With all due respect to politics, the birth of children, and warm summer nights, sports are the most important thing in the universe.
Get the fuck out of here, breakfast.
We cannot pay enough attention to these glorious pastimes, and anyone who doesn't spend every waking moment thinking of and speaking on the subject of sports is a wrong, bad, misguided terrorist.
But not everything we speak about sports is equally wise and insightful. Indeed, the world of sports commentary is littered with horrible cliches that do nothing but serve as bait for remote controls to get thrown through the screen. And I'm not talking about guys who flub names or trip on their tongues; play-by-play is tough work, and honestly it's kind of a miracle we don't hear more mispronounced names and explosive swearing during any given game. No, I'm reserving all my ire for the color commentators, as well as those suited idiots back in the studio, the people hired for their expertise, who have the time to think up something insightful, and then say something dumb anyway.
This is probably the quintessential piece of non-analysis, the statement that one team beat another not because of skill or strategy or preparation or any of the other things that are observable and measurable. No, they won because they wanted to.
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Or their dad did at least.
The frustrating thing about this is that it kind of maybe might be true. Motivation is a significant factor in sports. There's an entire field called sports psychology filled with people who earn real money for a living that tries to answer the question of how professional athletes who are so similar in terms of their physical capabilities can have such different game day performances. Along with things like visualization and maintaining calm, motivation is a factor in getting athletes to perform. "Wanting it" does matter.
But it can't be measured. There's no scale of how much people want something, no Passionmeter on the scoreboard measuring each team's hunger. We can only measure want indirectly by measuring who's playing well and winning, which means we should probably just talk about the teams that are playing well and winning in the first place. As fans, we didn't tune in to see who wants to win more. We're there to see who's better at winning.
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"That's good, because I'd really rather be playing Pokemon right now."
That's the NFL variant, at least, but you'll see the same thing happen in basically every other sport, whether it's "He has to make that shot" or "He has to grab that snitch" or whatever.
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What up, nerds.
Its most common form is heard when a player misses a routine play, and in that context it makes a bit of sense, although it could be better stated. The problem is that our threshold for "routine plays" includes plays that have very noticeable failure rates. A relatively easy play that succeeds 90 to 95 percent of the time is still going to fail at least once a game. Yeah, if a player routinely misses those sort of plays, he's got a problem. But when a player misses one of those plays? That just happens. They don't "need" to make that play at all. (They just need to make the next nine.)
But my most hated version of this line is the weaselly version: "He has to make that catch if they want to win the game." Thanks to that cowardly conditional statement, this is technically more accurate, but instead of offering insight, it brings only the evil twin of insight, banality.
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The most obvious of Mortal Kombat finishing moves.
Yes, making difficult plays at critical moments is useful for winning games. Thanks for the insight, Coach. If your analysis about what makes a winning team includes the statement "the team should win," you are a terrible human being.
This one is specific just to the NFL, which, to its credit, has become a lot more injury-conscious over the past few years. The league has introduced new rules and enforcement to prevent head injuries, and (with the sharp point of a lawsuit aimed at them) will soon start directing medical care and funds the way of retired players. But a lot of the sports cliches that originated in the bad old days are still with us, "shaken up on the play" being the worst offender of them.
What makes this so troubling is the history of the game itself, in particular the longstanding, well-known practice of NFL teams to make players play through injuries. This is where the language of "shaken up" and "got dinged" originated, in reports teams gave to media to soften the impact of what happened.
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"Yeah, there's a watermelon-size hole in his torso, which we've tentatively diagnosed as a "tickler," but he's a warrior, and we expect him back in a couple plays."
You see, being "shaken up" sounds a lot less scary than "brain injury" or "his arm's off." The audience won't feel guilty if a player who was shaken up returns a few plays later. But they might be a little uncomfortable if a dude whose knee recently discovered a new branch of non-Euclidian geometry was jabbed full of cortisone and sent back out on the field because the coach doesn't trust their second string guard in running situations.
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"Andy, this is God. It's not your time yet. You need to go back and get a couple more big third-down stops."
This has to end. If a 280-pound professional athlete has trouble standing up, he's not shaken up. He's fucking injured.
And now let's throw it to our sideline reporters for their thoughts on useless sports commentary:
"I think they wanted to shake up some points on the board more!"
Sideline reporting is kind of a tough beat, in that it involves talking to people who couldn't say anything interesting if they wanted to, and they don't want to. Not that sideline reporters make their jobs any easier, almost every one of them relying on this, the crown prince of inane interview questions: "What were you thinking when you did that thing?"
The reason this is such a dumb question is because there's no possible interesting answer to it. The actual answer can be one of two things:
- "Boy I should really try doing that thing," or
- "I wasn't thinking. The play developed too quickly for anything other than instinctive reactions."
Those are the only possible things a player could be thinking in those situations, and neither of them is interesting to learn. And because there's nothing interesting to say there, and because they're full of adrenaline, and because a lot of them are idiots, and because I think a few of them are just fucking with the reporter, the players almost always respond with some made up nonsense anyways:
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"Yeah, well I wanted to board some shake points on the moor."
The platonic ideal of a perfect game is a closely fought contest with incredible moments of athleticism, skill, and strategy on display that isn't decided until the very final play. At no point in this vision of sport at its best does a zebra ever trot onto the field and slow everything down by nagging at people.
"Hey guys, can you stop having fun, kay?"
If the best possible game has no whistles blown, it follows then that games get less enjoyable with more whistles, and commentators routinely applaud referees who "let them play" and berate officials who "make the game about themselves." The implication being that if there are a lot of whistles, the referee must be doing something wrong.
Or, you know, the players might be.
"Since when is kicking a guy directly in the asshole a card?"
Those rules are there for a reason, right? To prevent players from gaining an advantage illegally, that's a good one. I hate it when a referee who gives a lot of cards or penalties is criticized for "losing control of the game," as if the fact that the players are trying to murder each other right in front of him isn't really relevant.
"Really, I think this says more about your insecurities than anything else."
Most rich kids just want to be pop stars.
How did these hyper-specific tropes spread so quickly?
The Hollywood rumor mill has been playing games with celebrity deaths for at least a century.