I spent the past week or so taking one for the team. I watched sports. A lot of sports. Several networks, dozens of games, different sports, probably close to a hundred announcers. It was all part of a grand experiment, research I’m sure that would have netted me unlimited dollars in grants had I the wherewithal to apply. The mission was simple; close my eyes (or not), open my ears, and then listen to how the use of words has become increasingly unimportant in American television sports broadcasting. Truth be told I was on the lookout (or more descriptively the “hearout”) for one word.
It was unbelievable. The word, not the experience.
I watched baseball, football (college and pro), hockey, gymnastics, golf (women’s and men’s), and basketball. I tuned to the ESPN family of networks, Golf Channel, The NFL Network, NBC, Fox, FS1, The Olympic Channel, NBCSN, ABC and NBA TV. I even dipped in to The SEC Network, The Longhorn Network and something called Eleven Sports. And there they were; young, old, men, women, former players, career broadcasters, home team announcers, unbiased professionals. Almost all (with only a couple exceptions) telling me at one time or another, during the course of the telecast, that this, that, or another, thing was “unbelievable!” One person, who many consider among the best in the business, said it in back to back sentences describing two different players. Another, less celebrated but equally continually employed, used the word twice in the SAME sentence. As I continued my research, with pen and paper in hand, I found announcers of every level, on each broadcast, of all the sports, said “unbelievable” 56 times. FIFTY SIX!
Between spurts of yelling at the screen like a mad man I made every effort to keep in mind there are top tier athletes, especially professional ones, who do little else but practice, perfect, and perform their craft for hours a day. Every day. So a centerfielder, jumping up, placing his glove in exactly the right spot, at exactly the right height, and robbing a hitter of a home run or a wide receiver, wearing sticky gloves, reaching out to grab a perfectly thrown spiral with one hand or a golfer holing out from a greenside bunker, or the fairway, or even from the tee box 210 yards from the hole are, in fact, among the MOST believable accomplishments.
Oxford states there are 171,476 English language words in current use. One fourth of those, it says, are adjectives. That’s approximately 43,000 words. One of those words is unbelievable. It’s a perfectly good word. It means, according to Webster, “too dubious or improbable to be believed” or “so remarkable to strain credulity.” Perfectly obvious definitions, neither of which applies to anything that happens on a field, course, court, or pitch.
It is painfully obvious, to anyone listening, that the new Monday Night Football play by play guy Joe Tessitore spent countless hours in front of a mirror practicing his, “On MONDAY (pause) NIGHT (pause) FOOTBALL toss to commercial. Had I been his producer I would have insisted instead that he spend some quality time, with both a dictionary and a thesaurus, getting reacquainted with the amazing, wondrous, descriptive, words in the English language. Take “unbelievable” for example. He would learn that for that one adjective there are almost a hundred words that could be used in its place. Astonishing, implausible, improbable, incredible, staggering, awesome, stunning, wonderful, astounding, breathtaking, fantastic, mind-blowing, outrageous, phenomenal, remarkable, spectacular, superb, terrific, freakish, unlikely, and ridiculous are just a few of them. I didn’t even get to phantasmagorical or preposterous.
My point is this: “unbelievable” is a positively horrible word to describe an accomplishment by an athlete. “Unbelievable” to whom? If you’re in a booth or along the sideline, or in the dugout and find yourself tempted to go to the “U” word just stop. If you must then please use the more believable, “I don’t believe it, him, her, that.” Jack Buck did it once to pretty good effect.
“A home run for Gibson! And the Dodgers have won the game 5-4. I don’t believe what I just saw!” That was 1988. A World Series, walk off, home run by a gimpy Kirk Gibson off Dennis Eckersley to keep LA’s world championship hopes alive. It is one of the most remembered, replayed, remarkable descriptions in sports broadcasting. Thank goodness Buck ended with it because the call started out much less memorably, “Gibson… swings and a fly ball to deep right field. This is gonna be a home run, unbelievable! A home run for Gibson.” I like to think, as good a broadcaster as Jack Buck was, he realized in the moment how silly that sounded so he corrected it. A better broadcasting moment came eight years earlier.
“Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” That was Al Michaels calling the USA/USSR hockey game at the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York. It is one of the five most repeated and remembered calls in history. For my money it rivals, “The Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant” after Bobby Thompson’s home run to beat the Dodgers, as number one. But can you imagine if Michaels was a lesser broadcaster and the call was something like, “Five seconds left in the game. USA beats the Russians! Unbelievable!” It makes me shudder. As a matter of fact Michaels game analyst that night, former goalie Ken Dryden, did blurt out the seemingly obligatory, completely nonsensical, word “Unbelievable” right after Michaels’s magic. Thank goodness nobody heard or remembers that.
I’m proud to say the announcers I had the pleasure to work with, train, and produce rarely, if ever, use this egregious adjective and on the rare occasion they do (and I’m listening) they hear about it from me. Many of the people who broadcast sports for a living are paid handsomely for the privilege. Wouldn’t it be nice if they made an effort to use their words?