A poor choice of words

Over the years, words processors have become exponentially more user friendly. 

Freshman year of college, I remember completing homework assignments on my old Apple II+, which boasted a word processor whose most technological advancements were the paragraph break and a save button.

Before that, I can remember going to my mother’s various places of employment and banging away furiously on their typewriters, electric ones with type-balls that were state of the art, as was the white-out you’d keep deskside to erase any mistakes.  No backspace or delete, only bits of eraser stuck on the paper.

If you know what these are, you’re old.

These days, you have word processors that not only spellcheck but correct grammar and tense.  That doesn’t stop me from being grammatically incorrect whenever possible, but you get my point.

Words are commonly misused and mistaken, now so more than ever considering our heightened sensibilities.  I can think of two instances lately where members of the media used words that they felt were correct, until they were re-corrected by someone with an eraser, some white-out and a solid blow.

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck recently starred in (and in Affleck’s case, directed) a fun and extremely watchable movie called “Air,” based not only on Michael Jordan’s impact on the shoe industry but also Nike’s efforts to ensure he became the face of their product.  Damon plays Sonny Vaccaro and Affleck plays Phil Knight, key figures in the effort to change the trajectory of the basketball shoe business for good.  “Air” comes on the heels of college athletes getting paid for their name, image, and likeness.

The gist of the film, which we find out at the end and which we basically already knew, is that Michael Jordan’s marketability changed the shoe game, and the company that signed him, forever.  According to the film, at the begging and pleading of Mr. Vaccaro, Jordan’s family agreed to sign with the upstart Nike only if the company agreed to give him a portion of the proceeds of every shoe that bore his name.

The rest is history.

When we think of athletes that have played the role of activist throughout history, Michael Jordan isn’t the first to come to mind.  In fact, throughout his career, Jordan was criticized for doing exactly the opposite.  When we think of athlete activists, the black and white photo of Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, and a young Lew Alcindor resonates, as does the image of Tommie Lewis and John Carlos raising their fists in protest at the 1968 Olympics.

When we think of the word activist, we think of someone holding a picket sign or, as the term suggests, being ‘active’ behind a struggle or change.  After watching “Air”, renowned sportswriter Harvey Araton wrote a New York Times article entitled “Michael Jordan was an Activist After All.”  In his article, Araton argues that despite the years of criticism, Jordan “actually blazed a different or perhaps more impactful trail to meaningful societal change” and that the Nike contract makes “him the godfather of the name, image and likeness revenues flowing into the pockets of college athletes today.”

Regardless on where you stand on how vocal athletes should be or where Jordan stands on your impetus for societal change meter, the Air Apparent has taken heat for not being more vocal.  Likewise, Araton took heat for using the word “activist” to describe Jordan.  Sports’ social conscience Dave Zirin, who has written countless, extremely readable and dare I say important works on sports and activism disagrees wholeheartedly with Araton’s use of the word. 

Perhaps he is right.  Perhaps “trailblazer” is a far more appropriate choice, so as not to diminish the dedication of real activists.  Or, as Araton rebuts, Jordan has done such work yet refuses to be publicly recognized for it. 

Both Araton’s and Zirin’s bibliographies are extensive and worthwhile reads, even though they disagree on the use, and the context, of a single word, as they should, as two of the most published and highly respected authors in the game.

Last week, the Milwaukee Bucks lost in the opening round of the NBA playoffs. The Bucks were odds on favorites to win another NBA title, having finished the season with the league’s best record yet they lost in five games to the Miami Heat.  It was, in a word, stunning.

The Bucks season is now over.  It was only the sixth time in NBA history that a top seed lost to an eight seed, and the first time since the NBA expanded its playoffs to include play-in games that a play-in team won a series.

After the loss, former MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo took to the podium to address the critics he knew were coming.  After all, no one outside the Heat organization gave Miami a chance of winning that series.

Bucks beat reporter Eric Nehm asked a dejected and frustrated Giannis if he felt the season was a “failure.”  Giannis responded in kind, suggesting “failure” was a poor choice of words.  Take a listen.

We can argue whether the reporter, who was simply doing his job, used a poor choice of words, whether Giannis overreacted or somewhere in between.  Perhaps failure, again, was the wrong word.  Perhaps “disappointment” was more apropos.  But that’s not what was asked and here we are. 

The interaction between Giannis and the reporter was as amicable as could be considering the circumstances, and a far cry from Bobby Bonilla once challenging a reporter to “make his move.”  A far, more gathered Giannis argued that, with all the Bucks had accomplished this season, their early exit could hardly be considered a failure.  That does not change the fact that they are playing golf sooner than they had hoped.

Anyone familiar with Giannis’ struggles to become an NBA superstar assuredly respects and understands how his definition of failure might differ from most.  I can even see this irking a handful of Bucks fans who place winning above all else, if only they didn’t love him so much. 

I’ll leave you to decide who was right in these wars of words, Araton or Zirin, Giannis or Nehm, all four or none of the above.  Anybody who’s ever written an article, interview, book, or blogpost understands the impact of words, and how using the wrong ones can alter both intent and reaction.  It’s why we do our best to choose them carefully, for fear of being considered either an active failure or a trailblazing disappointment.

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2 Replies to “A poor choice of words”

  1. Activeism like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. My opinion on this matter is of no importance. However, I will say that the amount of courage required to take action should be a determining factor. Keep fighting the good fight my friend. Cheers!

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