By Patrick Hruby
Page 2

OK, pop quiz time. Sports Language 101. You are Mark Grudzielanek of the St. Louis Cardinals, a second baseman for the winningest team in baseball. Your club has just swept the hapless San Diego Padres out of the playoffs, an against-the-odds triumph to rival the United States' punking the uppity, med student-menacing island of Grenada.

Pop a cork. Take a swig. Cheers. Now pay attention. A reporter has a question.

What's your secret?

Two answers come to mind. One will invite scorn and ridicule from all corners of the sports universe. The other will pass with a friendly, lobotomized nod and no additional comment. Which do you choose?

A) "Dude, they're the Padres. Finished a game above .500. Trailed us in every significant statistical category. Win the series? Stan Van Gundy has a better chance of being named Sexiest Man Alive."

Mark Grudzielanek
Denny Medley/Icon SMI
Hey, Mark, don't think about: just tell us the truth.

B) "I think it shows the character of our team."

Have an answer? Good. Pencils down. If you selected option "A" -- the one with a bit of life, the one that's actually true -- then go stand in the corner. Take this pointy hat. The real-life Grudzielanek picked "B"; you, on the other hand, don't know the first thing about sports talk. Enjoy summer school.

Just kidding. We're actually here to help.

Sports language is a code. Codes need translation. In an ideal world, guys like Grudzielanek would speak their minds and always make perfect sense; in reality, Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick drops Rumsfeldian chestnuts like, "I know that he knows that I know he knows," and former Texas quarterback Vince Young claimed his team was "always the underdog or something."

Confused? Don't be. The sports code isn't written in a different alphabet. It's still English. It just isn't literal. There are hidden meanings, tacit understandings, tricky verbal tropes. When sports stars spin like political hacks and television talk sounds like verbal Ultimate Fighting -- sans the ban on eye gouging -- it can baffle the savviest ear.

Still, everything is decipherable. Well, except maybe Yogi Berra.

"All that needs to be said about the games is on the scoreboard," says John Llewellyn, an associate professor of communications at Wake Forest University who has studied sports talk. "Everything else is rhetoric -- trying to explain, make sense of, ameliorate those conditions. To live in this world and not have your pocket picked every minute, you have to have a subtle understanding of communication."

We can't promise subtle. We can promise understanding. All you need is our crash course in the whats and whys of sports language, starting with …

Clichétalk 215
After Pittsburgh's playoff victory at Indianapolis, Steelers linebacker Joey Porter told reporters, "Big-time players make big-time plays in big games." What was he actually saying?

A) Something about bigness.

B) Something you could -- and would -- say about any win in any sport at any time.

C) Something to get off the field as quickly as possible.

D) All of the above.

The good news? You already speak Clichétalk. Everyone does. From "one game at a time" to "playing within myself," clichés are the lingua franca of sports, verbal "go-to guys" with "tremendous upside" who "put points on the scoreboard."

The bad news? You probably don't know what clichés really mean. In fact, you likely haven't given them much thought. Which, in a way, is why they're so popular.

Athletes are paid to move, not pontificate. Announcers are forever 15 seconds away from the next John Basedow commercial. Sports themselves are a jumble of repetitive situations, "Groundhog Day" with referees and $8 cups of beer.

The point? Finding something new to say takes work. And time. Clichétalk offers verbal economy. Suppose Brett Favre has just thrown another game-ending interception. Cue the microphones: How does it feel? Should he answer with a Kierkegaardian discourse on sensation, reality versus illusion? Or will a quick "It wasn't our day" and "It's time to move on" suffice?

Test Yourself!
1) A Blitz Package requires a UPS tracking number.
A) True
B) False

2) The term Pitching A Gem comes from Babe Ruth's 1926 visit to a South African diamond mine.
A) True
B) False

3) When the Duke basketball team Puts On A Clinic, coach K asks opposing players to turn their heads before coughing.
A) False
B) False

Discussion Questions:

1) If an athlete can be Visibly Limping, can they also be Invisibly Limping?

2) If, in theory, any player can Score From Anywhere On The Field, then how is the ability to Score From Anywhere On The Field a verbal mark of distinction?

3) Does contemporary quantum mechanics account for Coming Out Flat and Playing Within Myself?

4) If you didn't Put Points On The Scoreboard, where else would you put them?

