, and the reporters covering them, tend to link these “blue-collar” guys to the cities where they play and/or come from. Athletes born in New Jersey, for example (like St. Louis receiver Rickey Proehl), are almost always “blue-collar guys.” Monday, the Post‘s George Willis quoted Proehl as saying, “I’d like to think I’m a symbol of what St. Louis is all about—blue-collar, someone who works hard and tries to be consistent.”
* My Game. Michael Jordan’s impact on the sports world included not only how athletes were covered or treated by the media (remember, this guy had his own personal sideline reporter) but what could and should be said to the media as well. The phrase “my game,” used routinely now by players in basketball, football, and baseball, probably traces back to His Airness and his conversations with reporter/pal Ahmad Rashad. Today, when asked to evaluate their own performance, players will frequently say things such as “I’m just going out there and playing my game” or “Coach just lets me go out and play my game.”
* Focus. Another staple of Jordan’s postgame interviews, “focus” is often used to describe an individual or team performance, as in, “We were focused” or “We need to focus,” et cetera. What players and coaches fail to realize, however, is that the term usually falls short of answering how the team and/or player actually did. What were they focusing on? The postgame argument with the coach over minutes?
* Minutes. This term’s usage probably coincides with the rise in player salaries in the NBA, the only professional sports league to record playing time as an official statistic. Synonymous with phrases such as “PT” (for playing time), minutes are often watched by players much more closely than their teams’ wins and losses because playing time leads to higher averages in scoring, assists, and rebounds (and therefore higher salaries). Today’s hoopsters will frequently say things such as “I need my minutes” or “I’m not getting enough minutes.”
* The system. Sportscasters began referring to coaches’ game plans or techniques as “systems” in the mid to late ’80s, as the coaching profession’s profile began to even out with that of their players (see deified former Jets coach Bill Parcells). Broadcasters and beat writers will frequently comment on the success or failure of one’s “system”: “He needs players who will buy into his system.” Players like to discuss their feelings on their coach’s “system,” as in, “I fit into the system here” or “I signed here because I like the system,” et cetera. In other words: “Coach gives me my minutes.”
* Step up. We owe this one to former Knick and current Heat coach Pat Riley, the King of Coachisms. Riley frequently talked about the need for and/or ability of certain players to “step up” or play well in crucial situations. For example, in describing the often enigmatic and inconsistent play of former Knicks guard John Starks, Riley might say, “John really stepped up tonight,” or “We really needed John to step up tonight.” Now players don’t just play well, they “step up.” His star pupil—current Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy—at least has the decency to question the term. Last year, when the Knicks were making their playoff run, Van Gundy was asked what it would take for his team to beat San Antonio in the finals with several key players injured. “Our other guys, it’s that old cliché, have to step up,” he said. “I’m not really sure what that means.”
* Trying to find the answers/looking for answers. After falling behind 2-0 to the Spurs in the NBA Finals last spring, the Knicks’ Allan Houston told the media that his team was “looking for answers.” But what was the question? This phrase has become the standard answer to queries such as, “What do you think you need to do to improve in the next game?” It’s a way for players and coaches to address issues without letting on that they really don’t know what’s wrong.