Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Why They Boast - Mac Millings

Which nation has the most arrogant sportsmen? Many of you are thinking of one country. However, on-field gloating isn’t unique to Americans, nor is it the norm amongst them. In fact, this “arrogance” has little to do with nationality, and almost everything to do with context.

There’s little room for boastfulness in baseball. A good catch or well-executed double play is met with little more than the acknowledgement from a teammate of a job well done. The pitcher shows little emotion at all – for him, absolute concentration is a must. If he gets an out he has no time to celebrate, because he’s got another batter coming along immediately. Only at the end of an inning do you tend to see passion, particularly if he has got out of a difficult situation.

Nor will a hitter often over-emote – perhaps some fist-pumping if he drives in a run, but little more. Even after hitting a home run – the single most impressive sight in baseball – celebration is not (unless it’s the game-winner) excessive. The hitter may not, having struck the ball, stand and watch the result with self-indulgent admiration; he must immediately round the bases, and not too slowly. When Manny Ramirez (a frequent offender) dwells too long upon his brilliance, you can bet they’ll be discussing his “lack of respect for his opponents” on ESPN’s ‘Baseball Tonight’.

Compare cricket. A batsman doesn’t celebrate after hitting a four, for two reasons. Firstly, because a boundary is relatively meaningless in the wider context of a match. Secondly, because he has to prepare for the next ball. There simply isn’t time for chest-thumping.

A cricket dismissal is more boisterously celebrated than a baseball out – again, for two main reasons. Firstly, there’s more time to do it before the next batsman arrives; more crucially, it is usually of greater importance. In an ODI, your side can take 10 wickets at most. In baseball, you’ll need 24 or 27 outs. In cricket, when a batsman’s out, he’s out, and you bring the tail closer. In baseball, strike out Albert Pujols first time up, and he’ll be back three or four more times to try again.

Basketball features less on-court self-indulgence than you might think. A show of arrogance might come after a crowd-pleasing dunk or block, but you’ll see the acknowledgement of a teammate’s good pass at least as often. Again, the chief factors are time and import. Once you score, the other team comes right back at you. And really, how important are the 2 points you’ve just scored in the context of a game in which the teams will probably combine for 200 points?

Finally, let’s compare rugby and American football. For our purposes, one notable difference is that an American football player will strut around after making a tackle, no matter the context. A rugby player will just get on with it – usually only a try-saving tackle gets acknowledgement from his teammates. The “time” rationale works fine here. While in rugby play tends to continue after a tackle, in American football play usually stops - there’s plenty of time for celebration.

However, unless a touchdown results, a quarterback won’t celebrate a completed pass, nor will a running back start to strut after any but the longest runs. Even those showboats, wide receivers, will usually flip the ball to an official after a successful catch and run, rather than leap around conceitedly. Why the restraint? Because, as in other sports, there’s no point celebrating something of little actual significance. There’s always the next pass, the next run, until a touchdown ensues. So why the defenders’ post-tackle strut?

This is, indeed, boastfulness - but with reason. While a quarterback throws between 20-50 times in a game, and a running back will run 20-30 times, the receiver that, say, a cornerback is covering may only get thrown to a few times – thus the defender has to make the most of his opportunities (this explains receivers’ notoriety for braggadocio, too). Perhaps just 3 or 4 times a game, his reputation, and maybe his contract, is on the line. If he celebrates as if to say, “Look at me, I’m good at this”, can we begrudge him that?


Ebren said...

I think what gets me most is the celebration of somethingI can do. A defensive player picks up a fumbled pass, runs unopposed for 15 metres, then straight out of play. They done less work than a ball boy. And they go mental like they have dome domething no one in the world could better. Context matters, but he's done nothing but profit from an error. That annoys me. Bascically, I want someone to have done something skillful to deserve it, regardless of the significance.

Ebren said...

I also need to learn to spell.

Fredorrarci said...

With regards American football, I wonder if the reason quarterbacks and running backs are less given to extravagant celebrations is the knowledge that they would surely become the object of a vicious reprisal on the next down. This isn't an issue for a defensive player, who is relatively free to bask in his achievement without fear of his head becoming a target seconds later.

David Barry said...

Which nation has the most arrogant sportsmen? Many of you are thinking of one country.

I must read too many cricket blogs, I thought this was going to be about Australia....

Margin said...

