Commentary

The bottom line

Want the real game story? Check the closed captioning

Updated: December 16, 2009, 10:12 AM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN The Magazine

Getty ImagesNdamukong Suh is not a name that a stenographer ever wants to hear.

This column appears in the December 28 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

I like bars. I like sports. I like watching sports in bars. This is a topic my wife could discuss with you at length. But I couldn't fully enjoy this hobby if it weren't for an invention more miraculous than even boneless teriyaki chicken wings: closed captioning.

Closed captioning, or, as many closed captioners spell it, CLOTHES CAP SHUNNING, is what stenographers type onto the bottom of your screen, moving faster than a double-parked meth freak, when you press "CC" on your remote.

These people are generally very good at their jobs, but sports announcers spew between 150 and 200 words per minute, and most stenographers were French majors at Swarthmore, so mistakes are made.

I've seen HALL OF FAME LINEBACKER DICK BUTT KISS, and Atlanta Brave Chipper Jones come up to BAT RYE HANDED. (I wonder if Babe Ruth ever did that?) I've watched MIKE PIZZA and MIKE PIZZERIA. I've seen a thousand FIELD GOLDS and a few hundred torn INTERIOR CRUCIAL LIGAMENTS, some belonging to members of the Alabama RIMS AND TIDE.

Good athletes compete for THE GOLD MEDDLE (as does Redskins owner Daniel Snyder), and bad athletes are JUST OUT OF SINK. Quick-release quarterbacks GET IT OFTENTIMES (and, here, I believe the subject is Tom Brady).

The point is I ghoulishly relish captioning mistakes. Also, my mouth relishes beer. No surprise then that a very, very easy column hit me like an angry wife's 3-iron: What if I spent the entire weekend in bars seeing how many captioning goofs I could catch?

God, I love this job.

FRIDAY
We must be vigilant in our quest, so we started early -- 3 p.m. PST, just about when Michael Wilbon of PTI issued this statement about soccer, according to the captioner: I EXPECT TO WATCH THE WORLD COUPLE ALL MONTH. (Exactly which channel will that be on again?)

Then there were these:

Jim Hill, Channel 2, LA: Tiger was found SHOELESS AND SNOWING. (Actually, the snowing came later, during the cover-up.)

Lingerie football (hey, we said we'd be vigilant!), Channel 32, LA: HANDOFF TO THE LOVE SIDE. Also, a second and eight became THE SECOND THEY ATE.

On Channel 9, LA: David Beckham is from YOUR UP (but not from CROW ATE YA).

TIGER WAS FOUND SHOELESS AND SNOWING.

SATURDAY
The 8 a.m. SportsCenter captioner identified Cavs forward Jamario Moon as GENTLEMAN MARIO MOON. (Perhaps they're in a book club together.) On ESPNU, Alabama receiver Julio Jones came out JEWEL I DON'T JONES. And on Channel 7 in LA, Clemson running back C.J. Spiller's 4 TDs were sure to get him his IN-FLIGHT TO THE HEISMAN TROPHY DINNER. (Useful new word: Invite + free ticket = in-flight!)

CC fun fact: The first closed-captioning message on TV, produced in the 1970s by Bill Kastner of Texas Instruments, was FLOAT LIKE A BUTTERFLY, STING LIKE A BEE.

Okay, so Saturday was a slow day.

SUNDAY
One of the delicious moments for those of us captivated by captions is the three seconds between an announcer's saying something ear-twisting and the captioner's typing it. On ESPN's The Sports Reporters, host John Saunders said, "The best player I saw yesterday was [Nebraska's monster defensive tackle] Ndamukong Suh" [pronounced en-DOM-ah-ken SOO].

I could almost hear the captioner gasp, cough and whimper. But, bless his or her heart, it was one valiant attempt: INCOME CONGRESS SUE (an idea, I think, we can all agree on).

CC fun fact: Real-time captioners for the National Captioning Institute can clock 300 words per minute. They average 7,000 words an hour, which is a carpal tunnel-inducing 14,000 keystrokes every 60 minutes.

On the Fox NFL pregame show, the Colts were the FIRST TEAM TO CLENCH ITS DIVISION. (Don't ask.) And Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said his team would UNLEASH HOWL IN DECEMBER. (Poor dog gets off the leash only once a month?)

And that was about it. Remember, the point here was not to show all the mistakes the captioners make as they translate hundreds of thousands of live sports-TV words. The point was for me to drink many, many Coronas on an expense account.

Anyone complains, and I unleash Howl.


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