Thursday, June 9, 2011

Why Athletes Give Such Terrible Interviews

I try not to force too many televised sporting events on my partner, but sometimes she can't come up with something better to do when I have a game on. And sometimes the events in the game are so exciting, so compelling, so violent, even she gets mildly interested. (“Oh man! What do they do when there's blood on the ice?” “Let it freeze and just scrape it up.” “That's it?  Lame.”) And then someone goes and sticks a microphone in an athlete's face and starts asking questions. Then it's all, “We just want to play a good game, give it our all,” and “You know, it's all about playing smart, playing good defense,” and even sometimes you'll hear, “You know, it all comes down to who wants it more,” and other eye-tweaking banalities. And then whatever entertainment the event might have been building for my partner completely dissolves. All she can think about is the scene from Bedazzled, where Brendan Fraser is playing a less than intelligent basketball superstar. The character ends up churning through about half of the major sport cliches.

But why do athletes give such bad interviews? The easiest answer is that athletes aren't public speakers. They don't spend their time developing elocution. The time and effort it takes to become a professional athlete and maintain a career doesn't leave much for an extraneous skill. They're not paid to talk; they're paid to play so they spend their time getting better at that. Of course, that's part of it, but I think there's something else going on.

The language of sport is one of the most conservative in the world. There might be more taboos in sport language than just about any other contemporary language. Between strategy, psychology, and decorum, there is so much athletes can't say, that hackneyed cliches and banal platitudes are pretty much the only things left they can say.

Imagine you're a basketball player, and you, your coach, and your teammates have found an effective strategy for defending your opponent's superstar. Maybe you've figured out that a double-team works best if the second player comes from the left or maybe sliding under a screen is really effective or whatever. Halftime comes along and a correspondent says to you, “Derrick Rose only shot 17% from the floor in the first half. How were you able to keep him in check?” Obviously you're not going to tell the world, “He doesn't shoot well if the double-team comes from his left, so we double him from the left,” because that would be stupid. You don't tell your opponents how you're beating them, because they'll change their strategy so that doesn't work anymore. So instead of compromising your team's strategy by actually answering the question “How are you having success?” you say something like, “You know defense wins championships, and we really focus on defense, and defense is all about effort so, it's about knowing your assignments and working hard.”

There is a lot of psychology involved in sports. I don't think anyone has a clear sense of exactly how emotions, intellect, and instinct interact to affect an athlete's performance, but it is clear that what we think affects how we play. When the stakes are as high as they are in professional sports, you don't want to do anything that could potentially compromise your team's chances of winning.  So you don't want to say anything that could distract a teammate by making him/her mad at you.  So if an interviewer asks a quarterback why his team struggled on offense during a game, he's not going to say, "The left side of my line was like swiss cheese," even if it was.  If your left tackle is thinking about how much of a jerk you are, he's not thinking about reading the defense.   And there's the “bulletin-board quote." A “bulletin-board quote,” is anything an athlete or coach might say that his/her opponents would print out and put up on the bulletin-board in the locker room to use as motivation. Anything that might be considered an insult or express overconfidence or disrespect of any kind could potentially be a “bulletin-board quote.” So when a corespondent asks an athlete, “How are you preparing for you game against Team X,” that athlete can't say, “Well, Team X isn't very good, so we're not really doing anything special.” Instead they say, “You know we're just having some good practices, making sure everyone knows their responsibilities, really working hard as a team, and you know, just making sure we're ready for the game.”

Furthermore, a combination of decorum, culture, and sometimes even team policy, will put even more restrictions on what athletes can say. You can't say, “The referees were terrible today and their awful calls pretty much ruined our chance to win.” At most you'll get something like, “The calls didn't all go our way, but you have to play through that, it's just part of the game.” Nor can you say that you lost because of a stroke of bad luck, or you think your opponents were cheating, or that one of your teammates isn't working hard enough.

And this is before any personal superstitions are taken into account. So on top of everything else, some players and coaches will have statements they avoid because they think saying them will bring some form of bad luck.  And there are also tons of athletes for whom English is a foreign language, but microphones still get shoved in their faces too.

So when asked an interview question, an athlete can't give away any team strategies, nor does s/he want to risk providing motivation for an opponent, nor does s/he want to compromise internal relations by saying something bad about a teammate, and it's considered bad form to complain about officials and bad luck. There really isn't much left of the English language, once all of that has been removed. I suppose if they were asked about world politics, movies, contemporary avant garde literature, the slow food movement, or pretty much anything else besides the most important part of their lives, some of them might actually turn out to be intelligent well spoken individuals. Maybe.

Which makes the real question not, why do athletes give such bad interviews, but why do media continue to interview them. Athletes have been telling journalists there is no I in team forever and journalists keep asking them “'What was the key to your win tonight?” as if one of them is going to say, “Oh, that's easy, John Smoltz was tipping his pitches.” And they still ask, “Can you put into words what you're feeling right now,” even though the athletes always say “No,” and then prove themselves right. There is some kind of compulsion that drives the way we cover sports. Perhaps these interviews persist because there is no punishment for them. Very few of the people watching the event on TV are going to stop watching because of a stupid athlete interview. Nor are people going to stop reading reports of sporting events because they include a few cliched quotes. And if there's not negative consequences, there really isn't a way to prevent them.

Well, this isn't really a victimless crime. Because every time I start to convince my partner there is some intellectual legitimacy to sport someone suggests they need to give it 110%. Her cackles at my expense ring in my ears for hours afterward.


  1. This brought a smile to my face. It seems like the best stuff a player has to say is saved up in some mental cavity until they retire and someone writes or helps them write a biography. I can't wait until we get the unedited Shawn Thornton bio in 10 years.

  2. Excellent breakdown of one of sport's most pointless rituals. Maybe teams should hire retired pro wrestlers as interview coaches. Then we'd get some memorable lines.

    By the way, I could hear her cackles as I read that last paragraph.