The Worst Question in Sports: What We Talk About When We Say ‘Talk About’

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Reporter: “Talk about your ability to process information. Is that something you’ve always been able to do?” 

Marcus Mariota: “I don’t know … ”

 National championship game press conference, 1/10/15

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Talk about the most insipid thing you hear in locker rooms.

What? You wanted me to ask a question? A passive-aggressive command wasn’t enough? Let me try again. What makes sports reporters venture the same cowering, deflated non-question in press conferences across the country? I refer, of course, to the Talk About.

Talk about the mind-set of this team. Talk about what it means to you to win in the playoffs. “I hear it every single day, and every night, at every game,” said Roy Firestone, who hosted Up Close on ESPN for 13 years. “Somewhere, it’s a Talk About. People should be crazy about this.” True, the Talk About is but one of many reporterly grunts, as Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky has noted. But through its sheer repetition, Talk About has become the quasi-official question of the postgame press conference, and a sign of its crack-up. What “How do you feel?” is to the crime beat, Talk About is to sportswriting.

Marcus Mariota got hit with six Talk Abouts in a single press conference before the national championship game. At his postgame presser, Urban Meyer got four. One was: “Could you talk about the future of the program and just how bright it is?” (Meyer, of course, was glad to.) The week before, the question that begat Meyer’s stunned “Oregon won by 40?!” exclamation was also a Talk About.

The Talk About disease has spread to the NFL playoffs. Bill Belichick got a Talk About after beating the Colts in the AFC title game. (“Talk about Jamie Collins and Kyle Arrington, on T.Y. Hilton in particular.”) Chuck Pagano got one after losing the same game. (“Talk about how difficult it is to have the last game be like this.”) Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco, and Tony Romo all fell victim to Talk Abouts, though only Russell Wilson’s had the ring of a terrorist demand: “Staggering numbers, 8-for-8 on third downs. Do you feel like you’re in a zone out there? Just talk about it.”

World-changing players like LeBron James get Talk Abouts. “Can you talk about that switch of you on Markieff [Morris] in that fourth quarter?” Dazed, rookie coaches like Derek Fisher get Talk Abouts. “Coach, talk about Quincy [Acy]’s defense on Kevin [Love]. Like he was able to neutralize him throughout the game, actually.” Even Marshawn Lynch, an athlete who doesn’t talk to reporters, gets Talk Abouts. “You could talk about Lil Boosie.”

You needn’t be an athlete. The referee who picked up the pass-interference flag in the Dallas-Detroit playoff game got a Talk About. At his December 29 press conference, Jets owner Woody Johnson was asked: “Can you speak to the impact that Rex [Ryan] made on the franchise?” A Speak To is a Talk About by another name.

It would be one thing if the Talk About were confined to terminally awkward postgame press conferences, where everyone seems terrified of the sound of their own voices. But the Talk About has become so normalized that you now hear it in almost any sports interview, no matter the size of the scrum. In 2012, University of Alabama softballer Amanda Locke hit a homer to beat Arizona State. She was asked, “Can you talk about the home run?” In 2010, a reporter interviewing baseball prospect Michael Choice, who’s now with the Rangers, worked in three: “Talk about your approach to this season … Talk about the home run you hit at UT-San Antonio … Talk about your recruitment your senior year.”

It’s like the old Ted Williams slur: You’re a writer? You’re no good. “Talk About,” said CSN Bay Area’s Ray Ratto, “always seems like code for ‘Please make noises with the lowest hole in your head that roughly coincide with the noises I have directed at you.’”

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Talk Abouts are often the first questions asked in postgame pressers — brush-clearers, in the phrase of MLB.com writer Richard Justice. After the 49ers beat the Eagles in September, the first question put to Jim Harbaugh was, “Can you talk about the job that the defense did?”

This is perhaps the only defensible Talk About: The one that puts the athlete or coach at ease by showing him you’re interested in what he has to say. “It’s a basic level of respect, ” said Max Kellerman, who conducts post-fight interviews for HBO. “They need to feel they’re in a place with a sympathetic ear. When you start by letting them say what they want, they’re more willing to answer specific questions after that.”

