I used to rail vs clichés like “Cinderella” and “bubble teams.” Those words, though, have been used so pervasively in discussions about the NCAA Basketball Tournament that they are now as endemic to coverage as March Madness. That’s what makes English perhaps the best language on the planet; words are blended and redefined, in part, through popular usage and changes in society. (God help us, though, if charity stripe eventually makes the cut.)
Sports language has been a big part of our vernacular for more than a century. Baseball, in particular, has a strong hold on how we describe our lives. We go to bat for others, strike out when we fail, and hit a home run when we succeed. Sometimes, though, we throw a Hail Mary pass in a desperate attempt to do well. At other times, a decision or action is a slam dunk.
In rare instances, an athlete has such a profound impact on sports that we employ that name in an attempt to describe actions between the lines. A ruthian effort, for instance, is one in which a baseball player has hit a ball a great distance; it has also been used to assess athletes in other sports. I’ve seen this term applied to performances by LeBron James, an athlete who may one day also be morphed into an adjective.
This is not to say that we need to embrace clichés. I’d rather bear-hug a cactus. Or a Republican. (Relax. I’m just kidding. Talk about phrases currently loaded with more meaning than they deserve. Politics employ far more clichéd – and calcified – thinking than does sports. Sadly, though, that appears to be changing.) Most worn phrases are just that — letters rubbed clean of precision, not unlike an old coin, making them impediments to clear, creative storytelling.
Which brings us to the greatest of all ClicheFests: March Madness, the Big Dance – the NCAA basketball tournament. Here are a few clichés that need to be avoided like a Zion Williamson Nike sneaker blowout.
- Charity stripe: This is by far the stupidest of all clichés, and one without logic. Has anybody watched a high school basketball game, or, worse, Andre Drummond and Dwight Howard attempt these so-called charitable scoring opportunities. Sometimes, the shooter doesn’t even hit – or reach – the rim. (It’s certainly charitable to call some of these shots actual attempts to score.)
2. Punched their ticket. Here’s one of the many references you’ll read this week: “The Saint Mary’s Gaels punched their ticket to the 2019 NCAA tournament with a 60-47 upset of the top-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs in the West Coast Conference championship game.”
Please, find a better way to say a team advanced to the NCAA Tournament by winning a conference title game. Or say it as simply as I just did in the previous sentence. Teams do not punch tickets to go to dances, if college students go to dances at all any more. More likely, they are purchasing tickets for dances or concerts or sports events by downloading them. At the very least change the lingo: “Cinderella University Apple Pay’d their way into the NCAA Tournament Saturday when…”
This past week, legendary sportswriter Dan Jenkins passed away. Years ago, he offered some tips on how to improve game coverage, which included my fave, rule No. 1: “Most readers already know who won. See how many paragraphs you can write without putting in the score. This may force you to think of other elements.”
3. Big Dance: This might be the goofiest tournament reference. Big Dance was reportedly first used in 1977 when Marquette University coach Al Maguire, adorned in blue blazers all season, was asked if he would wear one during the NCAA Tournament. Said Maguire: “Absolutely. You gotta wear the blue blazer to the big dance.” That’s as good a story as any, but it’s also as antiquated as blue blazers, wide ties, silk shirts, and school dances. Like language, clichés need to be revitalized for the times. If I had any style, I’d offer some specific suggestions. Better to ask Idris Elba.
Overall, the best advice: Investigate the why and how to better explain the what, when, where and who. Don’t assume you know when the momentum swings, whether players have mental toughness – or use the word “balling” in any way. There are numerous other basketball references to avoid, such as “dishing assists,” calling teams “road warriors,” saying teams have “signature victories” and “tossing bricks” when shots don’t fall. Avoid them at all cost if you want your work to be noticed – for the right reasons.
FYI: Here’s a solid story on the Ohio Valley Conference championship game by the Tennessean. … I love stories such as this one that addresses clichéd ideas in a different manner. This story offered by the NCAA focuses on the metrics behind so-called Cinderella teams.