"'Tom Brady threw up a wounded duck' -- that tells you everything," says Don Powell, a clinical psychologist and author of "Best Sports Clichés Ever." "There's something easy about using a cliché, and also something practical."

Something social, too. According to Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen, Clichétalk acts like a team jersey for the tongue, communicating group identity. G'ahead: Use the terms "football" and "National Football League" 5,679 times in any five-minute discussion of the sport. It makes you part of the club. A growing club.

This past fall, Ball State professor Scott Reinardy published an academic paper examining what he termed "ESPN-speak." Conclusion? Popular on-air clichés such as "taking it to the house" are contagious, even seeping into the staid, just-the-facts world of newspaper sportswriting.

Clichétalk can be downright liturgical.

"When ex-jocks become media guys, they like to throw the same old clichés back and forth, almost to show that they're still playing the same game as the athletes," says Wayne Fields, a rhetoric expert and director of the American Culture Studies program at Washington University in St. Louis. "Clichés are the idiom, the coin of the realm. There would be a sense of bewilderment without them."

Not to mention danger. Ready-made and market-tested, Clichétalk melts the concrete into the abstract. Sounds profound. Says little. This makes it safe, the vocal equivalent of walking Barry Bonds.

If you're Freddie Mitchell, saying the Patriots are "a class act" won't leave you unemployed. But "I have something for Rodney Harrison" just might.

"In their most calculated sense, clichés are a way of not saying anything -- at least anything precise, personal or anything you can really be held accountable for," Fields says. "Because you're just using words that are hanging in the air, saying things that everyone else says.

"Politicians hide behind them all the time. And unless you pick one that is particularly outrageous, they're only going to be half-heard, anyway."

True enough. Last year, Cleveland Cavs forward Drew Gooden said that "I've had to overcome a lot of diversity"; before that, former NFL defensive back Rod Woodson once noted that "we stepped up to the plate and answered the phone," which sounds like something New Orleans Saints receiver Joe Horn might do after hitting a home run.

Both players sounded preposterous. Neither prompted more than a chuckle. Such is the beauty of Clichétalk: Even when you botch it, everyone knows what you mean. Assuming you mean anything at all.

Correct answer: D) All of the above. Big-time.

Coachspeak 329
After New England's playoff loss to Denver this past season, Patriots coach Bill Belichick said: "Give them credit for what they did, for the way they performed and for winning the game. Obviously, we're disappointed. We weren't able to make the plays we needed to make to win, and that's why we didn't win."

In plain English, what did Belichick mean?

A) "Don't ask me about our five turnovers."

Bill Belichick
AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki
Is there anything less entertaining then a Bill Belichick press conference?

B) "Don't ask me about the phantom pass interference and shoulda-been-a-touchback calls that went against us."

C) "There's actually a subtle difference between what the Broncos did and how they performed, and as a certified NFL coaching genius, I'm the only person in the room shrewd enough to perceive it."

D) Both A) and B).

Woody Hayes once said that only three things can happen when passing a football, and two of them are bad. A similar maxim holds true for sports talk: Three things can happen, and all of them are bad.

You can sound like a dope. You can stir up controversy. You can pick up the spare and manage both, like Joe Paterno discussing alleged sexual assault.

Alas, coaches are still expected to talk. Day in and day out.

"Public relations is a third of the job," says Saint Joseph's men's basketball coach Phil Martelli. "It's a tremendous responsibility, a free infomercial, if you do it right. It should cause all of us to take a pause, think about how we're going to say something.

"I don't mean that it's contrived. But you do have to realize that your words have an impact."

Coachspeak cushions the blow. A verbal cocktail of euphemisms, half-truths and diplomatic posturing, it lets you say something in order to say nothing -- or at least nothing that will stir up trouble.

How does it work? Three rules apply:

Coachspeak Glossary
Terminology
1) Lack of Discipline: The hobgoblin-like, hard-to-pin-down root cause of any and all athletic failings, including penalties, flubs, drops, miscues, defensive breakdowns, offensive collapses and major NCAA infractions. Often substituted for a Lack of Talent, a Lousy Game Plan or the Inability to Coach One's Way Out of a Gatorade Shower that Never, Ever Comes.

Example: "If not for a lack of discipline, the New York Jets would have won at least five games last season."

