by Steve Van Auken

One of the things that unites us, young and old, is the belief that all conversations go better with sports talk. Images and metaphors from the world of sport create a common language. They help people from diverse backgrounds to communicate. We are all familiar with the style of speech that comes to us from the TV sports shows.

“Jim, there’s been a lot of talk this week about the Possums’ problems on and off the field.”

“That’s right, Tiffany. Remember that the Possums’ all-star tight end, Clayton Mince, ran a red-dog-slant-right pattern in that game against the Ospreys, ran right off the field and kept going and hasn’t been seen since. A lot of people see it as a negotiating tactic. His contract is up at the end of the season. But I think it goes deeper. The Possums are notorious for their ugly helmets. Clayton is a very fashion-conscious guy. I think he was embarrassed to be seen dressed like that. And you know what?  I don’t blame him. I’ll go out on a limb and make a prediction right now. When they finally find Clayton Mince he won’t be wearing his helmet. I could be wrong. But that’s my bet. Tiffany?”

“That’s food for thought, Jim. Now before the game starts, let’s go down to the sideline where Bob Highlighter is standing with Cudgel’s Head Coach Norm Stoutman. Bob?”

“Thanks, Tiffany. Coach, what do you see as the keys to today’s game?”

“We have to stop the Possums from scoring. And we have to score a lot.”

“So, Coach, if I read you right, you’re saying, bottom-line, at the end of the day, all things considered, it’s all about putting points on the board?”

“Well, yeah, I guess you could say that. But it’s more complicated. I mean, we have a lot of plays and things. Technical stuff. Secret stuff. It’s why we cover our mouths with our clipboards when we talk. Because the other teams watch your TV show and hire lip readers. To get our secret stuff.”

“There you have it. Back to you, Tiffany.”

Sports talk has a long history of bringing Americans together and helping us through difficult times. 

Military historians have described the grim moment when Gen. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, met with his lieutenants to tell them that the D-Day invasion would begin at dawn in spite of grave doubts about the weather over the English Channel. Eisenhower laid out the disturbing facts: “Our Navy says they’re ready, but they can’t be certain the tide will be high enough to cover the Germans’ obstacles at the edge of the beach. Our Air Force says they’re ready but any storm clouds could completely ruin our plans. Our landing craft…but hey… here’s a cable just in… the Cubs beat the Dodgers yesterday, 8-3!”

Sports talk has long been a way for any man, even one who on his most athletic day couldn’t tell the difference between a catcher’s mitt and third base, to come across as one of the guys. Businessmen rely on it.

“Smithers, what’s your take on how we can cut costs at our Bucyrus plant?”

“Chief, we’re in the fourth quarter on this and we need to keep moving the chains. We don’t want to have to go into extra innings because the other team is locked and loaded and we can’t afford to give them a slam-dunk.”

“Smithers, I think you’re in the right ballpark here. But I’ve had occasion before to speak to you about mixing metaphors. Take a night-school class or something.”

In recent decades, people have finally noticed that women have come into their own as athletes and sports fans. As a result, they are now fluent in the language of business.

“Gentlemen, ladies, we face a very serious decision. Our company’s long-term prospects depend on getting this right. What it comes down to is this: Are we stronger if we cut costs to the bone, shed our subsidiaries, focus only on our core business? Or do we push on and try to maximize profit in a variety of fields with a broad range of products? Any thoughts? Yes, Ms. Kemper?”

“Good hitting beats good pitching.”

“By God, yes. You’re saying we forge ahead? Damn the costs? Be aggressive? Exactly right. Kemper, you’re in charge. The rest of you are fired.”

Some people object to introducing sports talk into our language. They say it pushes out more elegant, imaginative forms of expression. Beautiful works like the Gettysburg Address would be impossible if they were cheapened with sports metaphors.

But I think we can agree that sports talk has its place. Our greatest writers would not take offense. They would not deny us our preferred form of everyday expression.

Abe Lincoln would never move the goalposts like that.

Steve Van Auken

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