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The art of translating the game into words isn’t as easy as it seems

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Who understands sports better, the player or the fan? The doer or the watcher?

Does the watcher see things the doer doesn’t? Does the doer know things the watcher never will?

Professional sports is the marriage of the two: Sports and words about sports. Sometimes, they get along; sometimes, they argue.

If you ask any football player in America what Russell Wilson’s QBR is, he will not know. Ask him how many touchdowns Tom Brady threw last year, he will shake his head. Ask him who the winningest coach of all-time is, he’ll shrug. But try to put your hands on him and move him, and he will drop his hips and plant you into the dirt. He does not deal in stats and lists, he deals in action and consequence—imposing physical will on another human.

But if you turn on the radio or the TV or your phone or your computer, you’ll see that the sports industry is 99% talking, 1% playing. The actions of the 1% fuels the conversation of the 99, who use the games as fodder for endless content. (Luke, I am your fodder.) Lots of people laugh when athletes try to be one of the 99%.

Shut up and play! Or go away!

Jason Witten tried out “Monday Night Football,” but got cyber-punked back into an NFL locker room. Judged, perhaps a bit too harshly, for his words, the Cowboys tight end was one-and-done in the booth. Athletes don’t do words good; it’s true.

The only words players learn are in the playbook and Witten had a hard time translating that to others, so he went back to playing football again, where all he needs are actions.

But there is a need for what Witten and other athletes can explain – the meat between the numbers, the stories, the application of the “concepts,” the smell of the grass, the taste of defeat, the real reason why a team loses.

It’s a common error that sports-talkers make: Mistaking cause for consequence. In other words, conventional wisdom says that a football team lost because it had four turnovers. But in reality, it had four turnovers because it lost. The loss itself caused a bunch of stuff to happen; among them, turnovers. Harping on the turnovers misses the point.

Here is a stat that TNT put up a few games ago: (something like) When Jamal Murray makes three or more three-pointers in a game, the Nuggets are 23-4. So if we can get Murray to make at least three three-pointers, then we have a very good chance of winning? Another fallacy. The actual explanation is that because the Nuggets were going to win, because they were moving with winning energy, Murray ended up making three three; not the other way around.

Can Murray articulate this to us? Perhaps, perhaps not; but it won’t happen in an adrenaline-filled soundbite. Professional journalists do sports talk all day every day and even they fall short. The subtleties are infinite; they and intricate and rely on both perspectives — watcher and doer.

The athlete is not stupid; his mind is just untapped. There are oceans of oil down there, but he hasn’t built the rig. The beauty of sports talk, though, and of The Fan, is that it offers a space for athletes to build that rig — to learn how to use words, so they may speak the language of life.

The rest is consequence.