2) Make Adjustments: What coaches do at halftime when they can't trade their entire roster for the 1972 Miami Dolphins.

Example: Sideline reporter: "Coach, you face a double-digit deficit. Your squad appears well on the way to soiling its own bedsheets. How do you turn it around in the second half?" Coach: "Make adjustments."

3) We're Not Overlooking Anybody: A term used to describe opponents who would otherwise be overlooked.

Example: "The Knicks are a dangerous team, especially with Jerome James. We're not overlooking anybody."

Vocabulary Builder
You know how to say "No Comment" to a pesky reporter, but there are a variety of other brushoffs and stonewalls that you will find useful in Coachspeak.

Here are some very common ones, with the phrase and its translation:

"Any questions about the game?"/'Cause that's all I'm going to answer.

"I'll address that at the appropriate time"/Which is half-past a monkey's ...

"I want to spend more time with my family"/Why else would I go into a profession like coaching?

  • Coachspeak is vague: Abstractions can't be held accountable. When corporations can employees, they call it "downsizing"; when the Buffalo Bills recently fired five assistant coaches on the same day, former coach Mike Mularkey called it "time for a change in taking another step in a different direction." And no, he wasn't jockeying for a part on "Dancing With the Stars."

• Coachspeak is positive: Discouraging words are seldom heard, since good news is no news. Former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz used to make his service academy opponents sound like the second coming of the '72 Dolphins. When Washington was favored over moribund San Francisco last fall, Redskins coach Joe Gibbs lambasted the point spread and claimed the game would "come down to the last play, in all likelihood."

Washington won 52-17. Perhaps Gibbs meant the last play of the first quarter.

•Coachspeak stays on message: Presidential stump speeches aren't as disciplined. Go back to Gibbs, a master of the craft. Asked in January about disgruntled backup quarterback Patrick Ramsey, a likely offseason trade candidate, the coach replied:

"I think Patrick and I had a good talk … what we agreed to do is just continue to talk over the next few weeks. I think he'll probably do a little thinking and I'll do some thinking and we'll do some talking over the next few weeks."

To review: Coach and player talked. The talk was good. They plan to talk over the next few weeks, and think, and then continue to talk over the next few weeks. Vague, positive and on message.

"Athletics is an oral culture," says Wake Forest's Llewellyn. "Coaches see how quickly one gets punished for saying certain kinds of things -- and how safe and acceptable it is to say other kinds of things.

"There's an agreement with the public: You pretend to believe it, and we'll pretend to believe it, too."

Tell that to Miami coach Nick Saban. Tasked with righting the listless Dolphins -- in reality, a multiseason rebuilding project -- the first-year coach followed a 22-0 loss to Cleveland last fall by stating:

"The record doesn't really matter, the result doesn't matter and the score in the game doesn't really matter. Does that make sense to anybody besides me?"

Nope. Fans and writers ripped Saban, accusing him of throwing in the towel. Stray from Coachspeak's well-worn script? Do so at your peril. Two days later, Saban backpedaled, declaring on a conference call that while he was talking about future, the "future is right now." Which, come to think of it, actually would make it the present.

Then again, this is Coachspeak. Thinking isn't the point.

Correct answer: D) A and B. And don't ask Belichick about his homeless hoodie, either.

Spin-glish 434
When retired baseball player Mark McGwire told a congressional steroid panel, "I'm not going to go into the past or talk about my past; I'm here to make a positive influence on this," he really meant:

A) "I'm not here to talk about any performance-enhancing substances I may or may not have used while playing baseball. But I can't say that outright, since this is a steroid hearing. Why else would I be here? So let's just say that I won't be talking about the past -- that is, the murky, indefinite period of time in which my purely hypothetical steroid use would have taken place. Let's talk about the future instead. A positive future. A future in which my jacket size is noticeably smaller. Shift the focus."

B) A

C) A

D) A

Computer languages tell machines how to act. Spin-glish tells listeners how to think. Part Jedi mind trick, part Orwellian doublespeak, it's a devious dialect meant for public consumption.

Let's start with mea culpas. Never apologize. Never explain. Such was the famous edict of former British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. For the misbehaving likes of receiver Terrell Owens and pitcher Kenny Rogers, however, obstinacy isn't an option. People expect contrition, even if you aren't sorry. Botch the "my bad"? You might not get another chance to mess up.

