Sports writing

A few years ago I was having coffee with a friend who worked at the time at The New York Times. We agreed that some of the best writing on the newspaper could be found on the sports page. Nothing earthshaking happens in sports –the player hits the baseball “out of the park” or “over the fence” or the fast ball is 97 miles and hour or 90 miles an hour, the player scores a goal or makes a point. It’s the same thing day after day. A writer makes this repetitive information interesting by larding his article or his broadcasts with interesting stories and colorful language.

A woman at the next table reached over and touched my arm. She was smiling, and her companion was laughing. She was the daughter of Yogi Berra, an iconic American baseball player, and her companion was Yogi’s wife, Carmen. We explained that we were both avid sports fans, but realized that our passions might rest in a game for a while, but for most of us, our lives do not rise or fall depending on the daily scores. Sports are not like politics, the weather, or the stock market.

Working writers have many challenges; they sometimes even die covering wars, but for day-to day creativity, none surpass the sports writer. Yogi Berra himself has contributed expressions that Americans use every day, such as “It ain’t over til it’s over,” and my favorite, “It’s so crowded nobody goes there any more.”

Colorful language begins with verbs; they provide the energy in a sentence. I have been impressed by the creative use of verbs by the NBCSN announcer in the hockey playoffs, and have included a list below.  All of us, including the announcer himself, would die of boredom if he said the same basic words a thousand times – “he hit the puck,” he passed the puck,” “he aimed the puck.” There has to be some variety.  The fragments below come only from his descriptions of what the player does with and to the puck. They don’t include what the player himself is doing (racing, banging, charging, attacking, and so on). That would comprise another long list.

62 verbs for one action, in one hockey game, besides the common ones, such as passed it, or hit it:

angled it, banked it, blasted it, blocked it, bounced it, centered it, chipped it, cleared it, coraled it, cranked it, cut it, deflected it, dragged it, dropped it, elevated it, fanned it, feathered it, filtered it, finessed it, fired it, flipped it, floated it, fought it off, headed it, hooked it, hustled it, jammed it, knifed it, ladled it, laid it up, led it on, lobbed it, lofted it, misfired it, peeled it off, picked it up, played it on, poked it, popped it in, pumped it along, punched it in, reached it, reversed it, rifled it, shook it, shoveled it, shipped it, shuffled it, skipped it, slithered it, slugged it, slung it, snuck it, spiked it, sticked it, stuck it, swatted it, threw it, toedragged it, tucked it, whacked it, worked it, yanked it.

Prepositions expand the list: he knifed it in/out/along; he floated it across/through/over, he headed it in/out/over/across/through/between.

It is the announcer’s job to keep a list of verbs handy, but occasionally they are spontaneously poetic. Baseball is a leisurely, slow-paced game with plenty of room for stories and references. The present set of New York Mets announcers, Keith Hernandez, Gary Cohen, and Ron Darling, often refer to ancient Greek myths, Shakespeare, and poets  or authors of various kinds. Sometimes they dip into mathematics or history. I am fascinated by the symbiosis between the most basic of our entertainments, sports, and the most high-fallutin’ classical endeavors. Classical music frequently provides the background to advertisements aired during games, and the announcers often call us to our higher intellectual selves.

Yes, I am a sports fan, and a linguist, and the two go together very well.

Exercise: Ask students who are sports fans to make a list of the verbs used by their favorite announcers.  Or ask students to cover a sports event at their school, using as many verbs as possible. They could work in groups to do this.





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