Sport: Silence & Word Play

Athletes are champions on the field, and of larger issues on the world stage.

Basketball: Nike Versa Tack


In March 2017, an experiment was conducted during an NBA game at New York City’s Madison Square Garden: For the first half of the basketball game, no extraneous noise—from music to cheerleading—was permitted, so that spectators and players could “experience the game in its purest form.” “Enjoy the sounds of the game,” the Jumbotron implored. Pleasure, however, was scarce in the cavernous area. Rather, the soundtrack of squeaky shoes and hushed murmurings from the crowd produced what many called an unnerving, eerie effect.

For those at home with television and radio, the cacophony that today overwhelms most sporting events is dominated by the sportscaster’s commentary—a seemingly all-knowing voice describing, with startling immediacy, the play-by-play of bodies colliding and balls flying across courts and fields. A form of simultaneous translation, this near-constant speech requires immense concentration as well as deep-seated knowledge of the sport and individual athletes. Unlike news anchors, whose measured delivery creates confidence and engenders trust in the viewer, sportscasters become ideal companions of a sort to those listening: They provide informative reportage but, like rapt fans, their voices—in tempo, rhythm and volume—often emulate the tenor of the match, increasing tension for spectators as their speech quickens and audibly sharing the audience’s joys and, at times, frustrations.

But as with any translation, the chosen words have consequences. A 25-year study by Purdue University’s Cheryl Cook and University of Southern California’s Michela Musto and Michael A. Messner found that commentary often exhibits “gender bland sexism” in which “‘matter-of-fact’ reactions… [suggest to listeners] that women’s sports lack the excitement and interest of men’s sports.” All mediation directs and distorts, making it critical not just how prime the view is from one’s seat but also the soundscape to which it exposes you.

Word Play

Whether fumbling or chomping at the bit, dealing a low blow or reaching a stalemate, idioms with origins in sports and games fill the English language. Baseball, boxing and football led to numerous phrases—touching base, letting down your guard and dropping the ball, respectively—but other, often surprising, games also maintain a steady presence in the vernacular. About fox hunting, Oscar Wilde said, “The English country gentleman galloping after the fox—the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable.” And yet the controversial activity is referenced whenever red herrings arise: A 17th-century text on horse training refers to the practice of using smoked fish when training horses to follow dogs that are chasing a scent. (Its current meaning dates to 1807.) Perhaps even more surprising is the linguistic retention of another ancient sport: cockfighting. Crestfallen, cocky and well-heeled all derive from this violent competition, in addition to cockpits and the pecking order.

Sports-inflected language infuses contemporary corporate culture, imbuing it with a sense of competition and a winner-takes-all mentality. Even a heavy hitter may come across a sticky wicket (i.e. a difficult problem, derived from the challenges endured when playing on a wicket, or wet cricket pitch). Or your favorite sparring partner may throw in the towel. Or take off the gloves or get the ball rolling or hit below the belt. When bull’s-eyes, slam dunks, curveballs and strikeouts become the way of describing countless events, the workplace—and society, through a ripple effect—becomes a playing field occupied by winners
and losers.

Sports permeating critical facets of life is not new: St. Paul, in his letters, frequently uses sport as a metaphor for good Christian behavior. “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training,” he writes to the Corinthians. “They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”

You are reading a complimentary story from Issue 26

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