English vs. Spin-glish
For Classroom Discussion: After attacking a television cameraman last summer, pitcher Kenny Rogers had two options: offer a quick apology in plain English, or a measured one in Spin-glish. He picked the latter. Did Rogers choose wisely? Read over the following and decide for yourself!

1) In Spin-glish: "I'm here to apologize for my unacceptable behavior last week. I feel compelled to come before you and express my deep regret for my actions. I've been around this game for over 20 years and I prepare myself every day to control my emotions and act accordingly. In this instance, I failed miserably ...

"I offer my sincere apologies to Larry and David. This incident should never have occurred. To all my fans, teammates and my family, I am truly sorry for any disappointment I may have caused you ... I should have acted professionally, and I regret that was not the case. I am deeply disappointed. ... This incident was completely out of character, and I think you know it will never happen again."

2) In English: "Look, I'm pretty disgusted that my behavior last week got caught on tape. But hell, I guess that's what happens when you attack a camera guy, right? Still, doesn't America have something better to worry about? Like a war? Hello, people! I'm just a hotheaded pitcher here!

Anyway, since these media jackasses aren't going to stop running that clip of me going all Vesuvius over and over and over again -- really, you'd think ESPN was promoting a new original movie or something -- I feel compelled to come before you and read a few words that my lawyers wrote. Do you know how much these guys bill per hour? I went into the wrong profession.

"I've been around this game for over 20 years and annoyed by cameramen for nearly as long. What can I say? I finally snapped. Maybe I was a bit too grabby. It happens. My bad. If you want, pass that along to the guys I went after. You camera types all hang out together, right?

To my team and all my sponsors, I'm sorry for any disappointment or breach of contract I may have caused you. I'll be deeply disappointed if I don't make the All-Star team. I think you know that something like this will never happen again, at least until my police booking."

Reading Comprehension: Spin-glish in Advertising
A recent television commercial featuring Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant features the following voiceover. Read the text, then answer the subsequent essay questions:

"Love me or hate me, it's one or the other. Always has been. Hate my game, my swagger. Hate my fadeaway, my hunger. Hate that I'm a veteran. Hate that I'm a champion. Hate that. Hate that with all of your heart. And hate that I'm loved, for the exact same reasons."

1) Is Bryant hated for his game, swagger, hunger, fadeaway, veteran status and being a champion? Or is he actually hated for being accused of sexual assault, breaking up a Lakers dynasty, shooting 30 times a game, ratting out Shaquille O'Neal to the police and reportedly acting like an aloof jerk to teammates?

2) Are game, swagger, hunger, fadeaways, veteran status and being a champion hateable characteristics in the first place?

3) If game, swagger, hunger, fadeaways, veteran status and being a champion are NOT hateable, but rather lovable, and those are the ONLY things Bryant is hated for, then does hating Bryant make any sense?

4) Does the Nike ad cleverly attempt to redefine public debate over Bryant in a way that polishes his image?

5) Have we always been at war with Eurasia?

Enter Spin-glish. After her breast-baring Super Bowl halftime fiasco, Janet Jackson issued a prepared apology:

"I am really sorry if I offended anyone. That was truly not my intention. MTV, CBS, the NFL had no knowledge of this whatsoever, and unfortunately, the whole thing went wrong in the end."

Nipplegate made Miss Janet look bad (and old, and kinda wrinkly). Jackson's apology made her look a bit better. How so? Break it down:

• "That was truly not my intention." Jackson meant no harm. Go easy on her. We've all been there. Ignore the pavement on the road to Hades.

• "The whole thing went wrong in the end." Jackson didn't do wrong; some hazy, indeterminate, uncontrollable thing simply went wrong, the way the sky goes dark at night. Also, it went wrong at the end, which means it wasn't wrong at the beginning. That would imply premeditation, and in turn, intent.

• "I am really sorry if I offended anyone." Did Jackson offend anyone? Hmmm. IF she did -- and really, who can say? -- then she's sorry. Not sorry for her action. Sorry for your reaction, which seems to be the real problem here. Assuming you were offended. Which remains an open question.

George Lakoff, a linguistics and cognitive science professor at the University of California, calls this process "framing." In a listener's mind, he says, words aren't neutral; instead, they're defined relative to a conceptual framework.