What an athlete wants to say, of course, often isn’t very enlightening. For the Seahawks’ Kam Chancellor, it’s that God is great. Andrew Luck said after the Patriots game Sunday that it had been a “long day.” The Talk About allows the cliché in the hope of non-clichés to come.

Fox’s Chris Myers said he tries to anticipate such throat-clearing and take the words from the athlete’s mouth. “Sometimes I’ve done postgame interviews right away, and if I ask the guy something specific, he’ll say, ‘Hey, I’m excited, we’re going to the Super Bowl!’” Myers explained. “So I’ll start my question by saying, ‘Congratulations on going to the Super Bowl.’ And then I’ll ask a more specific question.”

It’d be nice to think of the Talk About as a new menace, but it’s really pretty old. Dave Goldberg, who spent 25 years as an Associated Press NFL writer, heard Talk Abouts for decades, particularly from the lips of TV people. “I don’t want to point the finger, because we’re all guilty,” said Dallas Morning News writer Gerry Fraley. “But it seemed to start with ubiquitous radio stringers that are just looking for tape.” Now, it’s universal.

Goldberg said, “To me, it’s worse because obviously they’re asking about a play the guy made.” Indeed, after the opening Talk About, the most common Talk Abouts come from reporters hunting for insight on the game’s biggest play or “story line.” After beating the Celtics on Monday, the Clippers’ Blake Griffin was asked by a reporter, “Talk about, as far as, you know, you’re winning — you got a two-game winning streak.”

Griffin — a decent interview — gamely tries to answer. The problem is that he has not been asked a question. So he replies, “Um, the winning is great.” Ditto Alabama’s Amanda Locke. When presented with a Talk About, she briefly described the pitch before stammering that she was “not trying to think too much, just trying to keep it simple.” Talk Abouts cause even menschy athletes to reach for cliché, because they’re still waiting for the game that just ended to congeal in their minds. That’s why reporters like Fox’s Ken Rosenthal and the NFL Network’s Andrea Kremer bypass Talk About for a more demanding question: “What happened?”

Other times, a Talk About occurs when a reporter reads the athlete a lightly breaded version of his article’s thesis. In a press conference after the Rose Bowl, Mariota was asked: “Can you talk about how maybe you got more comfortable as the game went on and how kind of the game slowed down for you?”

Golfer Rory McIlroy nabbed a rare double Talk About before last year’s PGA Championship, when a reporter delivered McIlroy his unedited copy: “Could you talk about going into this year, there was a run of first-time major champions, but this year all three of you guys have had major championships before? Just talk about how experience seems to pay more of a dividend this year.”

“Why are you actually interviewing this guy?” said John Sawatsky, who teaches the art of asking questions at ESPN. “You’re using him as a prop to get him to confirm your own hypothesis.”

Managers like Mike Scioscia, Buck Showalter, and Lloyd McClendon won’t respond to Talk Abouts. But coaches who do have seen their news conferences change into chummy forums where they’re practically finishing the reporters’ sentences. If you watch enough of the NFL Network, you notice that many football coaches now begin nearly every answer with “Yeah … ”

Reporter: “Coach, talk about your Rutgers kids. Obviously, you drafted Devin [McCourty] in the first round and you saw the two young bucks make some big plays at the end of the game … ”

Bill Belichick: “Yeah, they’ve played well for us … ”

If Belichick has conceded your premise, your premise is worthless. Or it’s not a premise.

Sometimes, a reporter ventures a Talk About as a warm-up to the question he really wants to ask. Take the question put to the Cowboys-Lions referees: “Can you talk about the decision to overturn the call and why you overturned the call?” The why is all that’s important.

Conversely, an otherwise sturdy question can come with a Talk About chaser. After the Giants beat the Falcons in October, Eli Manning was asked, “How does Odell [Beckham] differ from Hakeem [Nicks], and can you talk about the touchdown pass?”

Talk About has lexicographic kin. “A close cousin of Talk About is How Big Was,” said Roy Firestone. (To Pete Carroll, after the Seahawks faked a field goal and recovered an onside kick: “How big was it for the special teams to step up today and make a difference?”) “I almost expect the player to use their hands: This big!” said Kellerman.

