The best and worst thing about sports is people talking about sports. At its best, sports commentary is thoughtful, reasonable, insightful, and possibly humorous -- a window into the game that you can't see without the commentator. Writers at SB Nation work hard to create those conversations; you can also find it online at The Classical and Grantland, on TV during The Scott Van Pelt Show, and in your ears with The Evening Jones and The Basketball Jones (and other, non-Jones podcasts).
Unfortunately, the biggest platforms are reserved for the loudest voices (How many smart conversations happen when someone is yelling?). You see this everywhere: ESPN, sports talk radio, the unfortunate comment sections of stories online. People have built careers by taking a compelling sports narrative and distilling it to easily digestible moralizing. They toss around simplistic, derivative epithets to stoke an angry fire in fans. It is intellectual gruel, a slurry of opinion intended to provoke rather than inform.
So how do we -- People With Operational Frontal Lobes -- combat mainstream media's tendency to favor emotion-baiting stupidity? By identifying what's bad, and then ignoring it.
With that in mind, here are five crutches of the lazy sports commentator. You will see and hear these words -- always in ALL-CAPITAL SHOUTING -- from people who enjoy sports but not the act of reasoned critical thinking, such as the drunk meathead at the bar, older racist relatives, and Gregg Doyel. It should be noted that none of these words are being used incorrectly, per se. But they are signposts on the road to mental oblivion, appearing more and more often as you approach that particular cliff.
1. PHONY. An athlete is a PHONY if he exhibits the same capitalistic traits as every employee in America: leaving one company for another company that pays better or is otherwise more desirable. Sometimes, a PHONY will leave a city -- let's say Cleveland -- for a glamorous, warm-weather city with nice beaches and thousands of incredibly sexy Latina women even though he had professed a desire to stay in crappy, cold, dying Cleveland forever. This entirely hypothetical athlete may be an unapologetic villain whose unrivaled egomania long ago obliterated whatever remnants of self-awareness he may have had, but on sports talk radio he's simply a PHONY. It's easy shorthand that I can't use without feeling hypocritical -- I've tweaked my resume while at work; I've gone for "lunch" that was a job interview.
2. FRAUD. Similar to PHONY in many regards, FRAUD has more utility for the sports idiot, as it also applies to any athlete who has used performance-enhancing drugs (regardless of whether those drugs are illegal). Do I think that records broken with the benefit of steroids are tainted? Yes, but that doesn't mean I'm going to join the "A-FRAUD" chant at Fenway when Alex Rodriguez comes to bat. I'd much rather make fun of his fetish for muscular women.
3. CLOWN. An athlete is a CLOWN if he performs his job with anything less than Soviet grimness. Touchdown dances (Chad Johnson), elaborate handshakes (Jose Reyes), and colorful personalities (Clinton Portis) are all fine if the athlete displays immaculate performance on the field. But any decline in output is surely because that CLOWN is indulging in DISTRACTIONS. I mean, we're not paying him MILLIONS OF DOLLARS to GOOF OFF! All athletes should dedicate 100 percent of their lives to performing their jobs with none of the joy that attracted us to the game as children! Ugh.
4. PUNK. The way sports jackasses use this word is so divorced from my preferred interpretation of the word (generally reflecting an anti-establishment stance) that I can barely grasp what they mean by it. As best I can tell, it's a catch-all slur for anyone who doesn't play the game THE RIGHT WAY. I can only define PUNK by its antonym: GRITTY.
5. THUG. A THUG is anyone who plays a physical game TOO physically. A THUG can be an actual thug, such as Bill Laimbeer or Ndamukong Suh, or it can be any black athlete with tattoos. James Harrison is often derided as a THUG, and that's unfair to Harrison -- it doesn't accurately represent the extent of his thuggishness. In a terrific essay about concussions for The Classical, Sean Conboy described Harrison as "a villain out of a nightmare, fully realized and sitting on the edge of the bed in all his brooding batshit glory."
That is how you should talk about James Harrison, about athletes, about anyone and everything: with thought, with care, and with effort. We can do better, and we can start by avoiding these five words when talking about sports. If you hear any of them without accompanying modifiers or a balanced argument, you are consuming sports commentary gruel. Spit it out.