Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A helluva column

I should preface this by stating that I respect the Globe and Mail's William Houston as a writer who's been doing a tough job for a long time, and I frequently read his columns. He does a fantastic job as a reporter who digs up interesting details on media coverage of Canadian sports, and his takes on the competition among the various channels and the TV ratings of different events are always worth a look. However, his analysis of networks' on-air coverage is much more hit-and-miss. Some of it is bang-on, such as his analysis of the different networks' trade deadline shows. I don't agree with many of his other ideas, particularly about what makes good and bad commentary, but I can usually at least understand where he's coming from. On occasion though, he'll drop in something that's so absurdly out-of-the-blue that I can't even begin to fathom the thought process he went through in constructing it.

A great example of the latter is his column from yesterday's Globe criticizing Hockey Night in Canada's coverage of the playoffs. Personally, from the games I've seen, I think Hockey Night's been doing their usual stellar job, but I can respect someone who disagrees with me and can support their reasoning. Unfortunately, Houston's effort does not meet this standard. Just look at the first couple paragraphs of his piece:

"The Hockey Night in Canada telecast of the San Jose Sharks-Calgary Flames game last Sunday was weak in spots, but helpful in identifying some of the show's problems," he writes. Okay so far: we still disagree that it was weak, but I'm looking forward to his explanation.

"Let's start with host Ron MacLean, an excellent broadcaster and a popular hockey personality."

Interesting. If he's such an excellent broadcaster, why is he the primary problem? We're about to find out.

"On a semi-regular basis, MacLean uses "hell of a" to describe something exceptional, such as "a helluva third period." He uttered "helluva" once on Sunday."

Good Lord! I had no idea my tax dollars were going to fund such gross profanity! We clearly need a censorship law for the CBC: it can come in right alongside the new Bill C-10 set to deny tax credits to films and videos "deemed offensive to the public", which star director Ang Lee points out is more state censorship than he ever experienced in China, that noted haven of free speech. Hey, if we're going to destroy Canadian cinema, we might as well take out Canadian TV while we're at it so we can replace it with the bland, inoffensive entertainment that Houston apparently prefers. No one had better send him a Trailer Park Boys DVD: he might have a heart attack just from reading the box!

Seriously though, how can "helluva" be considered offensive in this day and age? It's a short form for "hell of a", a commonly used superlative for a strong athletic performance. What's so offensive, the word "hell"? Well, it occurs fifty-five times in the Bible, so clearly all copies of that book need to be burnt instantly. It's also the name of a town in Michigan, so we should wipe that off the map as well. The Hells Angels? Gone. Hells Bells? Toast. Hell freezing over? Better burn those Eagles CDs. Never mind the following Wikipedia entry:

"The word "Hell" used away from its religious context was long considered to be profanity, particularly in North America. Although its use was commonplace in everyday speech and on television by the 1970s, many people in the US still consider it somewhat rude or inappropriate language, particularly involving children.[15] Many, particularly among religious circles and in certain sensitive environments, still avoid casual usage of the word. In British English and some parts of North America, the word has fallen into common use and is not considered profane; often considered to be a safer and less offensive alternative to swearing, as in the phrase, 'Go to Hell.'"

Well, I guess Houston still lives in a time before the 1970s and still considers hell profane. As he excitingly goes on about MacLean, "Last week, he used damn and hell in the same breath. They're minor expletives, but CBC Sports is the only place we know where a host is allowed to swear on the air." You can feel the implied exclamation marks, and the shock he expects to arise as millions of Canadians spill their morning coffee reading such tales of horror and instantly flee to their 1970s-style typewriters to bang out indignant letters to the editor over the degradation of society and the absence of any and all morals. As Macdonald Hall's Bruno Walton might say, "Our world is crumbling around us!" Damn and hell in the same breath? On the airwaves? Forget the censorship bill, you might as well just burn MacLean at the stake right now. Oh, rats: I just used damn and hell in the same breath. William Houston, if you're reading this, you're welcome to come burn me as well for violating your sacrosanct media sphere of morality.

The funny thing is, it's not just the times that Houston is out of touch with. I've been reading "best-of" collections of great Canadian sportswriters like Jim Coleman and Milt Dunnell recently, and they spent much of their time at horse tracks and boxing rings. I sincerely doubt if either man ever recoiled when they heard a "damn" or a "hell" from the legendary characters they hung out with. Sure, it's somewhat different when it's in the media, but should it really be? That's what makes sites like Drunk Jays Fans so refreshing: those guys don't bother to take the rough edges of their passionate commentary, regardless of who they offend. Slipping in a "helluva" really shouldn't offend anyone these days, anyways,(except for those hopelessly behind the times).

The trend's starting to catch on: at our own humble paper, we're certainly not reticent to use "damn" or "hell" when quoting people, and even occasionally in our own writing. We're also not afraid to throw in even naughtier words when someone says them. This is especially important in sports: I know I'd much rather hear "We put up a hell of a fight" than the clich├ęd, sans emotion comments like "We went out there and did our best." In an era where most athletes and coaches are taught to spin everything in the blandest way possible, the occasional outburst of pure passion should be lauded, not censored.

This isn't to say that language should be used just for pure shock value. There's a point where it's real, and a point where it's just contrived, where you lose the passion that made pushing the boundaries great in the first place. However, particularly in sports, there's a lot of emotion involved, and the fans who read/watch/listen to them are better able to connect with the game and the athletes if coaches, players and even announcers can truly express what they feel than if they're forced into politically correct language. Even the mainstream media's starting to get this: Houston's colleague Jeff Blair had a fantastic story today about the Jays' loss, which started off with manager John Gibbons dropping three consecutive "fucks". Of course, the paper didn't actually print the word in question, but Blair didn't condemn Gibbons for his language, and he came through as a guy who was genuinely passionate and frustrated about his team. I know I'd rather have a character like him or Ozzie Guillen managing my club than a dull figure who sticks to Houston's rules. There's other great examples, such as Joe Posnanski, my favorite Kansas City Star columnist, who recently held a fantastic swear-off between Scott Raab and Pat Jordan. Now, those guys might fall into the category of "swearing just to draw attention", but I can say that that was one of the funniest things I've read in a long time.

In any case, I don't want to return to the "Leave it to Beaver" world espoused by Mr. Houston. I prefer my athletes and commentators as real people, who curse when they miss a shot or complement something amazing with "that was a hell of a play". So don't worry, Ron: I'm sure there are plenty of people who have moved on from the old days and can actually handle a little helluva here and there in their media. Unfortunately, none of them happen to write the sports television column for the Globe and Mail.


  1. Slang words are generally kind of a lazy way to emphasize your point. People who get their knickers in a knot over it need to get a life. A good general rule, is don't censor yourself, and if someone who's old or media-experienced enough to know better says shit or fuck in an interview, quote it. Generally, though, I don't bother with it, since my mom reads my blog.

  2. Yeah, agree with you for the most part: I just found it absurd that Houston cited Ron MacLean's use of "helluva" as the biggest problem with Hockey Night in Canada.