Editor’s note: Tuesday was opening day at The Undefeated, a new ESPN website that explores the intersections of race, sports and culture. In an introductory letter, Kevin Merida, its editor-in-chief, says the site won’t shrink from covering challenging subjects with a mix of original reporting, innovative storytelling, provocative commentary, must-see video, narratives and investigations. At FiveThirtyEight, we’re so excited at having a new sibling that we’ll be running several of The Undefeated’s articles on our site this week — including the one that follows here — and we have big plans for partnerships in the future.
It’s not enough to hope for brilliant basketball in these Western Conference finals that feature four of the top-seven finishers in this year’s MVP voting. I want to see flawed quotes, in all of their glory, presented without fear of backlash. If Kevin Durant leaves out a letter of an indefinite article when disparaging an owner or Brazilian Leandro Barbosa uses broken English during a postgame interview, it could end up being the best part of the series — as long as they are allowed to truly speak for themselves.
If you think quoting people accurately can’t be controversial then you haven’t read about Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle relaying the English words of Dominican-born Houston Astros outfielder Carlos Gomez verbatim:
Gomez: “For the last year and this year, I not really do much for this team. The fans be angry. They be disappointed.”
Since when should journalists apologize for being accurate?
Smith would only be in the wrong if he went out of his way to mock Gomez. Instead, Smith did the opposite, crediting Gomez for an honest self-assessment of his time with the Astros that included a .237 batting average and only four home runs.
Reasonable people can make allowances for those who use English as a second language. Instead of teasing them for their shortcomings, we can applaud them for successfully conveying their thoughts.
The Smith-Gomez flap brought up a debate about the old journalistic tradition of “cleaning up” quotes — that is, making slight fixes to align grammar and pronunciation with standard English.
This is a tradition that needs to go.
For one, it’s patronizing, with the implication that anything that deviates from the norm is inherently inferior and must be corrected. Black English, for example, isn’t a referendum on intelligence — it’s a reflection of centuries of segregation, just as American English is a linguistic representation of our country’s split from Britain. Passing judgment based on speech can often say more about the listener than the speaker. (Do we consider Yoda any less wise because of his mixed-up syntax?)
And in an age where postgame news conferences are televised and video of most locker room interviews can be found online, altering quotes can damage credibility when the real versions are so readily available for comparison.
Sometimes there is no fix to be found, no way to improve on the wonderfully wobbly phrases such as Barbosa’s proclamation last year that “We gonna be championship!”
It became a rallying cry for the Golden State Warriors; and when Barbosa’s prediction came true, the Warriors shouted it out in their champagne-drenched locker room Instagram post.
Recently, Barbosa delivered the “We gonna be championship” sequel. It still sounds great.
Durant’s most memorable line of these playoffs can’t be found in a box score. It came when he responded to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s claim that Russell Westbrook isn’t a superstar by saying: “He’s a idiot.”
Technically, it should have been “He’s AN idiot.” The incorrect article didn’t detract from the power of the statement. Nor did it alter our perception of Durant as a thoughtful person. If we can celebrate Westbrook pushing the boundaries of fashion, we can allow Durant to step outside the rigidity of grammar.
When we cover the NBA, we cover a diverse array of characters, with all of their successes and failures. And when you get down to it, we cover who’s gonna be championship and who’s a idiot, no matter how those things are phrased.
More stories from The Undefeated:
The puzzling plummet of RGIII, by Jason Reid
Mass incarceration is a local issue, by Brando Simeo Starkey
Kimberly Clay finds solace in running Play Like a Girl, by Kelley D. Evans