In May 2007, golfer Rory Sabbatini voiced the inconceivable: “I think he’s more beatable than ever.” The “he” to whom the South African made reference was the so-called “new Tiger Woods.” Coming from a player who has only won three tournaments in his career, the comment rightly caught many off guard. Sabbatini’s artificial confidence exposed the professional golfing world for what it is: insecure.
Tiger’s response? Nearly as sharp as his game. “Well, if I remember correctly, he said he likes the new Tiger. I figure I’ve won nine out of 12 [tournaments], and I’ve won three times this year — the same amount he’s won in his career — so I like the new Tiger as well.” Ever since, Tiger has been his dominant self, especially during the past two weeks when he notched consecutive victories and ran away with the first ever FedEx Cup.
Talking trash is certainly a part of sports; it’s not encouraged, but it is an accepted aspect of the posturing fundamental to any competition. Sometimes, however, the words uttered by athletes can have a profound effect on the outcome of an event. Therefore, one must wonder what trash talk is advised and what could be done without.
What if Sabbatini hadn’t enunciated his unjustified confidence? What if he had let the sleeping Tiger lie? Tiger clearly responds well to a challenge. He seems to elevate his game when stuck 200 yards from the pin with a bad lie and a tree directly in front of him. Sabbatini should have realized that Woods would not take his comments lying down. This is an instance of trash-talking doing the trash-talker a disservice.
And then there is the example of the 2006 FIFA World Cup final and the head butt felt ’round the world. In response to a comment by Italian midfielder Marco Materazzi, Frenchman Zinadine Zidane — one of the finest footballers of this generation — delivered a vicious head butt to the Italian’s sternum. Zidane received a red card for his 110th minute indiscretion and was subsequently unavailable when the game was decided in a shoot-out. The Azzuri won, and Zidane, who had already scored on a penalty kick, sat watching.
For days after the event, many wondered what had caused the French veteran to lash out. Speculation arose that Materazzi had made a comment about Zidane’s mother. Others suggested that the Italian had called Zidane, whose parents are Algerian, a terrorist. Finally, months after the event, Materazzi told the world his story.
Here’s how it all played out according to the Italian. Throughout the game, Materazzi had been grabbing Zidane’s jersey in an effort to mark the wily veteran. Fed up with the tugging, Zidane said that he would give Materazzi the jersey after the game. To which Materazzi responded, “I’d prefer your sister.” Then the head butt, then the red card, then Italian victory. After admitting to what he said, Materazzi continued, “It’s not a particularly nice thing to say, I recognize that. But loads of players say worse things. I didn’t even know he had a sister before all of this happened.”
And so is the nature of talking smack: In the heat of the moment, people make snide remarks, often too inappropriate to be repeated publicly, and live with the consequences. In retrospect, I doubt many Italians care what Materazzi said, considering that it gave their country’s team an advantage — however slight — in the final of the world’s biggest sporting event.
Then, this past Sunday in Foxborough, Mass., in the wake of a scandal that shook the football world, the New England Patriots dismantled the San Diego Chargers, 38-14, as if they knew every play the Chargers would be running. Patriots’ star Tom Brady commented, “After everything that went on this week, we wanted to do the best for [Coach Bill Belichick],” who had been fined by the NFL for illegally taping the defensive signals of opposing teams.
Mixed up in the “everything that went on” referred to by Brady was a comment by Chargers star Ladanian Tomlinson. When asked by the press to express his feelings about Belichick’s misdoings, Tomlinson said, “I think the Patriots actually live by the saying, ‘If you’re not cheatin’, you’re not trying.’ ” The Patriots certainly had that quote on their minds as they held last year’s MVP to 43 yards rushing on 18 carries. And one could hear it in New England linebacker Tedy Bruschi’s voice when he said, “To come out here and win, it’s an exclamation point victory. It’s really satisfying.”
And so what applies to Tiger Woods probably applies to the Patriots too. It’s not a good idea to pick a fight you can’t win. One is better off taking shots at referees and league officials than messing with the big kids on the block. But moreover, it’s amazing just how big a role words and claims, even those that are misplaced or unsupportable, play in the world of sports.
After all, in 1994, when Mark Messier told the New York Post, “We will win tonight!” he wasn’t lying.
Nicholas Thorne is a senior in Pierson College. His column appears on Wednesdays.