Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Page 2 [Print without images]

Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Updated: November 21, 11:43 AM ET
Taunting dos and don'ts

By Patrick Hruby
Page 2 columnist

News Item: During a Nov. 9 game between the Carolina Panthers and the Tampa Bay Bucs, a fan dressed as a cat and identifying himself as the "Carolina Prowler" taunted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when he was given a live microphone.

"Simeon Rice and Warren Sapp, you guaranteed a win," he said through his whiskers, addressing Rice's earlier promise of a victory. "Well, we guarantee we'll kick your butt."

Rice promptly racked up a pair of sacks, swinging momentum toward Tampa Bay in an eventual Carolina victory.

The lesson in all this? It's twofold:

A.) Never hand a microphone to a yahoo, especially one dressed like an extra in an Andrew Lloyd Webber production; and

B.) If you're going to taunt, do it right.

Indeed, the real outrage in l'affair de Carolina isn't that some wannabe Darth Raider nearly cost his team a game. It's that he did it with so little panache.

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali was so devastating he could floor you with his words, too.
There are more than 200,000 words in the English language. At least half can be used in a derogatory fashion. We can do better than "kick your butt." We need to do better than "kick your butt."

To put it another way: Somewhere, Muhammad Ali is weeping.

Fact is, the Greatest of All Time was also the Greatest Sports Taunter of All Time. And if the planet's most beloved athlete not named David Beckham taught us anything -- beyond the utility of quitting while you're ahead -- it's how to appreciate a well-phrased insult. Ali's barbs were clever, funny, inspired; more importantly, they got into the other guy's head and gave the Greatest an actual advantage in the ring.

At its best, taunting is poetry with a mean-spirited purpose. It's an art form that surpasses common, forgettable trash talk.

With that in mind, Page 2 presents the Dos and Don'ts of sports taunting. Put them to use the next time you're looking for an edge -- or the next time an overeager stadium operations crew hands you a microphone.

DO be creative
A thing of beauty lasts forever. Someone famous wrote that.

Likewise, a clever taunt lasts for an entire news cycle. Sometimes, even longer. And in the 24/7 era of ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNews, that's no small feat. In a sense, taunts are like breast implants -- the whole point is to get noticed. Originality spawns headlines.

Recall former Florida coach Steve Spurrier's now-famous dig at arch rival Tennessee, a reference to the Vols playing in the second-tier Citrus Bowl? "You can't spell Citrus without U-T," he said. Did Spurrier get in Tennessee's collective head? You bet.

When Florida played in the Citrus Bowl a few years later, Vols fans welcomed Spurrier with an airplane banner that flew over the stadium. Even though the Gators were playing Michigan State.

Remember: When Richard Williams offered in "Venus Envy" to have a surgeon friend from Compton sew longer legs on diminutive Swiss tennis star Martina Hingis, he wasn't just psyching out his daughters' primary competition at the time. He was taking a (pot)shot at immortality.

Note: If you happen to be Jeremy Shockey -- or fascinate the New York City media nexus as much as Jeremy Shockey does -- disregard the above. Instead, revel in the fact that you can call someone a "homo" and still make the nightly news, even though no one past third grade still uses that word.

Terrell Owens
Exhibit A -- the Sharpie incident.
DO use props
Gallagher has his watermelons; Terrell Owens has his Sharpie. Proper prop deployment can make or break a taunt. Anyone can call David Wells fat; it takes a special brand of meanness to make like Duke basketball fans, who once dangled a box of Chicken McNuggets in front of 360-pound Florida State center Nigel Dixon ... only to reel them in with a cord.

So grab some pompons. Put on a homemade "Rozelle" headband. The other guy can always tune out your shouting. But presumably, he still has to look in your direction. Take advantage.

DON'T break the rules
Unless you can flummox your opponent so badly that he's distracted for the entire contest, taunting to the point of a flag or a penalty is self-defeating. After all, the point is still to win the game.

Besides, a master taunter can make his or her point without running afoul of the authorities. In 1984, the Cameron Crazies welcomed Maryland's Herman Veal -- who allegedly had sexually assaulted another student -- with a shower of more than 1,000 panties and a sign that read, "Hey Herm, Did You Send Her Flowers Afterward?"

Not surprisingly, university officials demanded that the students tone down their act. So in response, the Crazies turned Duke's next home game, against rival North Carolina, into a taunting master class. Some held signs that read "A Warm and Hearty Welcome to Dean Smith" and "Welcome Fellow Scholars." Others wore homemade halos. After questionable calls, fans chanted "We beg to differ" instead of "[expletive]." And during Carolina free-throw attempts, students under the basket didn't go nuts -- they just held up small signs reading, "Please Miss."