The question here might be which sport has the most arogant stars.

And I'd like to think tennis wins whichever land the victor hails from. All that individual endeavour focused in the end on a single and by nature final passage of play can at times be followed by so much composed jubilation that some fans feel it unfitting when a winner celebrates loudly.

beyond the pale said...

Hate to keep showing my age here, but the late-stage-evolutionary primate habits of chest-thumping, chest-bumping, pointing to one's Sky Enabler, and all other forms of modesty-sacrifice, appear to this viewer to be relatively recent developments in sports, never seen before the last 30-40 years. There was a time when such conduct on the field of play was regarded as entirely out of bounds, and anyone attempting to violate this unspoken rule paid the price. And the price? Mac mentions the instance of a slow "showboating" home run trot. Well, being chastised on ESPN is relatively painless in comparison with what would once have happened: a fastball aimed at the head of the next batter. This form of retribution naturally led to collective policing. And self-congratulation in American football and basketball have been out of control for some decades now. The vicious slam dunk, the wicked hit on a receiver--these are socially admired acts that have nothing to do with skill and everything to do with the sublimated aggression and violence that make these sports so popular. Dignity? What's that? Try to find a nine-year-old kid in America who admires a favorite athlete for being self-contained. Whether sports reflect society or 'tother way round, the image is an ugly one.
"Look at me, I'm good at this," is something no athlete should ever have to say. What's done on the field of play should do all the talking.

mac millings said...

Thanks for the comments.

My point, on reflection, is not so much that sportspeople don't boast much, and certainly not the same amount as, or less than, they did in times past. It is simply (and it's not much of a point, I'll admit), that stars of certain sports are not, as people, necessarily more boastful than those of others, but that their sports allow it to be expressed more freely.

I'd therefore have said, Margin, much the same thing if my opening question had been "which sport has the most arrogant players?" Re tennis, the distaste that some find in the celebrations of the winner is surely bound up in the contrast with the relative quiet that has gone before. It's the nature of tennis that is "to blame" here, not the players.

On-field arrogance may be the currently-fashionable ugliness in sports, but is it any worse that football's professional foul? I was an impressionable 8-year-old, BtP, when Willie Young hacked down Paul Allen in the Cup Final.

He was by no means the only practitioner of the art - merely the one who got the rules changed (and American football - especially, it seems to this amateur observer, the College variety - is going down the rule-change route in an attempt to curb the worst excesses of boastfulness).

One more thing. Perhaps arrogance in sports seems terrible to us because it didn't happen (or rarely) "in the good old days". But boastfulness on the field of play, or in battle, is as old (at least) as the Iliad. Of course, in the Homeric world, you had to be good enough (tying in with Ebren's point) to justify the boast.

Now, as this culture that (sometimes) allowed boastfulness (among the excellent) culminated, artistically, in the Iliad, how bad could it have been?

guitou said...

I think it's Muhamli who brought the art of braggadocio into the sports of boxing-But he had a way to do it, almost an art for selling tickets-

guitou said...

Muhamli for Muhammad Ali, I guess everybody got it

Zephirine said...

Definitely a generation thing - I remember my parents being irritated by sportspeople who openly said in post-match interviews that they'd played well, they felt this was very conceited and bad form.

This must be about training and sports psychology, surely - modern players being encouraged to reinforce winning by giving themselves praise.

And the exaggerated celebrations are part of a whole requirement to show 'passion' which is what's now required of players by journalists and the public.

But Mac is right that the boastful warrior is an ancient tradition - maybe the stiff-upper-lip, no showboating rule was actually a late 19th/early 20th cenury aberration?

offsideonthebaseline said...

Why is it that, with the same kind of "celebrations", some manage to do it gracefully and others irritatingly.

Take the fist-pumping routine in tennis. Some look natural and cool doing it (Federer, Connors), others just look irritating (Murray, McEnroe).


Margin said...


I agree with your point about the relative quiet in Tennis making it something of an uncomfortable fit.

But perhaps Offside may have a particularly good point.

Bolt celebrated his 100m gold medal with 20m to go - and looks the part doing it. That can't be true of many sportsmen.

mac millings said...

Margin and Offside,

Because some people are just cool. Were I to be in the position to celebrate my 100m gold medal with 20m to go, I'd slip on a cartoon banana skin.

Margin said...

ha - yeah me too.

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