Magazine article Insight on the News

They'll Take It Just One Cliche at a Time

Magazine article Insight on the News

They'll Take It Just One Cliche at a Time

Article excerpt

From `gut-check' to `they came to play,' the sports world teems with inane cliches. But who's to blame -- the players, the commentators, the reporters or the fans listening to them all?

In the film Bull Durham, there is a telling scene in which veteran catcher Crash Davis tutors young pitcher Nuke LaLoosh on the delicate art of media relations. By the end of the picture, LaLoosh has mastered a number of all-important phrases, including the ubiquitous "We've got to play them one game at a time."

The joke, of course, is that these sentiments are no more profound than a greeting card, equally trite and inane. Nevertheless, such cockamamie constructions seemingly spring eternal from the Dan Dierdorf edition of Bartlett's Quotations: "Impact Player. Wake-Up Call. On a Roll." Indeed, it often feels like the very fabric of the sporting universe is stitched together by little more than the coarse thread of cliche.

"You hear all the same stuff: `Well, I just want to help the team out, God willing, and if I do well along the way, it's great,'" says Jason Caldwell, a former media-relations coordinator for the Dallas Mavericks. "Now, the first guy to come up with that was brilliant. The next 10 to use it were pretty smart. After that, who cares?"

Better question: Who's to blame? If cliches are inescapable, then who's going to "step up and take responsibility" for them? The players? The media? The fans?

In 1990, National Basketball Association superstar and Nike pitchman Michael Jordan was asked to endorse Democrat Harvey Gantt's campaign to unseat Republican Sen. Jesse Helms in North Carolina. His response? No comment, "because Republicans buy shoes, too." Is it any wonder that Jordan, who could be one of the league's most articulate voices, often was one of its most cliched? Well, cliches are safe, the verbal equivalent of a "Do Not Disturb" sign. They offend no one, upset nothing -- useful qualities in an era when an athlete's livelihood, like a politician's, depends largely on endorsements and public good will.

"In their most calculated sense, cliches are a way of not saying anything -- at least anything precise, personal or accountable," says Wayne Fields, director of the American Culture Studies program at St. Louis' Washington University and an expert in rhetoric. "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."

By contrast, those who dare venture outside of the cliche box can end up "paying the price." After a humiliating loss to the Tennessee Titans in late December, the Jacksonville Jaguars could have entered last month's rematch in the American Football Conference title game spouting the usual lines: "Gotta give them the credit; they're tough competitors; we'll be lucky to come up with a win." Instead, the Jaguars cut a cocky rap tune and video -- "Uh Oh, The Jaguars Super Bowl Song" -- that Titans coach Jeff Fisher screened for his team the night before the game. Sufficiently motivated, Tennessee went on to pound Jacksonville 33-14.

"Nobody ever got in trouble with a coach or put something on an opponent's bulletin board by saying something that's been said 100 times," says Terry Shepard, vice president for public affairs at Rice University and a former Los Angeles Times sportswriter. "Whereas if you get original, sometimes you can get people upset. When you come across an athlete that isn't cliched, it's good for sportswriters. But it makes the management nervous."

Cliches also offer a Tenacious Defense against, well, sounding like an idiot. While throwaways such as "It was a total team effort" provide little insight, they're awfully hard to argue with, particularly when everyone else is saying the same thing.

Consider Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Kurt Warner's revealing assessment of Los Angeles Rams receiver Isaac Bruce's game-winning touchdown reception: "We knew we needed a big play. …

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