Judging the Royals

Why professional athletes speak in clichés

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook
Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook AP

Don’t make the mistake of thinking professional athletes speak in clichés because they’re dumb; most of the time pro athletes speak in clichés because they’re smart.

A lot of athletes would rather not talk to reporters but know they have to. Just look at what happened to Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch: The NFL fined him $100,000 for not meeting his media obligations. So if an athlete knows he has to talk to reporters but doesn’t really feel like doing it, clichés are the safe alternative. Nobody ever got in trouble for saying “that’s a good team over there” or “we played hard for 60 minutes.”

But if you’re going to speak in clichés, you’ve got to switch it up. You can’t just keep repeating the same cliché or that becomes an issue — and that brings us to NBA star Russell Westbrook.

The Oklahoma City Thunder player recently gave a postgame interview and repeatedly used some version of “we did a good job of executing” over and over again. Athletes use clichés all the time, but they appear to be engaging in a conversation because they use different clichés to answer different questions. By saying the same thing over and over, Westbrook was making it clear that he wasn’t really answering questions.

At one point a reporter asked if Westbrook was upset about something and Russell said: “Nah, I just don’t like you.”

Asked if he felt the same way about another reporter Westbrook said he loved that reporter, but: “I don’t like you.”

And that’s an important distinction: Most athletes do not dislike all reporters, but they see a difference between the guys who show up every day, put their work in and then show up the next day to stand behind what they’ve written, and those who don’t. Journalists who drop in once in a while, write something controversial and then disappear are less likely to earn the players’ respect. And even when a reporter is there every day, but doesn’t do the homework necessary to ask a decent question, athletes have a tendency to be skeptical: Does the reporter really care about why the pitcher started a crucial at-bat with a curveball or does the reporter just need some quote to go with a story?

Now here’s a quote worth repeating:

“People love to claim that pro athletes never have anything interesting to say, but that’s because they’re usually asked stupid, nonessential questions. Yet ask any talented man about the details of his craft and he will inevitably tell you everything you need to know, including who that man truly is.”

—Chuck Klosterman, Grantland contributing editor

If we ask a shallow question — like how it feels to hit a home run — we shouldn’t be surprised if we get a shallow answer. But ask a player about something meaningful to him, ask about the “details of his craft” and you might get a totally different response.

I was once asking Royals pitcher Luke Hochevar about a pitch sequence he threw to David Ortiz — why this pitch after that one — when Luke stopped and asked me: “Why can’t every interview be like this?” We were talking about something Hochevar cared about: how you get big-league hitters out. We were talking about the process of pitching, not emotions. I didn’t have a narrative I was trying to push; I just wanted to hear why Luke had thrown the pitches he threw.

But it’s not like I’ve never asked a bad question. I was once talking to Eric Hosmer about a play at first base when he started laughing and told me my questions were terrible: “C’mon, Lee, you’re so much better than this.”

Apparently I wasn’t.

But Hosmer was right. I was poorly prepared and they were bad questions. Hosmer knew me well enough to give me a hard time about it, but if he hadn’t been comfortable with me he probably would have responded with a series of clichés.

Want to know why professional athletes speak in clichés?

Sometimes it’s because they just don’t like us, but all too often it’s because the media asks cliché questions. Ask better questions and we’ll get better answers.

To reach Lee Judge, call 816-234-4482 or send email to ljudge@kcstar.com.