In politics, Lakoff told a university news service, words have suggestive power, the power to shape entire debates. Take the term "tax relief." By using the term "relief," the phrase implies that taxation is an affliction. As such, anyone taxed is afflicted. Which means anyone reducing taxes is heroically doling out relief, while anyone opposed to reduced taxes is a bad guy who wants to keep the affliction going.

Framing also lies at the heart of sports Spin-glish. When Rod Marinelli was introduced as the new coach of the Detroit Lions, he sounded downright McGwire-like:

"The issue now is what we do at this point. The issue is us and how we're going to move forward."

Why didn't Marinelli want to talk about the past? Perhaps because he never has been a head coach at any level. And maybe, just maybe, because team president Matt Millen -- Marinelli's boss -- has guided the Lions to an NFL-worst 21-59 record in his five seasons on the job.

Not surprisingly, Millen also framed Detroit's mediocrity in terms of the future: "We have a lot of work to get done here, and I believe we have the people who want to get that work done." Left unmentioned? Millen's role in creating all that work.

When it comes to mistakes, sports Spin-glish is a salve. And an eraser. Llewellyn, an avid basketball fan, analyzed the postgame comments from 14 NCAA championship games in a 26-year span. He found that losing coaches stuck to three basic themes: complimenting opponents, blaming fate and redefining victory.

When Arkansas beat Duke in the 1994 title game on a desperation shot by Scotty Thurman, former Blue Devils assistant coach Pete Gaudet sounded like a Buddhist monk: "After all the shots we've hit --- Christian Laettner against Kentucky and the others -- we'd be fools to complain about it happening to us." Six years earlier, former Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs shrugged off a loss to Kansas by claiming, "This is a championship team. If there is any team that disputes that, they can call my office if they want to play."

"We don't like to lose, but the reality is that even a good coach will," Llewellyn says. "So how do you explain it in such a way that your fans can take heart? If the loss is simply an expression of the cosmic order -- the court has a hump on it, the basket has a lid on it -- then you have something other than a defeat. You just have a bad day.

"That's different than saying, 'We brought our 'A game,' they brought theirs and they clobbered us.'"

Different? No doubt. The latter would be frank; the former, more akin to Indianapolis kicker Mike Vanderjagt explaining his game-losing missed kick against Pittsburgh with "I guess the Lord forgot about the football team."

Even the heavens are fodder for Spin-glish.

Correct answer: A, B, C and D are all correct. In fact, let's talk about the alphabet, not Mark McGwire's past.

Argue-ese 586
When ESPN talk show hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon squabble over Phil Mickelson's golf clubs as if the fate of the republic depends on it, they're actually saying:

Phil Mickelson
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Let the argument begin: Should Phil have used a 6-iron or 7-iron on this shot?

A) "If we stop arguing over trivial sports stuff, then the terrorists have already won."

B) "Let's step into the Thunderdome. Two men enter. One man leaves."

C) "I love you, man."

D) "Discuss things in a calm, reasonable manner? What is this, NPR?"

Argue-ese is less a dialect than a verbal philosophy: When in doubt, shout it out. Mano a mano. Quién es el jefe?

It's former NFL backup quarterback Sean Salisbury telling football reporter John Clayton, "You never played in the NFL" … and Clayton responding, "Neither did you." It's sports commentators and columnists setting up straw men (does anyone really fault Antonio Davis for going into the stands to check on his wife?) to pick fights with themselves. It's the inescapable din of countless barstool debates, tackling the great questions of our age -- like, who was tougher to tackle, Emmitt Smith or Barry Sanders?

How can Peyton Manning's playoff futility send otherwise rational adults into a frothy, apoplectic tête-à-tête? According to Tannen, the answer is simple.

Men will be boys.

Classroom Debates!
Mastering Argue-ese doesn't mean learning a new vocabulary. To the contrary, all you need are angry opponents and a handful of throat lozenges. Hone your skills by paring off and debating the following hot-button issues. (For extra credit, argue one side of the issue for 30 seconds, then switch sides).

Remember: when in doubt, call the other guy names! It's ratings gold!

