Perhaps you have a boring job, the kind where the most interesting thing that ever happens is when the vending machine gets refilled, an event that sends an electric current of excitement through the cubicles. (“Whoa! Dibs on the bagel chips!”)
Perhaps sometimes when you’re sitting in yet another totally pointless meeting, staying awake by deliberately inflicting paper cuts on yourself you think: “I wish I had a job wherein I could go to exciting events and meet famous people. I wish I were … a sportswriter!”
It sounds like fun, doesn’t it? A sportswriter! You get paid to watch games! You go into the locker room and chat with famous athletic stars!
Unfortunately, that scenario portrays real-world sportswriting about as accurately as Road Runner cartoons portray the laws of physics. I know this because recently, for a few hellish minutes, I found myself attempting to do what sportswriters really do, which is try to get intelligible statements from large mumbling naked men surrounded by approximately the population of Sweden.
This was my wife’s fault. She’s a sportswriter, and I had accompanied her to an NBA playoff game between the Heat, representing Miami; and the Knicks, representing Satan. I enjoyed the game immensely. Not only did the Heat win, but also there was a great moment in sportsmanship history when - you may have seen replays of this - a Heat player named P.J. Brown picked up an opponent named Charlie Ward and set a world indoor record for the Knick Toss.
So I was in a good mood until my wife, on a very tight deadline, asked me if I could go to the Knicks’ locker room and get her some quotes from the players. Sportswriters need quotes, because otherwise their stories would basically consist of the score and a whole lot of padding (“The Miami Heat beat the New York Knicks 96 to 81 Wednesday night on a basketball court measuring a regulation 94 by 50 feet and made of maple, a hard, close-grained, light-colored wood belonging to the family of …”).
So player quotes are critical; the problem is that the players almost never have anything to say. This is not their fault. They shoot the ball; it goes into the basket, or it doesn’t. What is there to say about this?
But reporters are constantly badgering the players for quotes. In response, the players have developed Sports Blather. This is a special language consisting of meaningless words and phrases - such as “execute,” “focus,” “step up,” “find a rhythm,” “game plan,” “mental errors” and “the next level” - professional athletes can string together in any random order to form quotes, as in: “We made some mental errors, but we found our rhythm and were able to focus on executing our game plan and stepping up to the next level.” Or: “We gamely planned to erroneously focus on stepping up our level of mental rhythm.” You think I’m kidding, but professional athletes regularly make statements just as incoherent as these while hordes of reporters religiously record every word.
So anyway, there I was, clutching a notebook in the middle of a stressed-out group of - this is a conservative estimate - 26 million reporters, all of them on deadline, shoving their way into the Knicks’ locker room. My instructions were to get quotes from a Knick named John Starks, but I couldn’t see any Knicks at all. You’d think that, in a fairly small confined space, it would be easy to locate large, naked men, but all I saw were the backs of sports reporters, who had formed dense impenetrable clots around what I assumed were the players.
I went from clot to clot, getting up on tiptoes, trying to hear what was going on in there, but all I picked up were quote fragments - “level our rhythm,” “execute our steps,” etc. Finally a kindly sports reporter named Craig took pity on me and, grabbing my arm, yanked me deep into his clot, where I could just barely make out the top of the head of someone I assumed was a Knick sitting on a stool, mumbling quotes at the floor.
It might have been John Starks; it might also have been Colin Powell. I considered asking a question, but the only one I could think of was: “Which specific Knick are you?” Nevertheless I tried to write down everything I heard, then I fought my way out of the locker room and sprinted back to where my wife and several other sportswriters were working, right smack on deadline and badly in need of Knick quotes. They looked up expectantly from their computers as I rummaged frantically through my notes, which looked like drawings by hyperactive preschoolers.
“They planned the game!” I said, breathlessly flipping pages. “They executed a focus!” “Who said that?” they asked.
“A Knick, I think!” I said. “He was sitting down!” “Fine,” they said, calmly turning back to their laptops. “Thanks.”
And the thing is, they actually managed to write coherent stories for the next day’s paper. I don’t know how they did, and I don’t know how they stayed so calm. I was a wreck. I’m happy to go back to just being a fan. I prefer to stay on that level, avoid mental errors, find my rhythm and focus on my game plan. I find it helps if I execute a couple of beers.