Linguistic hygiene in sports: Colorful Language Now Clearer Than Ever

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed May 28 13:29:19 UTC 2008

Colorful Language Now Clearer Than Ever


The Tampa Tribune

Published: May 27, 2008

Updated: 05/27/2008 12:01 am

TAMPA - When Bucs coach Jon Gruden or Lightning coach John Tortorella
lets slip a few choice words during a passionate moment on the
sideline or behind the bench, it's not as if they plan the profanity.
A dirty little secret in the closed culture of big-time, televised
sports? Casual cursing by athletes and coaches in a locker room or on
a field of play is as standard as tailgating and halftime lines at the
restrooms. Even proponents of "clean" TV know it's true. "We
understand that the nature of live sporting events is that profanities
are uttered," said Tim Winter, president of the Los Angeles-based TV
and entertainment watchdog group, Parents Television Council. Sports
broadcasters, with not-so-subtle prodding by the Federal
Communications Commission (FCC), traditionally have done all they can
to avoid exposing viewers to unsavory acts and language.

But the proliferation of high-definition television (HD-TV) has made
it easier than ever for viewers to see and hear every titillating

"Screens are bigger, the pictures are clearer, you're going to see
more things," said Ned Tate, executive producer of FSN Florida and Sun
Sports. "And with the advent of better microphones you're going to
hear more things. The technology keeps improving, and those kinds of
things become more recognizable."

You don't have to be a certified lip-reader to interpret what's being
said in the heat of the moment.

"HD-TV affords an opportunity for greater information, more insight,
greater clarity," said Winter, a former executive with NBC and Metro
Goldwyn Mayer. "But you don't always want to see what is there."

The people in charge are aware of that. Tate said that Fox's regional
sports networks across the country follow the same policy.

"If we see someone say a profanity and you can read his lips but you
can't hear it, chances are he's going to repeat it, so we instruct our
directors to cut away as quickly as possible," said Tate, whose
networks carry the Rays and Lightning locally. "For the audio, we have
microphones all over the field. If we pick up a curse word or
obscenity, our announcers are instructed to immediately apologize to
our audience."

It's not a new issue. In Baltimore, a recently unearthed memo issued
by Major League Baseball in 1898 decried the use of profanity by
players within earshot of fans.

The memo, which sold at auction this month for $27,500 and includes
explicit examples of "unfit" language, concludes: "Any indecent or
obscene word, sentence or expression, unfit for print or the human ear
... is contemplated under the law and within its intent and meaning,
and will be dealt with without fear or favor when the fact is
established by the committee."

Neither is lip-reading of inappropriate language on the screen a 21st
century phenomenon. In the silent movie era, savvy lip-readers
occasionally picked up on the actors' dirty dialogue where the script
didn't specify what to say.

Gruden and Tortorella, known for their fiery demeanors, both have been
caught swearing on camera on several occasions.

"I regret it," Gruden told reporters in December, the day after Fox
cameras caught him swearing during a third-quarter tirade directed at
officials during a win against the Saints in New Orleans.

Tortorella also has expressed remorse after he has been shown onscreen
using off-color language.

Yet, it's part of the culture. Gruden, Tortorella and the athletes
they lead reflect that, now in larger-than-life HD.

"We're concerned because we pitch ourselves as something that's
family-friendly," Lightning spokesman Bill Wickett said. "At the same
time, we're dealing with big-time athletes and fiery coaches that are
paid to win and they're going to show intensity. There's a balance."

Both coaches have publicly wondered why the camera is focused on them
at such moments, anyway. But the answer to that is simple: because
they are part of the show.

"We're never going to completely get rid of it, but we do the best we
can to avoid it all costs," Tate said. "We don't go looking for it.
It's just like anything in live sports. Sometimes it happens in front
of a camera or a microphone."

Winter, of the Parents Television Council, advocates a five-second
delay in order to allow broadcasters to prevent inappropriate behavior
and language from being aired.

Howard Wasserman, a Florida International University law professor and
first amendment expert, opposes such a delay.

"The five-second delay bothers me," Wasserman said, "because I think
you lose out on a certain spontaneity."

Further complicating the matter for broadcasters is a case to be heard
by the U.S. Supreme Court in September, the FCC vs. Fox. It stemmed
from the use of "fleeting expletives" by the singer Bono during the
Golden Globe Awards and by Cher and Nicole Richie during a broadcast
of the Billboard Music Awards in 2003.

With a recent increase of the maximum FCC fine to $325,000 per on-air
incident, broadcasters eagerly await the Court's ruling on whether
networks are liable for such "fleeting expletives" on their

Theoretically, it shouldn't affect sports broadcasts too much, if at
all: Spokeswoman Janice Wise of the FCC's enforcement bureau said the
FCC has never acted on a lip-reading complaint.

But people are watching.

"From our standpoint, we understand there is a difference between a
scripted show and a live sporting event, but that doesn't absolve the
broadcaster from responsibility," Winter said. "I think that certainly
what you see our athletes doing can equally be as disturbing to
parents as profanity in entertainment TV or movies, because so many
kids look up to these athletes as role models.

"With this wonderful new HD-TV clarity, there comes the risk that
there are more things you don't want to see."

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