The NWSL Commentary Is A Paternalistic Mess, But It Doesn’t Have To Be
Updated: Jan 1, 2020
Commentary on the league is relentlessly positive, and it’s a disservice to players and to the audience at home.
I want to talk about a small moment from one of this weekend’s NWSL games. It happened at 67:30 in the Chicago-Portland game, when Christine Sinclair sent a ball over the top for Portland. It bounced freely toward the Chicago box, while Chicago defender Casey Short tried to send it away. But she whiffed her attempted clearance, putting Portland’s Tobin Heath clear in on goal. The shot was saved, but it was a clear error by Short (who otherwise had an excellent game).
There were some mitigating factors. It was a windy day, which had been wreaking havoc with everyone’s timing all day. And it’s not the easiest thing in the world to time a kick on a ball that’s moving away from you, particularly when you know you have one of the world’s best players on your shoulder. Still, this was a mistake from Short, and potentially a very dangerous one.
But when the replay was shown a few seconds later, Lori Lindsey provided the following commentary: “A fantastic ball over the top. So difficult for Casey Short to clear. Can’t get a foot on it, and mistimes it.”
It was a nice ball. But it certainly wasn’t difficult for Short. Even with the mitigating factors, this was a fairly standard clearance, and one that Short would expect herself to execute every time. So why did Lindsey call it “so difficult”?
Now, I don’t want to harp too much on one quick comment made in the spur of the moment. And if this were an isolated case, I’d think nothing of it. But it’s not an isolated case. Listen to discussions of Sky Blue, which constantly discuss their terrible luck, but not their mismanagement and tactical naïveté. Or discussions of Orlando, which emphasize their great mentality and spirit, but casually omit the long periods when they seem unmotivated or uninterested. Or look to discussions of specific players, whose strengths are constantly emphasized but whose weaknesses are omitted. In short, watch any game, and the ratio of positive comments to negative comments will be astronomical. Failures are excused, while successes are hyped. And the result is a discussion that feels relentlessly, oppressively optimistic.
Now, in a young league, in a sport that doesn’t get mainstream coverage, which is still trying to build an audience, it’s certainly tempting to talk this way. Why discuss the negatives? Why not spin everything as positively as it can be spun? But it’s a mistake, for two big reasons.
First, it’s disrespectful to the players. These are professional athletes, of the highest quality. They demand extraordinary things of themselves. To wave away their mistakes, to minimize their flaws, is paternalistic. It suggests that they need boosters, rather than honest commentary. Obviously, that shouldn’t descend into cruelty or attacks. But it’s absolutely possible to provide generous commentary which is also fair and accurate. It does no one any favors to pretend they are flawless.
Second, it’s an evasion of responsibility to the viewers. People tune in expecting the commentators to provide analysis and context. If what they get instead is relentless boosterism, they will not be informed, nor will they gain any new understanding. The point of providing expert commentary is that it can add depth and nuance. That means being willing to accurately describe failures as well as successes.
I certainly don’t want conversations to be entirely negative. Part of what makes sports great is the way they allow us to tap into a sense of unbridled excitement and even a little unreasonable optimism. People enjoy that sense of hope and possibility that unfolds with each new game. We appreciate that, on any given day, the worst team might beat the best or an unheralded player might overcome a superstar.
If broadcasts and commentary want to hype up that potential, that’s all for the better. The NWSL is an exciting league where everything feels possible. Discussing it shouldn’t feel like a grim march of cataloguing errors, tallying up failures, and calculating probabilities. But if everything is positive all the time, there will be no sense of shade or proportion. And that ultimately will only dull the edge of the excitement. In order for the magic to feel truly exceptional, it needs to be balanced by the mundane.
So tell the full story. Don’t shy away from describing failure. Do provide context, but don’t make excuses. Respect the players enough to hold them up to the standards they set for themselves. Respect the audience enough to tell them the truth.