1) The BCS
A Pox On College Football
vs.
Even Worse

2) Modern Athletes
Spoiled, Narcissistic Crybabies
vs.
Misunderstood, So Quit Playa Hatin'

3) Local Coach On The Hot Seat
Fire Him Now
vs.
Fire Him Later

4) Recent Championship Team
The Best of All Time
vs.
Very Good, But Not As Good As The Old School Champ I Will Now Offer a Dissertation On

5) Jilted MVP/All-Star/Coach Of The Year Candidate
Biggest Screw Job Since '00 Election
vs.
Plenty Of Deserving Candidates Don't Win, So What's the Big Deal?

6) Latest Off-Field Sports Scandal
Shocked, Just Shocked
vs.
Who Among Us Hasn't Enjoyed A Sex Cruise?

7) Cuter?
Puppies
vs.
Kittens

 

"Women don't tend to fight for fun," Tannen says. "They tend to fight when they mean it. Finding fights fun to watch is more typical of boys and men.

"Boys and men are more drawn to sports because they're more drawn to competition, to ritual fighting. Each one feeds the other."

Oddly enough, Tannen doesn't listen to sports talk radio.

"If [talk radio] didn't have arguing, it wouldn't exist," says Steve Czaban, a sports talk radio host for Fox and Washington, D.C.-based WTEM. "We'd be out of a job. The listeners wouldn't like it. Sports talk radio is like pro wrestling. It involves flamboyance, certain styles, in-your-face trash talk. The only difference is that the winner of the argument isn't preordained."

In sports, on-field play isn't just the thing. It's the catalyst for the real game: bickering about stuff. Deciding who's No. 1. Argue-ese. Cultural linguist Walter Ong coined the term "agonism" to describe use of opposition and fighting to accomplish goals that aren't about literal combat. Tannen says agonism is very much a guy thing -- in part because of the way men talk, in part because of the way they see the world.

Which, as it turns out, has a lot in common with "Around the Horn."

Men, Tannen writes, see society as hierarchal. Status is paramount, with respect its measure. Conversations follow suit. One speaker is up, the other down. Talking becomes a contest. Speakers gain status by demonstrating skill and knowledge, by holding attention through jokes and storytelling. The goal? Seizing the upper hand -- or at least keeping others from putting you down.

This, in turn, explains why the endlessly debated BCS is the best thing going in college football. Why it's so incredibly important to convince your buddies that Sanders would have been twice as good behind Smith's gargantuan offensive line. And why "Around The Horn's" great, lasting contribution to Western Civilization isn't having cranky sportswriters take pot shots via satellite, but rather having host Tony Reali keep score.

"Perceiving one's self as the victor in an argument, pulling out the perfect trumping statistics to put your opponent down -- that's the touchdown in the game between armchair jocks," Czaban says. "But there's a code underlying the argument: No matter how loud it gets, it will never jeopardize our friendship.

  "It's sort of like the rituals of mountain goats butting antlers. That doesn't mean one of them is going to end up dead and being eaten by the other."

  Well, not unless both goats play for the Eagles. Ironically, the same Argue-ese that brings fans together can tear teams apart. A Pro Bowl-caliber performer, Owens never dogged it on the field. So why did Philadelphia deem him radioactive? Because he bad-mouthed the club, bad-mouthed quarterback Donovan McNabb and had the gall to do so publicly.

Terrell Owens
AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy
If you don't have anything to say ... you can always let your agent speak for you.

  Remember: Status is all. Respect equals status. Football teams are intensely hierarchical, all-male organizations. When disrespectful words -- a la "I'm not the one who got tired during the Super Bowl" -- undercut status, they threaten the established pecking order. They become sticks and stones, particularly within a larger athletic culture where taking sides is reflexive and the resulting fireworks serve as talk show fodder.

  "Every little thing gets blown up now," Czaban says. "You have three or four national television shows that are literally lying in wait for one crooked comment to come out of somebody's mouth, just so it can lead their lineup. Then it goes into the echo chamber, commenting on the commenting, like a BB bouncing around in a tin can, until someone gets fired."

  Correct answer: D. And should Wilbon and Kornheiser ever have a sedate on-air conversation over tea, make peace with your respective deity. The end is nigh.

Truth-abic 675
When Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning admitted "we had some problems with protection" after being sacked a season-high five times in a playoff loss to Pittsburgh, his words were:

A) Not in line with what a player is supposed to say about his teammates in public.