DO your homework
A first-rate taunter knows his opponent better than he knows his own children. And with good reason: If the other guy was raised by a single dad, 'yo mama' ain't gonna cut it.

"It's important to really read up on the opposing team and follow the game very closely, so that you're conversant with the psychological weaknesses of the other team," advises Robin Ficker, the Bethesda-based attorney who was once the NBA's preeminent heckler.

Ficker speaks from experience. He once irked then-Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson by reading out loud from Jackson's basketball memoir, "Maverick." During a game. While sitting behind the Chicago bench.

Robin Ficker, Michael Jordan
Wonder if Robin Ficker taunted MJ in a Wizards uniform.
"Jackson said he was going to have the referees come over if I kept reading," Ficker said. "What got him so upset, I don't know. If he didn't want to hear passages from the book, he shouldn't have written it."

At the request of Charles Barkley, Ficker even traveled to the 1993 NBA Finals in Phoenix, where he razzed Michael Jordan about a series of gambling allegations.

"Barkley got me a seat behind the Bulls bench, so I brought these huge playing cards, dice and a bunch of dollar bills," Ficker said. "During the game, I'm dealing [Jordan] a hand and asking him what he wants to bet. And he's turning around and holding up three fingers. It was fun."

Alas, the Bulls won the series. In Phoenix. Still, at least Ficker knew his target.

When NBC basketball announcer Marv Albert returned to NBA playoff broadcasts for the first time after an indictment on a sex charge, a courtside heckler was there to greet him. Problem was, the heckler kept referring to Albert as "Brent Musburger" -- much to the chagrin of the real Musburger, who was broadcasting the game for ESPN radio.

"I wasn't indicted," Musburger protested afterward. "I can't relate ... [it's an] enormous distraction."

DON'T end up on a bulletin board
There's a fine line between taunting-as-distraction and taunting-as-motivation. Cross it, and you're shooting yourself in the foot, getting the other guy to play harder than he would have otherwise.

Take the Tennessee Titans. Moments before the kickoff of a 2001 playoff game between the Titans and Baltimore, the Adelphi Coliseum jumbotron flashed a video clip entitled "A Special Message from Brian Billick and the Baltimore Ravens." Prepared by Tennessee's marketing staff, the film showed the Ravens rejoicing in the aftermath of their 24-23 victory over the Titans on Nov. 12. The segment concluded with a shot of Billick mockingly waving a copy of a magazine that proclaimed Tennessee to be the league's best team.

Furious at the perceived effort to show them up, the Ravens dumped the Titans 24-10. After the game, Billick blasted Tennessee for the video, dubbing it "totally classless."

Rule of thumb: Ray Lewis doesn't need any extras reasons to hammer you into the turf.

DO make a hard sell
In taunting, as in postal services, delivery is everything. A taunter is a salesman; his words are his wares. If you don't seem sincere, why should anyone give your insults a second thought, let alone an obsessive, counterproductive third or fourth?

Boxers seem to grasp this. When Mike Tyson promises to rip out hearts, crush testicles and eat children, he sounds downright believable. (The subsequent "Praise Allah" is a nice touch, if something of a non-sequitor.)

The next time some washed-up former baddest man on the planet is trying to sell you $9.95 worth of pay-per-view swill, take notes.

Jim Fassel
We're waiting for Jim Fassel to guarantee he won't be fired.
DON'T make guarantees
Who are you? Joe Namath? (Hint: The answer is no). In theory, guarantees should strike a little fear and doubt into the other guy; in practice, they almost never work. Consider poor Tracy McGrady, who promised a Game 4 victory against the Charlotte Hornets in the 2002 playoffs -- only to sulk home a 3-1 series loser.

"We got a lot of motivation from what was said," Hornets guard Baron Davis said afterward. "We wanted to use what he said as momentum. Everybody on our team read it, and it fueled us. We took it personal."

Moreover, even a successful guarantee only ensures one thing: Everyone will want you to do it again. Just ask Jim Fassel.

DO taunt before the fact
Too many athletes wait until they have a comfortable lead before they let the smack-talk flow. Uh-uh. That's getting it backwards. Don't be a wimp. Use your best lines early. What's the point of taunting if you're already up 40-3?

Even if you're the University of Miami football team circa the late 1980s/early 1990s-Luther Campbell era, it ain't like you're going to demoralize your opponent any further.

DON'T fail to back it up
The simple, cardinal rule of taunting: When you end up with the "L," even the most memorable putdown sounds pathetic.

Patrick Hruby is a sportswriter for the Washington Times. You can reach him at phrub@yahoo.com.