Today I happened to be watching Kentucky face UNC—the hype is entirely justified about John Wall by the way, entirely justified and if anything, a bit understated—and John Wall happened to get cramps. Unfortunate for Kentucky, yes, but certainly something that happens when you’re exercising hard from time to time, right? Not for commentator Len Elmore, who launched into a long, somewhat odd rant about: a) Wall’s possible dehydration, b) Wall’s faulty preparation (implying that Wall was somehow negligent, purposefully so), and c) “If that’s the case, then it certainly won’t happen again.”
What’s bizarre about the rant is that: a) Elmore couldn’t have known whether Wall was, indeed, dehydrated, b) whether or not Wall’s dehydration reflected poor preparation, and c) Elmore knew that he couldn’t have known it. So Elmore basically included his hydration PSA just to show his moralistic chops.
Now, the point here isn’t that commentators, including Elmore, are often dumb and illogical. It’s that they’re often moralistic and scolding. Moralism is especially pronounced among sportswriters, but it’s distressingly common in the press. I can’t think of another profession in America in which: a) moralism is a nonessential feature and b) moralism manifests itself so strongly. (You might say, for example, Republicans; but the point of the Republican Party is moralism so there.)
What’s really striking about moralism in the media is how unpersuasive it is (and the point of good media is to be persuasive, so you might even argue that moralism is inimical to good media). Any moralistic rant on the order of Elmore’s is likely to leave the viewer at the very least unpersuaded; at the extreme, the viewer might think “what a fucking idiot” and, in a contrarian spirit, adopt the opposite position. The trouble is that moralists are often right—since the point of Elmore’s rant was for athletes to prepare ahead of time by drinking water, I’d say he had a point there too—and that may be counterproductive. Imparting a moral is best done when the moral arises organically from the situation; where the person imparting the moral isn’t pushy about it—i.e. doesn’t seem to be motivated by malice, spite, or anger; and doesn’t seem to be over a petty, small point.
Maybe the best example of ineffective moralism (of the latter point) is grammarians. Grammarians, as a species, have high aspirations and a low focus. Their high aspirations are effective, clear communication; their low focus are such sundries as split infinitives. Obsessing other split infinitives, for example (as my 11th grade English teacher did), is useless and counterproductive. Useless because to brazenly split infinitives is no barrier to effective communication, counterproductive because it establishes the grammarian as fussy and obsessive (the phrase “pick your battles” applies).
An effective example of imparting a moral—in sports, no less!—happens to belong to Jeff van Gundy, who called the Lakers-Heat game this Friday. Dwyane Wade had become a bit lazy about changing ends, and because of that, the Heat probably lost about 6 points. Van Gundy emphasized that while Wade was a great player, he needed to give an effort about changing ends, since he had done it roughly three times—6 points is a pretty big sum in a basketball game. What was effective about it was that it wasn’t hysterical, loud, nor did he imply Wade was somehow a lesser breed of human being. It was pretty convincing and I thought it was an interesting comment. I’m a lot more likely to change ends with effort now than I am to not split my infinitives or hydrate properly, that is.