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