• 04/03/2024

Compromised Positions

Compromised Positions

There is no denying that the sports business these days is awash in bright lights …

Quite often, though, the same can’t be said for the people or practices involved.

The passage of time, the fading of origins and the constant superseding of slang can combine to cause some curious contemporary contexts.

To start, have you ever really thought about how pedantic the word ‘quarterback’ is? When the innovators who metamorphosed rugby into gridiron football were telling players where to stand, it was only logical to have someone placed all the way behind the line called a ‘fullback.’ By then, soccer already had two defending positions which used that term, so they surely provided the acceptable sporting frame of reference. For the gridiron game’s founding fathers to next place another player halfway between the fullback and the linemen and call him a ‘halfback’ made sense, too. But, perhaps they overdid this theme by sticking a third player halfway between the halfback and the linemen and arriving at the unfortunately obvious titling conclusion.

It only figures that such a mathematically correct — but verbally clumsy — location of a player would turn out to describe the most important position in the game. Any sports fan has heard that word a thousand times and surely doesn’t think twice anymore about what it means or how silly it sounds. The rest of the salient world, though, is left to wonder what minds like those had named their kids.

On the other hand, the venerable game of cricket doesn’t even think the word ‘silly’ sounds silly. Players’ positions in that game are also defined by their location, and they actually have a series of spots called ‘silly point,’ ‘silly mid-off’ and ‘silly mid-on.’ In this case, it’s truth in advertising. That’s because they’re placed so close to the batsman that solid contact from a full swing could result in serious bodily harm from a scorching line drive, which means that someone would have to be absolutely foolhardy to play there. Or, maybe just silly. (Just so you’re aware that all cricketers aren’t that crazy, the ‘silly’ locations are only occupied when the fielding team believes the batsman will only take defensive swings to protect his wicket.)

Certain topics just weren’t discussed in public a century ago. So, a gridiron position like ‘tight end’ or a rugby position like ‘hooker’ never gave anyone a second thought. That was then. I’m assuming those athletes frame their conversations with non-fans more carefully now.

There are times when even the sports media should think deeper about their choice of words. Sports fans often have to do a double-take at headlines being thrust before them. Here’s a recent offering from ESPN.com:

“Panel to Look at Claims Against Skeleton Coach.”

While it might have been tempting to muse if the story was about some incident after a play was ‘long dead,’ only a hardcore Winter Olympics maven would recognize that a coach for the headfirst sledding events is in some sort of trouble. The sleighs involved in that discipline acquired the name ‘skeleton’ by a logic that was similar to that of the resultant term for putting a player a quarter of the way between the fullback and the center: the sled involved is literally a bare-bones equivalent of a bobsleigh or a luge, and the engineers must have gotten to it before the marketers did. Of course, if you’ve ever seen this sport in action, you could easily believe that its moniker was derived from what was left of an athlete if he ever lost control of his sled at 70mph.

Given the apparent discord between sports terminology and the perception of those same words and phrases by the rest of the world, it’s not surprising that sometimes, ordinary words can be a cause of confusion to those who have spent their lives in the sporting arena.

In the late 1960s, two former gridiron football stars-turned-broadcasters — New York Giants great, Pat Summerall, and Philadelphia Eagles receiver, Tom Brookshier — were covering a game involving the Washington Redskins. At the time, those two were better known for socializing before the game than for preparing themselves for the broadcast. Brookshier, especially, seemed to depend on the depth charts and player profiles laid before them in the booth, rather than doing his own research.

During the course of the game, a kickoff came to a relatively unknown Redskin named Herb Mul-Key. He got a couple of key initial blocks, found a seam and scampered for a substantial return. It definitely warranted a comment from the analyst, which was Brookshier’s role.

However, he clearly didn’t know anything about Herb Mul-Key. All he could do was look for something of note on the player-bio card, and he thought he found something.

“I see,” he announced, “that Mul-Key went to No-Knee College. I’ve never heard of that school.”

Summerall’s pause was extended. Finally, with subtle exasperation, he finally made the correction.

“I believe the word is ‘None,’ Tom.”

Brookshire was truly a man trapped in sports. I guess that meant, to him, the cue card had something in common with the term for another rugby position:

It was a tight head prop.