In its Sept. 5 DealBook newsletter, the New York Times reported, “As of today, 15 million Americans are still unable to watch the U.S. Open and other programming live on their TVs, thanks to a dispute between Disney and the cable giant Charter that has blacked out Disney channels like ESPN in major markets including New York and Los Angeles.”
Money aside, and of course the dispute just settled was about money, there was a good side/bad side to the situation. The bad side was that many tennis devotees could not watch their favorite sport. The good side was that, at least for a portion of America, the inside lingo of the sports world, which I believe degrades our language, was not heard by a portion of Americans.
If print reporters can describe the action of an event without using inside journalism terms, why can’t professional sports announcers do the same without resorting to sports jargon?
Not being a professional, or even an amateur sports announcer, I can only assume that they compose language of their own makes for the better and more informative.
But instead of appealing to first time viewers, which increases numbers, sportscasters continue to cater to the true and tried fans, who only devoted fans appreciate.
Thus new viewers of tennis on TV have to know the meaning of words like “ace,” “fault,” and “love” to understand what’s happening. Baseball announcers assume that their TV audience, even those tuning in for the first time, know the interpretation of “around the horn,” “Baltimore chop,” and “Texas Leaguer.”
All viewers of football games are expected to know the meaning of “bull rush,” or “cover 0-1-2-3 or 4,” even though there are 22 players on the field. There’s a good case to be made that using inside sports lingo on telecasts is detrimental to sponsors. Commercials during sporting telecasts use proper English so that everyone watching can understand their sales pitch.
Years ago, when baseball players began using inside the clubhouse jargon like “squaring up the ball” during media interviews, Keith Hernandez, the superb New York Mets analyst, admitted that the meaning was new to him. But over the years he has raised the white flag and now very occasionally uses it, but when he does, he makes it clear what it means.
I’m not certain when the use of sports jargon became a staple for announcers. Perhaps it was when the networks believed that adding former players to the TV announcing mix would attract a larger audience or when non-player professional announcers believed that they had to demonstrate to the audience that they could talk the same language as the players.
But before that became the norm, prominent athletes, including Ralph Kiner, on baseball, and Marty Glickman, on basketball and football broadcasts, hardly ever used sports jargon. Neither did other announcers that I listened to and admired, including Jim McKay, John Madden, Howard Cosell, Mel Allen, Red Barber, Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy, Ernie Harwell, Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, Don Dunphy and Bill Stern, who many consider the first nationally-known great story-telling sportscaster. And on the rare occasion they did, they made certain that what they said was understood by everyone.
I don’t remember that even the great baseball player Frankie Frisch, often forgotten as a sportscaster, who did color commentary on radio and television for the Boston Bees, the National League team name at that time, and for the Boston Red Sox in 1939, and did the same for the New York Giants on radio in 1947-48, before hosting the teams post game telecasts in the 1950s, resorting to sports jargon. “Oh, those bases on balls,” was his trademark. He eventually went back to coaching on the field.
And I don’t recall Vin Scully, who many observers believe is the greatest of all baseball announcers because of his unmatched, masterful and melodic use of the English language, having to resort to sports jargon in order to describe the on-goings. He did so by using words that even novice listeners could understand and by telling interesting stories that everyone could appreciate as well as coining phrases that other announcers envied. (When mentioning great sportscasters, it’s criminal not to include Bob Costas, who more than any other announcer is not afraid to speak his mind about matters that transcend the events he covered.)
Speaking ill of a player whose miscue was responsible for a loss is forbidden, even though viewers of the game can see the dismay on teammates’ faces when the error occurred. Instead of answering questions truthfully, answers to questions are the same, game after game and question after question.
Years ago, when radio was king, a listener did not have to be a fanatic to understand what a sportscaster was describing. When I mute the TV commentary and tune in the radio broadcasts of a game, I find that is still often the case. That’s good broadcasting in my opinion. Not so, TV broadcasters who feel that they have to use inside verbiage as well as creating a language of their own to keep viewers interested.
Non-sports newscasters do just fine without using make-believe words. Print reporters do also. Why should sports announcers be excused for inventing their own language that’s beyond reasoning?