I’m usually not a big sports fan, but I do enjoy the dramatic language sports writers use to describe plays, outcomes, and rivalries—often contributing the most vivid verbs and colorful language in the newspaper. I am on the edge of my seat as I read the next morning’s over-the-top headlines, which range from brilliant to ludicrous as the winners hammer, bury, rip, or even annihilate their opponents. This wild language reflects the freedom from restraint we all feel as we watch sporting events, where we can let loose to yell, eat, and party hearty to celebrate wins or mourn losses by our favorite teams. No staid rules of etiquette or moderation in language use here!
In keeping with our innate tribal mentality and the intense rivalries between teams, sports headlines are often based on the metaphor of battle: even the basic verb “beat” conveys a hint of violence. A big game might be described as a “struggle,” a “showdown,” or even a “shootout.” The Cavs and the Rams are “Ready to Rumble” and even in high school sports, “Charlottesville Battles Past Monticello” (Daily Progress). A wide point spread is touted with “Cardinals Clobber the Mets” (New York Times), “Spurs Crush Skidding Heat” (San Diego Union Tribune), or “Virginia Mauls Clemson” (DP). “Wilma Storms Rome,” crowed the 1960 Sports Illustrated headline as Rudolph became the first American female track and field athlete to win three gold medals in one Olympics. After the 2014 World Cup, MetroSport reported that “Germany Tears Brazil to Pieces” and the Bleacher Report agreed that “Germany’s 7-1 dismantling of Brazil … was complete.” In more recent soccer news, “Madrid Trounces La Coruna” (NYT). Of course these words are not to be taken literally, but metaphorically, with sporting events serving as a stand-in for true battle, a controlled way to satisfy our urge to triumph over an adversary. Of course, in basketball a “shootout” might be meant literally as well as figuratively (although even the idea of “shooting a basket” is itself a metaphor, comparing the ball to a bullet).
But these dramatic headlines aren’t always war-related. “Seahawks’ Comeback Crumbles as Falcons Hold On for Win,” declared the New York Times. And after a 2012 upset, they wrote “For the Lions, a Rare Feast Amid Decades of Famine.” In women’s basketball, “Cavaliers Handle Tar Heels for Seventh ACC Victory” (DP). Tennis star “Madison Keys Surges into Quarterfinals” (NYT), and in hockey, the “Flyers Slip by Caps” (DP). When Mallory Pugh stood out in the National Women’s Soccer win over Denmark, the San Diego Union Tribune bragged “Teen Sparks Romp by U.S.” And for closer games, “Cavaliers Edge Spiders” (DP) while a “Late Burst Lifts Cavs” (DP)—conjuring the image of a bursting balloon sending those Lady Cavaliers vaulting over their opponents!
We can get downright emotional about our team loyalties—emotion that is well captured by these vivid action verbs. The whole idea of an “upset” is an emotional way to characterize a surprise win or loss. Furthering the psychological metaphor, one team “dominates” the other, while the loser “succumbs.” The Celtics were “humbled” by Inverness Caledonian Thistle to win the Scottish Cup in 2000. Across the pond, “Magic Shocks Celtics” in basketball (NYT), or “Cavaliers Stifle Visiting Tigers” gloats the Progress. And when one team prevents the other from even scoring, the game is a “shutout,” with the loser becoming an outsider, an alien. These vivid expressions are a fun and relatively harmless way to release our aggressions; fans of a winning team might proudly boast, “We gave them a drubbing,” even though an actual fistfight would be unacceptable.
Of course, at this time of year these hyperbolic headlines reach a fever pitch. Last month, it began with “Jaguars Stun Steelers…to Earn Trip to AFC Title Game” while “Vikings Top Saints … with Last-Play Stunner” (Washington Post)… a lot of stunning going on! But in the championship game itself, Jacksonville came “unraveled” in its “heartbreaker” loss to the New England Patriots (NYT)—more psychology! Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Eagles’ NFC win was celebrated around the country with “Eagles Blow Out Vikings to Earn…Third Trip to Super Bowl” (LA Times); “The Eagles will be playing for their first NFL Title after Crushing the Vikings”— a game which “catapulted” them to the Super Bowl (NYT); “Foles Leads Eagles to Rout (also Trouncing) of Minnesota” (Daily Progress); and “Eagles Blast Vikings” (Washington Post). But no blood was spilled!
I haven’t even touched on all the puns and other wordplay used in sports headlines, many of which can be found at Sports Illustrated’s “100 Greatest Moments in Sports History” (www.si.com/100-greatest). A few favorites include “Tiger Burning Bright” when Woods broke records at Pebble Beach in 2000, the Steelers’ 1972 “Immaculate Reception,” and “King Arthur” Ashe winning the 1968 U.S. Open. So which team will be trounced, clobbered, or mauled this year? Tune in on February 4 to find out! I guess this larger-than-life language is in keeping with the larger-than-life athletes, crowd, ads, and halftime show at the Super Bowl itself—offering something for everyone, even an indifferent sports fan like me. But even if I miss the game, I sure can’t wait to read the headlines!