Most of the evolution of sports is welcome. The athletes generally are far better than in decades past because of advances in nutrition, coaching, training, psychology, facilities, equipment.
But for all these advances in sport, a serious negative is the widespread and growing devotion to trash talking. Athletes of all stripes, but especially football and basketball players, give enormous attention and energy to nonstop yapping at their opponents.
It sounds benign when it's described as attempts by players to get inside the heads of opponents, thus gaining an edge. After all, much of life, for good or ill, is about edge-gaining by angling, posturing, maneuvering, positioning.
Truth is, this ubiquitous trash talking takes away enormously from the art of the game. Most trash talking is, of course, inexcusably profane. The ability of many observers to read lips plus the pervasiveness of lurking microphones is the documentation.
If someone offers you tickets to sit courtside at an NBA game or mingle on the sidelines at an NFL game, consider whether you want to inflict the language you'll hear on your ears - and sensibilities.
And don't even think about taking your children with you.
Yet, the point is not so much the obscene language, although that's point enough for many. Rather, it's what it does to chip away at the historical foundation of sport. Sport, at its best, is about sportsmanship, competing on a level surface, trying at all times even when the situation is darkest.
Sport is about action, not words. Whatever happened to the determined, totally focused athlete who keeps attention focused on the team, who concentrates like a laser on the greater good? Time was the only thing ever said to an opposing athlete was when the contest was over: "Nice game." That was it.
That was better.
A former University of Tennessee football player says trash talking "is probably the best part of the football game." No it's not, not for those who enjoy pure competition and who can't imagine these players eat with the same mouths they talk out of.
An expert on the subject, Richard Stratton at Virginia Tech, writes, "When you resort to trash talking to try to defeat someone else, you are admitting that you can't beat them using skills and play execution." Many times, yes. But often, no.
For example, one of the NBA's premier players in waiting, Rasheed Wallace of Portland, just can't zip his lip. He was slapped with an astounding 38 technical fouls (more than twice as many as anyone else) in the regular season - frequently assessed for trash talking to officials. Consider that the previous leaders were Charles Barkley and Dennis Rodman with 32 technicals each. These are players of the first order.
Wallace, who generally refuses to discuss the subject or even talk to reporters, did grumble earlier this year, "I could have a million techs. I don't care." The problem is he hurts his team dramatically, if for no other reason than it's never known when Wallace - who averaged l6.4 points per game this year and was an all-star selection - will go bonkers.
Sad to report, Michael Jordan was one of sport's mouthiest ever. He'd scorch an overmatched defender, then laugh at his opponent and say, "You'll get the next one, big fella." Or words to that general effect. The Indiana Pacers Reggie Miller has a mouth that roars and which sometimes distracts him.
And perhaps the king of trash was Larry Bird. He'd tell opponents in advance what he was going to do to them, then do it. He'd advise defenders they better stay close or "I'll get 50." Or words to that general effect.
Portland's Brian Grant and Utah's Karl Malone recently got into an exceptionally colorful exchange. Said Malone later, "He said he didn't like me, and I said I didn't like him." Or words to that general effect.
Yet, in fairness, trash talking is indicative of society. It's always easier to talk than to perform. What speaks most loudly is to defeat an opponent, squarely and fairly.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society