The average words per minute that humans talk at is somewhere between 145 and 160 words per minute. For sportscasters on air, it’s likely a bit faster, particularly for sports like basketball or hockey where the play is constant. Multiply those 150 (to choose a number in the middle) words per minute by an average of three hours on air and you get around 27,000 words for the average broadcast (again, probably more). So it’s only natural, and frankly a matter of time when somewhere in those 27,000 words you say something that could have your audience going ‘huh’. Today we’re talking misunderstanding announcers in sportscasting.
This topic came up at the Australian Open tennis tournament in January. During a match with former world number 1 Venus Williams, ESPN announcer Doug Adler used the term ‘gorilla’ to describe Williams’ style of play. After the tournament, Adler was fired and as the article above shows, his defence is that he was using the term “guerilla”, which is a military term to indicate an unorthodox, scrappy style of fighting, usually against the odds. Adler also defended that it’s a common tennis term, however I’ve played for 20+ years and have never heard it.
So lets compare the two words, gorilla and guerrilla. One, as mentioned above does have context. If Williams was fighting to stay in a match, was maybe playing an orthodox style of game, then the word in that meaning could be very appropriate and a good use of vocabulary (although I don’t think Venus Williams has been considered an underdog for a very long time). However it’s cousin carried very obvious racial connotations given Williams is an African American, and the word has been used in the past as a racial slur towards African Americans.
Careless or not, if Adler’s excuse is accurate then this all boils down to another misunderstanding in sportscasting, and one that carries a very valuable lesson. I had something similar happen to me a few years back. Not similar in the sense of a racial overtone, but a very upset viewer based on a throw-away line I filtered into a broadcast.
While calling a Junior hockey game in 2014, I was coming to the beginning of the first period and I went through the starting goaltenders for each team. In this particular game, the backup goaltender for my team was playing, giving a rest to our 20-year-old starter who had been playing well of late. In running down the backup’s stats, I stated in a carefree fashion that I had hoped we would not see the starter tonight. The meaning behind it being, I had hoped that the backup would play well, and a change of goaltender would not be needed. Simple enough right?
Three hours later when I got off air, I had an email from the starters parents and a couple of text messages from our Marketing Manager (who dealt with the players and parents off the ice). They were upset that I’d said what I said. Now ultimately it was a very simple explanation to clarify this particular misunderstanding, stating that it wasn’t a comment AGAINST the starter, rather one in support of the backup. It was a simple fix to a simple misunderstanding but one that taught me a valuable lesson.
We as sportscasters say 27,000+ words every time we’re on air. There’s NO WAY to get them all perfect, and there’s no way to not offend ANYONE, and misunderstanding something is bound to occur. The trick is to be as clear as possible. My error was not clarifying my comments and thinking that an off-hand remark would say everything. Adler’s remark was perhaps not being more clear on his meaning, although given the racial undertones of the word, his lesson may have been to think before speaking.