Saturday, April 14, 2012


For sports fans, this is among the best times of year. The Major League Baseball season has begun, hockey is in its playoffs phase, pro basketball soon will be there and the pro-football draft is about a fortnight away. Gatherings of all sorts are abuzz with sports talk, to the virtual exclusion of other topics.

For nonfans—a persecuted minority at any time—the situation is uncomfortable, if not dire. Not only are they left out of the chatter, they’re apt to feel bewildered and culturally derived as well. That’s because sports has a vocabulary of its own, understood only by the cognoscenti. If you’ve traveled broad and aren’t adept at foreign languages, you know what it’s like to overhear conversations that are totally unintelligible. Imagine how that must feel in your own land.

I’m a sports fan, of course, but have some knowledge of the psyche of the nonfan. My daughter Jessica, raised in a four-brother family of fans, is one, as were both my parents and my lone sibling, sister Judy. Their examples have caused me to ponder the fan/nonfan phenomenon and conclude that it stems from nature, not nurture. Somewhere in our makeup is a gene that twisted one way produces fans, and twisted another produces nons. Some day someone will identify it, and, thus, open the way to its manipulation. Couples of the future will be able to control whether or not their offspring will follow sports, ending the heartbreak of houses divided. Indeed, the time can’t be far away when parents will be able to specify which sports will enthuse their children—and, even, which teams!

Until that happy day comes, however, we must depend on education to close the gaps, but there are difficulties. Rather than educate, the sports pages of our daily newspapers obfuscate, regularly employing the sort of shorthand that widens the cultural divide. As a young reporter I was told by a wise editor that the three main rules of journalism were “explain, explain, explain,” but that message never seems to make it to the sports departments. They throw around initials such as NBA and NHL with nary a word of explanation, and just about daily carry entire stories in which the subject sport is never named.

Like most fans I ignored that last thing until a jarring experience set me straight. It came during a long-ago trip to England, where I made my way through a lengthy, jargon-filled sports-page piece without ever discovering what sport it was about. (It was cricket, I later learned.) Then and there I resolved never to write a sports story without naming the sport early on. One of my proudest boasts is that I’ve stuck to that pledge.

So call a nonfan to read this over your shoulder—he or she will learn something. NBA stands for National Basketball Association and NHL for National Hockey League. That’s important to know even if candor requires me to point out that both titles are misnomers because the entities really are international, encompassing teams from both the U.S. and Canada.

Obversely, our annual baseball championship is grandly called the World Series even though only U.S. teams (and one from Toronto) are eligible to participate. Since 2006 there has been a real world series, called the World Baseball Classic, involving national all-star teams from many countries. It’s been contested twice (in 2006 and 2009), with Japan winning both times. That the U.S. never has finished higher than fourth in the event is something our Major League would prefer to ignore.

Now let’s move on to decoding things that sports figures say; like the writers who describe their deeds, they have a language all their own. The main places to hear it are the ESPN television stations. Without a glossary the talk they broadcast is meaningless.

For example, when a player says he is “struggling” it means he is failing; a baseball player who confesses to “struggling at the plate” means that he couldn’t get a hit if the pitcher handed him the ball. The reasons usually given for such struggles are called “distractions.” These can be anything that might keep an athlete’s mind from his on-field duties, from a hangnail to a pending rape trial.

When a player signs a multi-year, multi-multi-million-dollar contract, he typically expresses his satisfaction by saying that the vast sum finally will enable him to “take care” of his family, even though it guarantees than even with moderate overspending none of his descendants for many generations will have to work. The flip side of that line is a team owner saying he won’t meet the market price for a desirable player because he needs to maintain his team’s “salary structure.” That means that if he pays one guy what’s he’s worth his other employees also might demand similar treatment.

“All I really want is a ring” is another thing an athlete says after he’s signed a huge contract. Members of championship teams usually receive rings, which have come to emblemize unselfish achievement.

But when his contract offers an “out,” whether or not a ring has been attained, this same fella is as likely as not to ditch his team for one that offers him more money. Why would he do such a thing? BECAUSE HE HAS TO TAKE CARE OF HIS FAMILY.

See how easy it is once you get the hang of it?

No comments: