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The Devils Dictionary of Sportswriting

The journalist Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914) vanished in Mexico before he could add
sportswriting clichs to The Devils Dictionary. Too bad. I would have liked to have seen
what Bierce made of distraction and glue guy, not to mention everyones favorite:
first-ballot Hall of Famer.
The Devils Dictionary of Sportswriting is a reference guide for readers and writers
alike. When discussing sportswriters, I use the we pronoun because Im as guilty as
anyone else.

adviser (n.) a person who leads an athlete astray. The adviser may be known (Scott
Boras, say) or presumed missing (Whos advising Michael Vick?). When advice is
required, a sportswriter will kindly offer it on the house: Free advice for tennis top
bust (n.) a bad draft choice, and, later, a precious commodity for whateverhappened-to features and listicles. Bleacher Report has published three versions of the
Biggest NFL Draft Busts of All Time.
centerpiece (n.) the most important player in a proposed, often-fictitious trade.
Synonym: lynchpin.
class (n.) one of the sportswriterly virtues. A classy athlete is a deferential one, both
to us and to his opponents. A classless coach is one who skips the postgame
columnist (n.) a writer who produces less copy than a blogger.
Grantland Dictionaries
Read them all here.
commit (n.) short for commitment. On college sports recruiting sites, it means a
high school player who has pledged to play for a particular school. A commit whos
wavering about his decision is said to be soft.
courage (n.) in sportswriting, two kinds of athletes are courageous: those who play
hurt and those who play soon after the death of a loved one.
distraction (n.) an impediment to winning, which may take the form of a love interest,
an entrepreneurial career, or an appearance in a country music video. A distraction is

usually diagnosed retroactively. The Super Bowl Shuffle might have been the mother
of all distractions, but the Bears won, so its the subject of a Grantland oral history.
Draft Winds (pun) a pun headline that has been placed atop NFL draft stories since
at least January 1990, when it appeared in the Sporting News.
durability (n.) a football players knack for surviving a sport everyone agrees is too
elite (adj.) a quality Joe Flacco achieved on February 3, 2013.
era (n.) an arbitrary period of time. Often demarcated by the presence or absence of
a superstar: the post-Jordan era.
fandom (n.) it used to be that sportswriting enforced a bogus neutrality; now, it
demands that every sportswriter, at least once in his career, write a long piece
explaining why hes a fan of a team. Such pieces sometimes include lots of childhood
memories and references to at least one relative (who may be dead).
fantasy sports (n.) like fandom, a subject the sportswriter once couldnt write about
and now cant stop writing about.
far apart (exp.) the inevitable distance between a team and a player in a contract
negotiation. The phrase may also be used in labor talks: Gary Bettman: Sides still far
first-ballot Hall of Famer (n.) there have been far more first-ballot Hall of Famers
minted in baseball columns than in actual baseball. The phrase really means automatic
Hall of Famer.
G.O.A.T. (slang) short for the greatest of all time. It has effectively replaced the old
term goat, which meant choker. Bill Buckner was a goat; Floyd Mayweather claims to
be the G.O.A.T.
great piece! (exp.) a compliment for a story thats longer than 2,000 words.
green (adj.) the color of outfield grass. It is often startlingly so. Paul Simon, pinchhitting as a sportswriter in 2008: How beautiful! The emerald green grass, the oldfashioned white facade and the dots of color that were the fans in their seats.
glue guy (n.) a player whose true value (or so the writer says) cant be quantified with
stats. A sportswriter favorite.
Golden Age of Sportswriting (n.) usually the 1920s, but the phrase may refer to the
glory days of Laguerres Sports Illustrated, Walshs Inside Sports, or the GammonsRyan-McDonough Boston Globe sports section. Stanley Woodward, 1949: After

considerable research I can find no evidence to support the theory that sports writing
had any good old days. The only thing that interests me is the modern American
sports page which, as far as I can see, owes nothing to antiquity. It didnt even evolve. It
sprang full-fashioned from the forehead of Zeus.
hardware (n.) championships, in the form of trophies. If a player doesnt yet have
hardware, he might have scoreboard.
heart (n.) an elusive quality associated with a player or team. See identity.
identity (n.) When a talented team plays badly, a sportswriter goes looking for
qualities it might lack. Heart is usually the first of these. But a team like the 2012-13
Lakers which has a mishmash of coaches and lineups is said to lack an identity.
immortal (n.) common as a noun, i.e., one of the immortals. Becomes awkward
when an athlete dies an act that would seem to establish his mortality beyond all
doubt. A 1953 obituary for Jim Thorpe proclaimed, Immortal Athlete Passes.
insider (n.) a beat writer or league writer, repackaged for the digital age. These days,
there are NFL Insiders, Red Sox Insiders, and all kinds of insiders at ESPN Insider. An
insiders job is to tweet out news a few seconds ahead of the competition.
instant analysis (n.) analysis.
instant classic (n.) a close game a sportswriter happened to watch live.
jonrn, un (n.) Spanish for home run, and an occasion for the Spanish-language
sportswriters to write as floridly as their English-language counterparts. The Associated
Press described a 2011 Yankees-Tigers game as una feria de caonazos de cuatro
esquinas a carnival of four-corner cannon blasts.
kid (n.) an honorific for a young athlete. The sportswriter neednt be more than a
couple years older than the kid to use the term. It establishes that the writer, not the
player, is the adult in the room.
leadership (n.) another virtue. It usually means the ability to talk loudly in huddles and
locker rooms, or else quietly, in the sense of leading by example. Sometimes a
synonym for unselfishness: Tom Brady showed his well-established leadership by
reworking his contract for later years at under-market value.
legacy (n.) how an athlete will be viewed in a few decades, as judged by a
sportswriter whose column is due in an hour.
light (n.) the quality and color of light is a perennial concern of the sportswriter. It
stretches from Grantland Rices blue-gray October sky to Buzz Bissingers glowing
stadium lights to S.L. Prices Aliquippa, in Western Pennsylvania, where darkness

dropped early and hard. If you go to games, the light is indeed striking, though its
quality is nearly impossible to judge from a press box.
locker-room cancer (n.) the opposite of clubhouse leader.
mature (adj.) a mature athlete, for a sportswriter, is one who spends his every waking
hour on sports.
media critic (n.) once, the title referred to Rudy Martzke or Phil Mushnick, but now,
thanks to Twitter, sportswriters all gripe about and/or praise the media. This
development is blamed on Internet meanies, but it probably reflects the convergence of
sportswriterdom and fandom. The two things every fan does when watching sports are
complain about the refs and complain about the announcers.
M.N.C. (slang) college footballs Mythical National Championship these days, the
BCS title.
moment, the (n.) an important game. If an athlete crumbles, its said that the moment
was too big for him. Sometimes known as the stage.
Moneyball (n.) (1) personnel management using advanced stats; (2) a book every
sportswriter thinks he could have written.
motor (n.) the measure of an athletes effort. A player can have a great motor or
there can be concerns about his motor. When employed too often, we all sound like pit
men at Daytona.
off the field (n.) a players existence outside of sports. Negative when employed as
an adjective: off-the-field concerns.
Olympics (n.) an international grift that a sportswriter denounces from an
intercontinental hotel.
outspoken (adj.) worth quoting. If one sportswriter gets a story out of an outspoken
players comments, its customary for another journalist to write a story claiming the
quotes represent a terrible breach of etiquette.
power rankings (n.) power rankings have two purposes: (1) they satisfy our lifelong
desire to sort players or teams in order of greatness; (2) they make for a reliable weekly
column. The word power is a tip-off theyre not based on empirical evidence.
prima donna (n.) a wide receiver with a reality show.
project (n.) the opposite of a sure thing.
Random Thoughts (n.) a new name for the old Notes column.

ran out of time (exp.) a long-lived phrase originally credited to Vince Lombardi, who
once said something like, We didnt lose the game, we just ran out of time. In
December, Troy Aikman used a version when Adrian Peterson failed to break the NFLs
single-season rushing record. Like a lot of Lombardisms, the phrase has traveled
outside sports. JFK conspiracist Jim Garrison wrote of his investigators, They never
stopped fighting to bring out the truth. They only ran out of time.
says all the right things (exp.) a compliment to an athlete who says nothing worth
printing. Thus, for the writer, its a compliment against interest. Since [Johnny] Manziel
began to talk, he has been saying all the right things.
scouts take (n.) a genre frequently used by Sports Illustrated in which an anonymous
pro talent evaluator breaks down a players game. Terrifying for the sportswriter, the
scouts take is often pithier and better-written than his own.
scrappy (adj.) small and hardworking. Tommy Craggs, 2009: scrappy serves as an
implicit rebuke to the super-sized stars of the so-called Steroid Era, in much the same
way it once carved out a fatuous distinction between white ballplayers and black and
Latino ballplayers. At times, the opposite of flashy.
sex (n.) Robert Lipsyte, 1975: In the minds of most sportswriters, money and women
are the termites of athletes souls.
sexy (adj.) interesting-looking: a sexy matchup.
source close to the process, a (n.) the most anonymous tipster in sportswriting. A
source close to the process could be a player, a general manager, an agent, or a pool
boy. A writer in search of an equally vague term might try a source familiar with the
teams thinking.
stathead (n.) a mechanic with numbers, in the words of Bill James. Statheads are
also known as sabermetricians, numbers guys, or stats geeks. Murray Chass calls them
new-age stats guys, which sounds like Nate Silver has become a shaman and moved
to Sedona.
story line (n.) every game, from Pop Warner to the Super Bowl, has a story line
essentially, a theme thats larger than the game itself. But lately, it has become trendy to
use the S-word explicitly i.e., Top 10 Super Bowl Storylines. Talking about story
lines offers the writer a meta-defense for writing the same piece everyone else is. When
Peter King writes, Okay, weve gotten the obvious storylines out of the way, it means
he has done his duty and is getting to the good stuff.
Strat-O-Matic (n.) archaic. A dice game referenced by sportswriters who grew up
before Madden.

swirl (v.) the movement of trade rumors: Tim Tebow trade rumors swirl. Swirling
trade rumors can die down (passively) or be shot down (actively, maybe by a source
close to the process). A player ignoring trade rumors is said to be tuning them out.
take (n.) (1) an opinion; (2) recruiting-ese for a high schooler whos worthy of a
scholarship i.e., That kids a take. Appropriately thievish, since the recruit will be
conscripted to play for free.
tank (v.) to lose games on purpose in order to get a better draft pick. The older, more
fragrant term was dump.
television (n.) Leonard Shecter, 1969: Television is like some gentle, mindless robot
carrying sports tenderly in its arms to the top of the mountain and then over the cliff.
trade demand (n.) when an athlete asks for a trade in private, its a request. When
he asks in public, it gets elevated to a demand.
trade rumor (n.) something a general manager likes to see in print.
turn heel (v.) from pro wrestling: to become a villain suddenly or unexpectedly. On
July 8, 2010, LeBron James turned heel.
unselfishness (n.) the greatest of sportswriterly virtues. Our fascination with
unselfishness proceeds from two assumptions: (1) athletes are inherently selfish; and
(2) unselfishness, when reluctantly embraced, will always help a team win. Pete
Axthelm, 1970: Self-sacrifice must be learned, often through laborious practice and
occasionally through suffering.
upside (n.) constant air quotes havent stopped upside from replacing potential in
draft stories. Fittingly, the term is common in financial journalism: Stephen Mandels
high upside potential picks is about actual stocks, not Geno Smiths stock.
window (n.) the time period during which a team can win a title. Has Patriots Super
Bowl window closed? ESPN (and everyone else) asked back in January.
Championship windows make for better columns when theyre closing rather than
winner (n.) a player who collects hardware, often despite a confounding lack of
natural talent. When a sportswriter says, Hes just a winner, he has given up trying to
figure out what makes the athlete win.

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