B) Sure to touch off a blaze of overheated controversy and criticism.

C) Surprisingly truthful, and pretty much obvious to anyone watching the game.

D) A, B and C.

He came in like a lion and went out like Elmer Fudd. Fresh from Florida, Steve Spurrier promised touchdowns, victories and witty one-liners; in two seasons with the Washington Redskins, the Ol' Ballcoach delivered ugly defeats, sideline grimaces and folksy promises to "coach 'em up."

Near the end, however, even his Coachspeak flagged. Asked by local radio host Andy Pollin what hope he could give Redskins fans heading into a third season, Spurrier paused.

"I can't think of anything right now."

  "That was a 'holy [expletive]!' moment," Czaban says. "Ninety-nine of 100 other coaches would have said, 'We're building a foundation, I love our guys, we're working, we'll get better.'"

Czaban's shock is understandable: Spurrier was talking in Truth-abic, the most exotic of sports dialects. Who speaks it? Rookies too young to know better. Veterans too old to care. Charles Barkley, dropping quips in the studio. Dick Cheney, dropping F-bombs on the Senate floor. Any people uttering their direct, uncoded thoughts, never mind the consequences.

Truth-abic is everywhere. But good luck getting it on tape. An underground tongue, it's the language of closed locker rooms, unnamed team sources, informal conversations.

"I think everybody is diluting statements, just making sure that we're kind of vanilla," says Phoenix Suns swingman Raja Bell. "You really try to be, for the most part, diplomatic in your answers. You don't want to be the guy who is always making controversial statements."

Anything you say can and will be used against you. Before the Winter Olympics, skier Bode Miller told "60 Minutes" that "to ski when you're wasted, it's not easy." After a 23-0 playoff loss to Carolina, New York Giants running back Tiki Barber said, "In some ways, we were outcoached." Neither man lied. Neither man dissembled. Still, both were assailed in the media -- Miller for what he said, Barber for saying it out loud.

 

In her book "The Argument Culture," Tannen describes public figures as feeling hunted, like divers encircled by hungry sharks. Truth-abic acts as bloody chum. In late November, Vince Young was asked about winning the Heisman. He responded with a standard platitude: "It would be a great accomplishment for the team." No one took issue.

 

Weeks later, Reggie Bush captured the award. After the Heisman ceremony, Young expressed honest disappointment. Pundits called him ungracious, a sore loser.

  "Journalists criticize public figures for not saying anything," Tannen says. "But part of the reason is that journalists leap on any error. It's an irony.

  "People I talk to in politics say, 'I used to give freewheeling press conferences. But I can't do that anymore. Everything is just scrutinized. If I veer off the script, they jump on it.'"

  Exceptions are rare. In Llewellyn's study of college coaches, tournament winners sound a common theme: Victory isn't everything. Losers are less philosophical. Why? They haven't won.

Only blind men and fashion models claim beauty isn't important.

  "Say winning doesn't matter before the final, and the alumni will burn you at the stake," Llewellyn says. "You're despoiling the social system."

  Truth-abic works the same way. Unless you're a designated speaker -- like John McEnroe in tennis, or John McCain in politics -- you're better off saying little, even when you have to talk. Bland, earnest piffles didn't hurt Michael Jordan. They haven't hurt Tiger Woods. Or his bank account.

"For all of us, there's such a fine line that you have to toe," Bell says. "You get a question like, 'Hey, how do you like Phoenix?' And you might say, 'Oh, it's a little too hot.' There's the headline: 'Phoenix Too Hot For Bell.'"

So it goes. From Clichétalk to Coachspeak, Spin-glish to Argue-ese, the sports world can sound less like a realm of genuine human communication than a squawking collection of bobblehead dolls, each spewing a stream of plausible deniability. In his essay "Politics and the English Language," Orwell describes the sensation of listening to a political speaker as "… a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy … a speaker who has gone some distance in turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved."

  And to think: Orwell never heard Grudzielanek prattle on about the character of his team. In the code of sports talk, the truth is always the underdog. Or something. Class dismissed.

Correct answer: D. But remember: You didn't hear that from us.

Patrick Hruby is a columnist for Page 2. Sound off to Page 2 here.




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SPORTS LANGUAGE 101