Game On: Writing and Athletics as Rhetorical Performance
- by Marvin Diogenes & Kelly Myers Program in Writing and Rhetoric Stanford Program in Writing and Rhetoric
Two teams are on the court and the game is ending. The score is tied. One woman tries to score, twice, but fails. The other team scores and wins the game.
March 29, 2010. The Stanford and Xavier women’s basketball teams face each other in the Elite 8.
The score is tied, with only seconds remaining. Xavier player Dee Dee Jernigan misses two consecutive shots. Stanford rebounds and Jeanette Pohlen makes the game-winning shot in the final second.
March 29, 2010. Stanford and Xavier are tied at 53 with 17 seconds on the clock. The winner will advance to the final four in San Antonio.
Xavier’s ball. Coach Kevin McGuff calls a play that clears out the key, sweeping all players away from the basket and leaving Xavier guard Dee Dee Jernigan wide open. They pass her the ball for an uncontested layup and she misses. Xavier rebounds. Again, Xavier runs the same play, and again Dee Dee Jernigan is wide open under the basket—and again she misses the uncontested layup. Stanford rebounds with 4.4 seconds left on the clock. Timeout. The Xavier players are devastated; Jernigan collapses onto the ground.
During the timeout, Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer tells Jeanette Pohlen to take the ball the length of the court. The assistant coaches tell her, repeatedly: Four seconds is a lot of time, four seconds is a lot of time. In-bound pass to Jeanette Pohlen. Through the chaos of bodies and sound, Jeanette sees the opportunity and takes it, weaving her way to the basket. The ball rolls off her fingers less than a second before the buzzer, locking the audience in a collective gasp. Her timing is perfect, the basket is good, and the Stanford women’s basketball team advances to San Antonio.
Stanford players and fans rush the court. Two Xavier players fall to the ground, pulling their jerseys over their faces. Stanford continues on to eventually face UConn in the finals; Xavier’s season is over. For Dee Dee Jernigan, a senior on the team, this moment marks the end of her college basketball career.
Without the story, or rhetorical frame, we simply watch players on a court, runners on a track, or people in a pool. We can feel awed and amazed by their athleticism, but we often do not feel moved by what we see unless there is a story. Through our experiences, families, and friends, we build our own stories around favorite teams and individual athletes. However, the stories are also built for us through media coverage, from local newspapers and blogs to the multi-million dollar coverage of the Olympic Games. Sports, then, are written in print and across media, presented as arguments persuading us to attention. Rhetoric constructs the game around the game.
Rhetorical theory and practice extend back 2,500 years. In his treatise On Rhetoric, Aristotle outlines the rhetorical appeals that serve as the fundamental tools of persuasion: ethos (character, credibility), pathos (emotion), logos (logic), and kairos (timing). To persuade, a rhetor must shape his or her persona, draw on emotion, employ logic, and respond to the demands of the moment in ways that engage the audience, moving them to assent. Kairos emerges in the urgent promotion of events, persuading us to watch: “This game will define the season for the Cardinal.” Logos fuels countless arguments, translating actions into statistics which in turn are deployed as proof of character: “Only a great player can put up those kinds of numbers.” Ethos and pathos humanize athletes, bringing them up close and personal, connecting us to stories of struggle and triumph. Season after season, rhetoric shapes our experience of sports, making the game much more than a game.
Classical rhetoric also bequeathed us five canons: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. The canons provide five ways to perform words and deeds, five lenses through which to consider what we will do and what we have done on the page, on the field. Rhetoric and sports begin with invention. Through the discovery and practice of invention, athletes and argument emerge.
Invention: The Blank Page, The Open Field
Consider the athlete practicing. Warming up. Stretching. Preparing the instrument.
Consider the writer practicing. Trying out words. Warming up the apparatus of language.
Both the writer and the athlete confront boundaries in their work. Both create new combinations of actions, of words, in a defined space.
Writers, when effective, use the available means of persuasion to engage a particular audience. Words, sentences, paragraphs, transitions, conventions, the mixing of genres. Moves.
Athletes, when effective, use the available means of persuasion to engage an audience of teammates, opponents, and spectators. Hands, feet, purposeful actions, knowledge of rules and of where the rules give way to genius, the mixing of constraints and talent. Moves.
Rhetoric teaches us about invention, which we enact in response to kairos, or situation, a specific rhetorical task that will never be posed again in exactly the same way, whether we must write or compete.
Writing and athletics, then, are the exploration of what is humanly possible within the circumstances of the moment. And achievement beyond the possible entices us to watch, or to play, to perform a role in the spectacle.
Arrangement: Shaping the Performance
Consider the athlete studying film, analyzing past performance to shape future performance.
Consider the writer studying models of writing or drafts, analyzing the performance of others and one’s own performance to shape future performance.
