John Affleck: Words matter, even in sports

Perhaps next year big-time sports will get more civil

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At this point on the calendar sports journalists typically look back over everything they’ve covered since the Rose Bowl and write a year-in-review story to run in the quiet week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Often, the challenge of the story is finding a theme. With an ever-expanding list of sporting events, reporters struggle to grab a thread that carried fans and athletes through the year. This time it’s easy. The sports lesson of 2013 is that words matter. Sports found out that its culture of insulting players — and in at least one notable case, fans — just doesn’t cut it in 21st-century America.

The lowlights include:

• Rutgers men’s basketball coach Mike Rice was fired in April and athletic director Tim Pernetti resigned after “Outside the Lines” aired a compilation tape of Mr. Rice throwing the ball at players in practice, shoving them and berating them with curses and homophobic slurs.

• The candidacy of the school’s next athletic director, Julie Hermann, was nearly derailed when it was revealed that women volleyball players at Tennessee had complained about being verbally abused by Ms. Hermann when she coached the Volunteers in the 1990s.

• The Richie Incognito/​Jonathan Martin affair has engulfed the Miami Dolphins, with Mr. Martin leaving the team and Mr. Incognito suspended. The NFL is investigating whether Mr. Incognito bullied Mr. Martin. Some facts are in dispute, but there is no question that teammates pulled at least one prank on Mr. Martin and that Mr. Incognito left a racially abusive voicemail for his teammate.

• Back at Rutgers, Jevon Tyree, a redshirt freshman football player, left the team. According to, defensive coordinator Dave Cohen used profane language as he chewed out Mr. Tyree in a study hall.

• Then there was the return of the controversy over the name of the Washington NFL team. While many fans don’t want the name changed, a Washington Post poll found that even among respondents who agree, 56 percent still felt the word “redskin” was an inappropriate way to refer to Native Americans.

What these examples show is that U.S. sports culture hasn’t caught up to contemporary standards of language and behavior. And the defense that sports is somehow different because you have to be tough and resilient to participate in sports hasn’t gained much traction. Why? Because every working adult in this country has to be tough and resilient to do a good job, even to keep one. Sports is not unique, and shouldn’t get a pass on bad behavior.

Consider this: You’re at your workplace and the boss comes in completely unhinged — frothing, cursing, pounding the desk and disparaging your sexual orientation or gender or race. Is that little tirade going to make you more or less loyal to him or her? Is it going to help you succeed? Is it any more OK if your workplace is a baseball diamond than if it is a discount department store?

This is not to say that salty language could or should be banned from locker rooms and sidelines. But there is a difference between making a point emphatically or good-natured kidding and being destructive. Word choice matters.

It would be easy to say that what’s happened this year points to a shift in sports culture — that somehow between 2012 and 2013 the games we love somehow got out of control. But that would be an overstatement.

We have to remember that, in big-time sports, winning is the top priority. When Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby and the other pioneers of racial integration first broke into baseball’s major leagues, they weren’t signed because owners suddenly sought to be leaders of the civil rights movement. The Dodgers and the Indians both wanted to win — and, after they desegregated, they did.

The incidents of abuse and hazing that have come up this year are mostly, in their own twisted way, about trying to win, too. Mr. Rice was trying to get Rutgers to play better. Some people on the Dolphins may have thought Mr. Martin needed to be tougher to make Miami a playoff team. In both cases, the least that can be said is that the ends did not justify the means.

Perhaps, in 2014, the theme of the year will be sports finding a new code of conduct that produces better results both off and on the field.

John Affleck is the Knight Chair for Sports Journalism and Society at Penn State University ( ).

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