Speak Softly—and Carry a Big Check

Trash talk in sports now comes at a big price.
Writer: 
August 8, 2016

The modern athlete can make more money off the court through endorsements than through competition, and sometimes that means it pays to be bland.

LeBron James made an estimated $48 million in off-court earnings this season, more than twice the $23 million salary he was paid by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Serena Williams netted $20 million in endorsements compared to just $8.9 million in prize money. These athletes' marketability—and, in turn, the value of their endorsement deals—is directly tied to their likability. 

In the participation-trophy era of youth sports, sportsmanship is king, and affable, sportsmanlike athletes are more likely to earn the unofficial designation of “being good role models.” Good behavior on the field could lead to lucrative careers in coaching, front offices, or broadcasting and continue paying dividends long after an athlete’s career is over. James recently signed a lifetime contract with Nike that his business manager said is worth more than $1 billion. Whoever first coined the phrase "talk is cheap" could not have been more wrong.

Earlier this summer, we mourned the death of Muhammad Ali, an athlete who was never afraid to say exactly what was on his mind. Ali, linguistically, was the greatest—and, as I'm sure he'd tell us, there will never be another like him. The consummate trash-talker, Ali embodied the concept of swagger long before the word had a definition. 

Ali was as poetic as he was prolific, dominating months-long verbal sparring matches and ensuring that by the time they stepped into the ring, the champ would be in his opponent’s head. Before facing George Foreman in 1974: “I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”

The type of bravado and braggadocio that Ali exuded was not encouraged for athletes of his time—it was expected of them. Jets quarterback Joe Namath, who posted a sub-.500 record for his career, built an entire television career off of guaranteeing a victory for his 1969 New York Jets team, who were eighteen-point underdogs to the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. Today, similar type of trash-talk is construed as arrogance, and few prominent athletes are willing to take these public-relations risks. (Guarantees often come from attention-seeking backups rather than from superstars.) 

But because Namath put his money where his mouth was—by subsequently leading New York to a 16-7 victory—he became the legend forever known as “Broadway Joe.” Winning was the only way to vindicate such audacity; today winning is undermined if an athlete doesn’t handle himself or herself the right way. When Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman made a game-clinching play in the 2013 NFC Championship Game, his postgame chatter—not his on-field efforts—fueled the sports radio debate leading up to the Super Bowl.

Few modern players brag like Sherman, and although that outspokenness has generated some endorsement opportunities, his abrasiveness likely has hurt his bottom line more than it has helped. Today’s twenty-four-hour news coverage gives fans more access to their favorite athletes than ever before, but quantity has overtaken quality. The athletes we see sitting at the podium are carefully manicured visions of public-relations professionals who have little incentive to share genuine moments with the media. Retired NFL running back Marshawn Lynch famously said it best during his 2015 Super Bowl press conferences, when the only answer he would offer was, “I’m just here so I don’t get fined.” 

The absence of trash-talk has created a void in the sports world. Media outlets seek to fill that void by manufacturing conflicts, and they do so very profitably. Whereas Ali’s bombastic barbs may have occupied a line in the newspaper, one cryptic tweet from James can dominate the news cycle for an entire day. With such a high risk and low reward for speaking candidly, athletes (and their agents) are constantly on the defensive, perpetuating a cycle that has turned the trash-talker into an endangered species. 

Ultimately, it is the fans who suffer, robbed of the colorful antagonism that allowed millions to connect with Ali the way no athlete’s Twitter account ever will.

Carp ’15 was the sports editor of The Chronicle. He works at ESPN and lives in West Hartford, Connecticut.