Monday, September 1, 2008

Athletes Who Have Speed and Quickness Are Ballplayers

To celebrate the proud return of ENCEE DUBBLE-A FOOBAW this weekend, The Wife and I visited her friend Shana and Shana's husband, Jack. They're both smart, attractive and pleasant people, but I get the feeling that Shana (justifiably) hasn't really the faintest awareness of my existence pretty much 99.9% of the time, and Jack's eyes flash me a glint of neither-pleased-nor-fearful recognition whenever I go over there. Hence, my classification of them as The Wife's friend and the friend's husband.

I like to assume Jack thinks well of me, but I don't know, and in any case, he's probably in the same boat I'm in. I really have no idea how or why Shana became a friend of The Wife's — I strongly suspect that a mutual employer is to blame — but she appeared in The Wife's life one day and thus peripherally in mine. At first, I dreaded that she'd be some earnest, attention-starved matron, but I was pleased to find out she was roughly my age, exuberant, bright and funny. She also seems to more or less like me, which is always a good sign, especially because I more or less like her and wish The Wife bugged her to do things more often.

Jack, however, presents a consistently taciturn countenance, which leads me to suspect that I'm still identified less as me and more as Wife's Consort. Of course, this is perfectly fine: The Wife appeared in his life one day, and I peripherally as her husband. Frankly, I'm relieved not to get the "who the fuck are you?" glance when I'm in his house. But while I hardly expected an open embrace and sudden BFF status, the taciturnity is mildly intimidating, at least in part because he could probably break me over his knee, and one never knows what a wry non-committal smile signifies, especially after offering a potentially contentious observation about whatever's currently happening on his giant-ass TV.*

* — The other way in which Jack is intimidating is how pretty much everything in his house is absolutely great. First, it's an older house in a more historic neighborhood, which trumps our conventional suburban dwelling. Second, he and Shana arrayed their backyard with beautiful pathways they laid out with bricks rescued from demolition sites, so all of the bricks are stamped with the names and dates of companies a century old. Their hardwood floors are lovely. Also, his TV Penis dwarfs mine, with a 50" wall-mounted LCD screen, augmented by a stunning flaunting of Audio Penis, courtesy of surround-sound speakers seamlessly embedded in the ceiling in what an audiophilic anthropologist would only assume was a display of DIY/wiring dominance. The entire effect of comprehensive excellence in their house is enough to remind me of this gag I came up with when talking to my friend Cory. You almost wonder if Jack wakes up in the morning and asks Shana, "On a scale of excellent to ridiculously sublime, how would you rate how totally awesome you feel right now?" I take solace in the fact that their house would be virtually unnavigable if I tried to put my books in it, which is basically my way of waving my Book Penis at their smallish house and absence of ubiquitous shelving.

Regardless, when The Wife called around to see what was going on this weekend and Shana invited us to join them for an NCAA Football Kickoff Weekend party, I leapt at the chance. As said, The Wife loathes football, so cloaking football watching in the guise of socializing at a party, bar or some other well-populated location is like shoving the dog's medication inside a chunk of hot dog and feeding it to him. Both of you don't like the process, both of you are aware of the process, both of you accede to the polite fiction that some unpalatable exchange is being transacted but is still somehow desirable anyway. In this case, The Wife likes gatherings, and we'd all be listening to something in the background anyway. So why not make it an announcer droning on and on inanely about a player's abilities?

Unfortunately, of all sports, football announcers verge most often on the sub-humanly stupid, and college announcers tend to outdo pro announcers in this respect. I understand the limitations with which they work, and I do feel some sympathy. They have to fill 3.5 hours of airtime with conversation. If they drift into substantively complex breakdowns of defensive and offensive schemes, producers — who are (wrongly) convinced that catering to the least intelligent in the audience edifies the most people possible — electrocute them until they start babbling generally about "not quitting on the ball" and "being gritty" and "showing 'football' determination" and "Ecksteining out a play." They have to express some kind of opinion about nearly 100 players per game, most of whom they won't have met; and of the few they have met, their interactions have been so brief and inconsequential as to produce opinions that are probably wrong even before being filtered through the networks' fanatical need for the antiseptic and unsurprising. That said, their determination to annihilate both the English language and to demonstrate the concept that communicating by using language should involve the least information possible infuriates me.

I'm not a crank. I long ago accepted that "decimate" now means "kicking the shit out of" rather than "reducing by one tenth." I understand that I pretty much can no longer say "niggardly" in public, because not only will people mis-hear it, but other people have decided that its definition of "cheapness" has migrated to "cheap like poor black people." But somewhere in between staring at Jack's TV with naked envy and pouring Grolsch into my booze-hole, I started grinding my teeth at every description of a football player as an "athlete." As a descriptor, it succeeds in sounding vaguely like something profound while saying absolutely nothing about anyone.