Writing and sports offer the illusion of arrangement. The page. The field. The court. The swimming pool. The track. Within arrangement, chaos lurks. Consider The Play, infamous as it is in the history of Big Game, seen again and again in compilations of the most famous moments in college football history. Cal has no choice but to violate the usual rules of arrangement. They have to try something that never works, lateral after lateral, putting the ball at risk because time has run out. But wait, time hangs suspended, caught between Game and Game Over. Chaos breaks out on the field. Boundaries break. The boundary of rules (before the initial lateral, the Cal player’s knee was down—in another universe, of correct calls, The Play never happened). The boundary of the field is broken, as fans and the Band come into the space in that moment of suspended time. The Cal player, entering lore through a side door of Arrangement, ploughs down a band member carrying a tuba.
What we want for comfort in a complex world is invention within the boundary, a play we recognize and can admire for its ingenuity and skilled implementation.
As you read through the list of sports below, visualize the space in which each takes place, the arena, the field of play and its markings, the ways in which the boundaries help structure the actions that can be performed.
|Tennis||Track and Field||Volleyball||Water Polo|
As you read through the list of genres of writing below, imagine what each kind of writing looks like on the page, how you recognize the game that is being played when you begin to read, how that recognition leads to expectation and judgment, appreciation or boredom. For you writers out there, consider how the genre gives you a structure and a set of moves appropriate to the structure.
|Poem||Position Paper||Grant Proposal||Personal Statement|
|Dissertation||Honors Thesis||Cookbook||Book Review|
|Play||Comedy Sketch||Interview||Game Recap|
Style: Expressions of Sport and Speech
While invention and arrangement focus on ideas and/in space, style pertains to expression. Consider how writers and athletes compact space and time into ever smaller units. The runner shaves tenths of a second off the time it takes to run a mile. The swimmer shaves tenths of a second off the time it takes to swim one hundred meters. Note the opposite as well. The gymnast defies gravity to twist and spin for an eternity the eye can hardly measure.
Style exists in language usage and bodily movement. The voice of writer, the eloquence of athletic form. Style can be beautiful or strange—a perfect pass, an unexpected turn of phrase. The writer and athlete both take up materials that have been used for millennia and make these materials their own.
Memory: Muscle Memory, Writing Mind
The competitive moment in sport demands that the mind and body work in unison, almost without conscious thought. Consider the repetition of practice, the same movements again and again to make the muscles remember what to do, freeing the competitor to perform in response to the demands of the moment. Imagine the most stressful moment you can in a tennis match. Perhaps you need to hold serve to win the match. Your muscles recognize what is needed. I know how to do this. I remember this action. And they respond, and the athlete can decide whether to exert every ounce of strength, or go with finesse or a spin so that the ball kicks in an unexpected way. And on the other side, the opponent’s muscles remember the countless returns of service through the endless days of practice, and the body moves toward the ball, and the eyes pick up the spin while the feet position themselves, and the hands grip the racket to hit a two-handed backhand return because that is what the serve requires in that moment, and all of this happens in a matter of split seconds.
The writing mind remembers too. Do writers think consciously with every sentence, or is it true what many writers report about the flow of writing like an athlete performing, without conscious thought but with exquisite sensitivity to the moment. A sentence, with a subject and verb. I know how to do this. I remember how words work together to achieve a purpose.
Delivery: The Live Performance
Rhetoric originated as an oral art. The words didn’t live until they were performed. Think of all the professional athletes who become commentators, trading in their athletic performance for verbal performance. They sit in press boxes looking down on the playing field like retired gods; they sit behind desks in the studio like jurors on camera. They still deliver, though, just in a different genre. They take observed action and turn up the rhetorical heat, creating meaning and purpose. The facts alone are never enough, just as the raw materials of drills do not suffice.
The writer and the athlete, the commentator and the fan, practice, revise, play, perform.
On March 29, 2010 the Stanford women’s basketball team seized a kairotic moment. Jeanette Pohlen read the situation, found the opening, and navigated her way to the basket. She saw the path, but she also invented it and arranged the court in relation to it. In that last 4.4 seconds, she wove through players with her particular style and agility, relying on her muscle memory to deliver the final, game-winning shot.
Marvin Diogenes is Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Co-Director of Stanford Introductory Studies for the Program in Writing and Rhetoric and September Studies. He also oversees the Writing in the Major Program. He holds a B.A. in English from Stanford and an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from the University of Arizona. Prior to returning to Stanford in 2000, he taught courses in rhetoric, composition, writing pedagogy, literature, creative nonfiction, and fiction writing at San Diego State University and the University of Arizona. He is the co-editor of two books, Living Languages and Crafting Fiction: In Theory, In Practice; his anthology of comic readings, Laughing Matters, was published by Pearson Longman in 2009.
Kelly Myers received her M.A. in Literature from the University of New Hampshire and her Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English from the University of Arizona. She researches the role of emotion and transformation in the ancient Greek concept of kairos. In particular, she examines the connection between Kairos, the god of opportunity, and Metanoia, a veiled female figure who personifies the missed moment. Kelly traces representations of the Kairos-Metanoia partnership from The Greek Anthology to the Renaissance emblem books, establishing the foundation for a rhetorical theory of opportunity and regret. In addition to her interest in ancient rhetorical theory, her work explores the rhetoric of professional and collegiate sports. She teaches rhetoric courses on the science of sports, sports marketing, the Olympics, and women in sports. Her current projects include a historical study of the Stanford women’s basketball team and an examination of the idealized female sports fan.