Stepping up to the (boiler)plate

Although I missed our class conversation yesterday, the topic of boilerplate language and clichés immediately piqued my interested— nothing aggravates me more than empty sentences or tired phrases (I’m talking to you, all University of Michigan promotional material that has ever existed ever).

Just like Bryan, Oliver, and Zach, I promptly thought of sports—a genre saturated with way too much clichéd commentary (whenever my mom turns on a Michigan football game a few minutes too, she rolls her eyes at ESPN’s “Talking Heads.”) It’s a shame, really: sports writing is spectacularly tangible, evocative, laden with emotions and analogies and turns of phrase. Sports interviews, regrettably, are not. At all.

Take, for example, the press conference. Regardless of team, regardless of context, regardless of the outcome, post-game press conferences manage to sound identical. In order to dodge controversy, avoid directing blame, and dodge making unfulfillable promises, coaches and players end up spewing a series of blanket responses that still, somehow, appease just about everyone.

I love Jim Harbaugh (almost) as much as the next Michigan student, but his press conferences are far from charismatic. The press conference below followed the team’s loss to MSU—decidedly the least mundane football game of the season (I’ll try not to remind everyone of the details)—yet still manages to follow the basic post-game formula:

“There’s so much good, you know, our guys that came played big in the big game and overcame so much. I mean, calls that were made and calls that weren’t made… They just kept fighting and overcame so much in the ball game and ultimately played winning football. And what do you say about the last play, you know, it was unfortunate. We didn’t get the result.”

So there you have it: some vague comment on “playing hard,” some mention of the result of the game, some statement on the referees. These responses are consensual—they don’t push any narratives or offer any new information—but we feast on this meaninglessness. The press conference is essentially a blank canvas, allowing us to project whatever feelings we have about the game onto the TV screen. They persuade us that our coach has everything under control, that we will turn ourselves around, that we will continue to win. The words are comforting in their predictability—everything a fan feels they need to hear.

Notably, Harbaugh is famous for challenging this press conference script when he was a quarterback at Michigan, single-handedly promising a victory against OSU: “We’re going to play in the Rose Bowl this year, I guarantee it. We’ll beat Ohio State and we’ll be in Pasadena on January 1st.”

Though he ultimately delivered on his promise, Harbaugh received considerable flack for making a statement this direct and tangible. Indeed, with the ease and proliferation of internet backlash, it’s really no wonder why today’s press conferences seem so substanceless. The fluff is a defense mechanism, protection against the media.

 

But I think there is a line to be drawn between the cyclical meaninglessness of press conferences and the abuse/reuse of sports clichés. Growing up a Michigan football fan and an avid cliché-hater, I felt myself cringe each time an ESPN announcer claimed that running back Mike Hart was the “heart and soul” of the Michigan offense. And I still shudder every time Rod and Mario (the commentators for Tiger’s baseball) call the high-and-inside pitch Miguel Cabrera’s “bread and butter.”

In this way, clichés are at once more specific and more ubiquitous than boilerplate language—they are, more often than not, ripped from the context of the game and applied more generally. Think how many times you’ve been told to “step up to the plate” in a group project, or that you’ve “dropped the ball” on applications, or that “in the long run,” your GPA won’t matter. In this way, tired sports phrases have seeped into the fabric of our everyday lives, infiltrating our idioms and colloquialisms.

I suppose all of this cynicism is just my attempt at illustrating the importance of looking beyond the empty post-game interview, beyond the banal sports cliché, and turning to the truly magnificent sports writing that exists in this world. (For sports fiction, I’d highly recommend Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding).

Go ahead: the ball’s in your court.

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