I first noticed the abuse of the term a few months ago, while watching a series between the Red Sox and Yankees. Every pre-game show featured someone using the sentence, "This is a very athletic team." And my reaction was always the same: "Really? Really? A bunch of professional athletes on a professional athletic club are athletic?" I accept that many announcers simply lack any information about a player other than the fact that he is physically gifted. With college announcers, often times they lack much exposure to the performance and ability of the people they're forced to comment on. But describing someone's exceptional abilities by a word that literally defines them in the most self-evident way staggers the imagination. Imagine if people did this for mathletes:
I wanna talk about Aaron Jorgenson now. Eighth grader. This kid... this kid right here is a real mathlete. He knows all the angles, he knows his numbers, and he's not afraid to crunch 'em. What you’re gonna get out of him today — everyday, and I mean that, EV-ER-Y. DAY. — is a pure mathletic performance. I can’t say enough about him. What he brings to the table is sitting at one AND performance. When Jorgenson is in, he's gonna perform.
I think all these things begin with football, then get filtered through ESPN enough that they slide verbally to basketball, then finally to baseball. Because I've been groaning for years about (what I suspect is) the antecedent to baseball's current favorite descriptor ("ballplayer"), which is "FOOTBALL PLAYER."

The most enervating aspect to it is the commentators' insistence on then explaining and justifying that comment by defining it as the comment itself, e.g.
This guy is a FOOTBALL PLAYER. I mean, he really knows how the game of FOOTBALL is played.
At some point, amid the ambiguities of struggle on a playing field, we must all resort to tautologies to describe those plays and exchanges to which only ineffable ability or muscle memory can lay claim for their execution. But describing them with tautologies and then explaining the tautologies with further tautologies is enough to make anyone want to smash a remote or fling a bottle at something inexpensive and easily cleaned, if only to stick up for the idea of what words should mean. At this point, in 25 years, the embalmed and electronically manipulated bust of Joe Mogan or Tim McCarver will be explaining, "THAT is a home run. That ball went over the fence, and that's why the batter touched all the bases. And when you do that, the score goes up. Derek Jeter."

I made a comment at Shana and Jack's get-together about the athleticism thing, and, since that didn't seem to unnerve anyone, ventured a comment about the other trend the announcers exhibited. That is, describing players as possessing both speed and quickness. Of course, this isn't exactly new either.

For years, announcers have heaped praise on athletes via the Thesaurus Method — viz. "David Eckstein is a good player because he has grit, heart, hustle, stick-to-it-iveness, determination, etc." They all display the same absence of meaning in vaguely the same vacuous way. Lately, however, football announcers have become enamored of repeating the same dual compliment: "He has speed and quickness."

In the simplest terms, this is horseshit. Someone who is quick (physically speaking; they don't mean that the kid gets riddles without hesitation) is someone who moves rapidly. Someone who is speedy is someone who moves rapidly. The compliment, literally, means, "He is fast and fast." As a result, the best praise we can now offer to an athlete is that he is athletic and that he has speed and also speed. Both speeds are indicative of athleticism, which is a condition required for being an athlete, which an athlete is (athletic).

I raised this point a while back on the comments board of a blog I love, and a smart guy (who really had a lot of intelligence and knowledge) pointed out that John Madden is probably to blame. I agree. Years ago, Madden wanted to praise Walter Payton. Anyone who'd watched Payton would immediately acknowledge that he was one of the greatest running backs in history. But Madden saw that he contributed more to his team than running well. He was a good blocker, picked up unexpected blitzes and ran routes to perfection. Madden's point was that praising Payton as a great running back minimized him: he was a great football player, because he not only ran brilliantly but also did everything else required of him with a level of excellence that exceeded that of his contemporaries and even the historical greats. To call him simply a great running back would have been like calling Da Vinci just a good painter when he was also a great sculptor, illustrator and inventor. Walter Payton, then, was a great football player because his talents encompassed far more facets of the game than mere role-playing.

Madden is, in many respects, the king of ostensible tautologies. What made and makes him great is his ability to say things that appear to be self-evident but reveal how little you've thought about the game itself. His curse — beyond that of supposedly crippling anyone who stars in his video game — is that his pithy intelligence almost immediately backslides into misunderstood and totally witless irrelevance as soon as anyone else starts using it. Such is the case with "football player" or "ballplayer," and such was probably the case with "athlete" and "speed and quickness."

Just such a point was broached by fellow guests at Shana and Jack's. They suggested that the point of "speed and quickness" was that "quickness" actually indicated agility. In short, an athlete who has speed is good only at moving forward unimpeded, but someone with quickness evades trouble without breaking stride. I couldn't (and can't) deny that this makes sense, but I insisted (and insist) that this is still moronic. If there's already a perfectly normal word for what sports commentators mean (agility), then inventing a new definition for another word (quickness) nearly identical to one they're already using (speed) is just some abstruse and meaningless exercise for the athletically stupid. This determination to unnecessarily redefine perfectly useful words in perfectly useless and contrived ways makes idiots of us all.

I said as much at the party, and Jack seemed to nod imperceptibly, which I would like to think indicated approval. I'm not sure, but he didn't pick me up and crush me into a small cube.