Thursday, June 22, 2006

Dueling Discourses in Sports

This week offered sports fans the opportunity to watch the final NBA game of the season and the final game of the World Cup for the U.S. National team. I watched both. The major difference between the two? ABC's NBA coverage featured an entertaining game and (typical) boring post-game, while their World Cup featured a boring game and highly entertaining post-game.

I used to be a member (albeit a very minor one) of the Wisconsin sports press corps. What I learned is that in a typical post-game setting, a reporter is basically forced to ask disingenuous questions. The highly paid network TV reporters are no better than I was, as they usually ask questions along the line of "What was going through your head when..." or "How did it feel to..." I have literally heard these questions asked hundreds of times, and I have only once heard a compelling answer (which I will discuss momentarily). In the NBA post-game, there was only one compelling answer I heard, and that is when Stuart Scott asked Avery Johnson (after the obligatory how does it feel question) why they lost. This simple but good question yielded the interesting answer that the Mavericks "fell in love with the jump shot." Of course, instead of following up and asking why they fell in love with the jumper in the 100+th game of the season or asking why the coach didn't do anything to help change this trend during the game, Scott followed this up by asking Johnson what Mark Cuban said to him after the loss, which of course resulted in a non-compelling answer. I've heard a variation of this question dozens of times as well and never once heard an interesting answer.

Reporters should be held accoutable for encouraging a culture of banality, but many people also blame athletes for being boring in interviews. It is not surprising that athletes don't say anything interesting in interviews, though, since American athletes have been raised in a strangely dichotomous sports culture. They have been encouraged by media to engage in trash talking while in competition, but to not making any inflammatory comments to the media. It is especially interesting that this has largely held through despite the influence of hip-hop on pop culture, since rappers love to make their "beefs" public. Sure, a Keyshawn Johnson or a T.O. will slip through and try to change the discourse of the sports world, but all too often the establishment pushes back and they are punished (mostly in the court of public opinion) for breaking the mold. The rules for sports discourse are more implicit than explicit, after all, and the punishments for breaking them are more subtle than blatant. Still, most athletes unconsciouslly know to follow them.

Why do we reward athletes for being boring? I think there are three values being enforced in American sports discourse. One: we value false modesty. Going back to Shakespeare's "Julius Ceasar," we love the theatrics of building a person up over their denials. The only athlete who I can think of who has successfully resisted this charade is Muhammad Ali (and why he got away with it is a topic for another day). Two: We value collectivism. It is ironic given our country's historic anti-collectivist leanings, but in sports at least, there is the idea that a team needs to keep its dissentions internal and never show fractures in unity to the public. Hence, we usually don't get interesting soundbites like "Favre pretty much lost it for us today." Instead we get instances such as when Neil O'Donnell was asked after the Steelers lost Super Bowl XXX if a receiver ran a wrong route. He flat-out lied and said "no", then basically admitted that the receiver did with the great cliche "We win as a team; we lose as a team." Three: the great sports myth that giving teams "bulletin board" material makes them play better. You would think that Joe Namath would have dispelled that myth over 35 years ago, but curiously, his famous guarantee had the opposite effect of putting extra scrutiny on a player whenever he comes close to making the rather innocuous statement that GASP! he thinks his team will actually win an upcoming game.

The discourse that these factors have combined to create is unique to America. I spoke of one time hearing a compelling answer to the "What were you thinking..." clice. It was in this year's play-offs when Jerry Stackhouse was told to miss a free throw intentionally, but didn't know that you had to hit the rim or the opponent gets a free inbound. When asked what went through his mind on the play, Stackhouse's teammate Dirk Nowitzky said "I wondered what the hell he was thinking. Jerry has been in the league a long time and should know better." This was after a win and Dirk was speaking rationally without an excess of negative emotion (in other words this was not the ball-punting Dirk of Finals Game 5). Dirk is from Germany, where their sports discourse is obviously different. In his country, it is acceptable to call a spade a spade. I know this because I remember being impressed that the German soccer coach blamed his goalkeeper for a World Cup loss in 1994 (I still remember the keeper's name: Bodo Iglar. The score of the game was 4-0).

Which brings us back full circle to this week's World Cup coverage. After the U.S. loss today, analyst and former player Eric Wynalda said "Let me be the first to say it. Bruce Arenas screwed up the World Cup for the U.S." Because this is so culturally foreign, just as with the Nowitzki comment, I laughed. Can you imagine even Bill Walton or Charles Barkley saying that Larry Brown or George Karl "screwed up" the Olympics or World Championships respectively? (O.K. maybe Barkley would say that). Or how about Harold Reynolds blaming Buck Martinez for the U.S. loss in the WBC?

Even though Wynalda is American, it seems obvious to me that by virtue of playing a sport dominated by Europeans, he's adopted a European sports discourse. Now maybe if we get beat in a few more Olympics in basketball, hoops post-game shows might become as interesting as the games.


Blogger Heidi said...

ok, i read most of that. which is enough sports crap i can read for today. seriously. talk about something more interesting. this is totally just a pity comment. haha, jk.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Azor said...

I'll take pity comments.

12:35 AM  

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