Once Again, Without Feeling: Athletic Cliches a Team Effort

"On Language"

Chicago Tribune

It’s the season of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and, as they inevitably say, you can throw the records out the window. And the mathematics. Over the next three weeks, in pregame pep talks and postgame press conferences, players and coaches will repeatedly make the math-defying pledge to give 110 percent and offer up boundless other basketball banalities.

“If anybody watches 10 seconds of sports on TV or reads anything between quotation marks in the paper, it’s almost all cliches,” says Steve Rushin, who writes the weekly “Air and Space” column for Sports Illustrated. “We all know those ready-made phrases so well you can almost predict them before they come out of someone’s mouth: `It was a team effort; we gave 110 percent.'”

In 2000, Rushin wrote a column composed entirely of cliches (deliberately, he hastens to note).

“Men, if we play our game, bring our `A’ game, take it one game at a time, stick to the game plan, stay within ourselves, dictate the tempo . . . step up our intensity, execute, focus, convert and leave it all on the floor, it’s anybody’s ball game,” Rushin wrote. “But there’s no tomorrow, our backs are against the wall, it’s crunch time, gut-check time, do or die. . . . We’ll need good chemistry, and you can’t teach that.”

Last year, Rushin wrote a column comparing television coverage of the NCAA tournament with coinciding coverage of the invasion of Iraq, noting how overwrought the militaristic jargon of basketball seemed.

“The cataclysmic and the inconsequential sounded almost identical,” Rushin wrote. “Said [one player], after his team’s not- quite-epic victory, `It was a war out there.'”

But if reporters tire of the blather of athletes, they should watch their own jargon, Rushin said in an interview.

“Many athletes, sportswriters and fans really do think that way, because they’re conditioned to think that way,” he said. “When a player is asked repeatedly about the chemistry of the team, nobody would naturally think of a team as having chemistry unless they had heard that so many times.”

“Coaches have been living inside of this rhetoric their entire lives, since the time they started playing basketball in junior high,” said David Shields, who spent a season covering the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics for his book “Black Planet: Facing Race in an NBA Season” (Three Rivers Press, 240 pages). “After a while their language becomes reality, and they have no way to see outside of that. It’s never acknowledged that it’s just a game, the result of which carries no larger meaning.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “cliche” as “a stereotyped expression, a commonplace phrase.” The word is derived from a French term for a printer’s template.

As pretentious as they may sound, cliches sometimes serve as a defense mechanism for players in the glare of the media, Shields said.

“It’s a way to let no feeling come into the mix,” said Shields, whose forthcoming book is titled “Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine.” “By presenting bland language to you, it makes sure you can never penetrate my inner being. . . . There’s actually very little communication going on.”

As a result, hollow statements preserve the mythic quality of athletic feats, Shields said.

“The words tell you nothing, so the deeds stay magical,” he said. “If the words started to become beautiful, interesting and dense, we would say, wait a minute, that’s a complete human being who really does get nervous at the plate.”

Though emptied of significance by their overuse and hyperbole, cliches can be succinct and rhythmic, especially in basketball. “Take it to the hole,” “crash the boards,” and “nothing but net” all hit the ear in a way that “make a basket” does not.

“When you put them all together they take on [the quality] of a mad poetry,” Shields said. “The reason they have become part of the vernacular is that they’re weirdly evocative.”

“Most cliches became cliches because they were colorful phrases in the first place, and people wanted to use them.” Rushin said. “The first person who said, `We were backed into a corner but came out swinging,’ was being very colorful.”

“Sometimes athletes can go on in Shakespearean soliloquies entirely in cliches,” Rushin said. “By writing a column in cliches, I was trying to elevate cliches to a perverse art form.”

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