The How Big Was isn’t even an ask. It’s a chance for a reporter to reach up to the lectern and give the coach or player a high five. The most famous example of this kind of question came at Super Bowl VI, when CBS’s Tom Brookshier built a Mayan temple of praise to the Cowboys’ Duane Thomas before asking, “Are you that fast?”

Thomas looked at him and said, “Evidently.”

Another cousin of the Talk About is the Walk Me Through. “Walk me through that one-handed catch you had against the Broncos on November 2.” It at least begs for a multipart answer. A third cousin once-removed is Expand on That. “Talk about the series at first-and-goal within the 5,” a reporter asked 49ers safety Eric Reid this season. “Philadelphia had a chance to win the game. Expand on that.” When a reporter says, “Expand on that,” he is pleading, “Talk more about … ”

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Whom should we convict, imprison, and execute for the rise of Talk About? The first perp is television. If you’ve ever survived a media-training session, you know that TV prizes a fully formed sentence rather than a fragment. A Talk About usually elicits such a sentence, even if it’s a crummy one.

Moreover, TV took the scrum that once formed around a player’s locker and shepherded it into a formal interview room. Then it took the interview room and put it on TV. The seeming uptick in Talk Abouts is probably a result of how much we moderns get to watch postgame interviews, whether on the NFL Network or encased in carbon freeze on the web. White House reporters got a similar public shaming when C-SPAN started airing their daily briefings. A formerly exalted group of truth seekers suddenly looked — to quote the coach on the podium — like they were just going through the motions.

New media abets Talk About. “The thing is, I don’t think anybody watches the game anymore,” said Gerry Fraley. “You look around the press box and they’re buried in their laptop or tweeting. As a result, they get downstairs to the manager’s office and don’t know what to ask about.”

Indeed, in Talk Abouts you can see evidence of asymmetrical information. When a reporter asks Colin Kaepernick, “Can you talk about the touchdown to [Michael] Crabtree and explain what happened on that play?” it’s a sign that the reporter himself has no idea. It’s OK, even wise, to affect ignorance so as not to queer the player’s answers. But to display no foundational knowledge — of the formation, say, or the frequency of the play, especially in the age of NFL Game Rewind — is evidence of not taking the job seriously. “Too many of us don’t prep,” said Ray Ratto, “so we just want sounds we can verify came from an athlete or coach. We suck.”

I think Talk About has roots in mimicry. Some of sportswriting’s worst disasters occur when reporters start to write like their subjects talk. NBA writers parrot the commodity-speak of GMs (“trade piece,” “salary dump”). Talk About is classic coachspeak. Coaches love to talk about what they’re talking about. “We talk about consistency and performance every day in our football program,” the University of Tennessee’s Butch Jones crowed after winning the TaxSlayer Bowl this year.

Now, listen to the reporter who’d quizzed Jones moments earlier: “Coach, talk about the impact of all the extra practices on the defensive line in particular.” They could be quoting from the same management seminar.

Finally, Talk About is illustrative of the power relationship between player and reporter. Or, at least, how the reporter perceives the relationship. If a player performs badly — gives up a walk-off homer, say, or throws a game-ending interception — a Talk About is an inoffensive way to broach the subject. To Joe Flacco last week, about the Ravens’ fourth-quarter letdown: “Talk about the pass to Owen Daniels, when you guys ended up settling for a field goal.”

Such a question not only stops short of genuine curiosity but badly underestimates the athlete. Quarterbacks like Flacco have been in formal media training courses since college, if not before. They can spot a too-broad question and exploit it as easily as a zero defense. As John Sawatsky noted, we’ve reached a terrifying moment in history in which some athletes have thought more about the questions than the people asking the questions.

The Talk About is a surrender to a superior foe. It concedes the unconcedable: that what an athlete says is not as important as the fact that he says something. Anything. “It has entered the lexicon,” said Roy Firestone. “Next thing you know, Barack Obama will be asked, ‘Talk about how you feel.’ Or: ‘How big was ISIS this week?’”

Talk about quavering. Talk about a give-up. Talk about a waste of everyone’s time.

Filed Under: Sports Media, Bryan Curtis on Sports Media, Sportswriting, NFL, NBA, MLB, LeBron James, Bill Belichick, Press Conferences

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Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland.

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