Athletes are champions on the field, and of larger issues on the world stage.
In March 2017, an experiment was conducted during an NBA game at New York City’s Madison Square Garden: For the first half of the basketball game, no extraneous noise—from music to cheerleading—was permitted, so that spectators and players could “experience the game in its purest form.” “Enjoy the sounds of the game,” the Jumbotron implored. Pleasure, however, was scarce in the cavernous area. Rather, the soundtrack of squeaky shoes and hushed murmurings from the crowd produced what many called an unnerving, eerie effect.
For those at home with television and radio, the cacophony that today overwhelms most sporting events is dominated by the sportscaster’s commentary—a seemingly all-knowing voice describing, with startling immediacy, the play-by-play of bodies colliding and balls flying across courts and fields. A form of simultaneous translation, this near-constant speech requires immense concentration as well as deep-seated knowledge of the sport and individual athletes. Unlike news anchors, whose measured delivery creates confidence and engenders trust in the viewer, sportscasters become ideal companions of a sort to those listening: They provide informative reportage but, like rapt fans, their voices—in tempo, rhythm and volume—often emulate the tenor of the match, increasing tension for spectators as their speech quickens and audibly sharing the audience’s joys and, at times, frustrations.
But as with any translation, the chosen words have consequences. A 25-year study by Purdue University’s Cheryl Cook and University of Southern California’s Michela Musto and Michael A. Messner found that commentary often exhibits “gender bland sexism” in which “‘matter-of-fact’ reactions… [suggest to listeners] that women’s sports lack the excitement and interest of men’s sports.” All mediation directs and distorts, making it critical not just how prime the view is from one’s seat but also the soundscape to which it exposes you.