Plenty of pieces have been written about the scuffle between the Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon. For baseball fans who missed it or those who care nothing about sports, the summary is that Harper popped up a pitch he thought he should have hit harder and so he didn't sprint to first base because there was a 99% chance it would be caught easily. Papelbon yelled at him for not running, Harper yelled back, and then Papelbon grabbed Harper's throat and attacked him until teammates broke them up.
I thought this piece in Grantland contained a unique twist I'd love to see more of: author Ben Lindbergh asked a deaf friend who can lipread to see if he could figure out what Harper and Papelbon were shouting at each other.
A few years ago, I asked Evan Brunell, a deaf writer and skilled lipreader, to help me transcribe manager-umpire arguments. I asked Evan to take a look at this confrontation, too. Here’s what he thinks was said:
Papelbon: … fucking go! On the fucking … Yeah, run the fucking ball out. [Obscured swearing] … goddamn ball out.
Harper: … the fuck up! Are you fucking kidding me? Chill the fuck out, man. Let’s fucking go! I’ll fucking go right —
If that transcript is accurate, Harper didn’t exactly deescalate, but this was all posturing until Papelbon charged without waiting to find out what would happen when Harper said “now.”
That is fantastic. More sports coverage should include the services of lip readers to help bring us where microphones don't go. Hearing what players say on the field adds an entirely new layer to the narrative of most sporting contests, as anyone who has watched archival footage, with on-field or on-court audio added back in, can attest. Sure, some (much?) of the language is salty, but I'd pay extra for an uncensored audio feed.
Yes, players would probably self-censor once such coverage became common, but even without all the cussing, much of the trash talk or psychological wordplay is amazing. What I wouldn't give to hear some Michael Jordan trash talk from back in the day.
One show comes really close: HBO's Hard Knocks. It's a show I never think I want to watch because it's always about a team I care little about, and then once I start in on the season premiere I inevitably find myself at the end of the five episode miniseries in no time at all. This season was no different. I found myself carried along by Bill O'Brien's constant expletive-filled tirades, J.J Watt's John Bunyan-like athletic feats, and Brian Cushing throwing up for what seemed like half an hour straight. And, as with every season, perhaps the best part of the show, the end of training camp cuts, when one player after another is let go by either the head coach or one of his assistants.
If a Hard Knocks-style of program were produced for every team in the NFL, MLB, and the NBA, I suspect the aggregate ratings across the franchise would be gigantic, and fans' relationships with players and coaches would be deeper, if more complicated. When it comes to sports, a lifetime of being fed clichéd narratives by mass sports media has left me hungry for less mediated coverage. Why settle for a reporter telling us what Bryce Harper is like? Why not let us see him on and off the field and let us judge for ourselves?