Talking about trash-talking with an aficionado of the skill

January 22, 2001|By Kevin Cowherd

OUR SUBJECT today is "trash-talking" in sports, and who better to discourse on it than the Picasso of trash-talking, Shannon Sharpe.

The Ravens tight end has been talking smack since cars had running boards, or at least since he broke into the NFL 11 years ago with the Denver Broncos.

In fact, legend has it that when Sharpe scored his first touchdown playing eighth-grade football back in Glennville, Ga., he drew a penalty flag for taunting the poor kid he'd just toasted.

FOR THE RECORD - The name of Baltimore Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister was spelled incorrectly in yesterday's Today section. The Sun regrets the errors.

Now, as the Ravens and New York Giants prepare for the most apocalyptic game of all time - uh-oh, deep breath, getting sucked into all the hype and it's only Monday - Sharpe, the CEO of the Ravens trash-talkers, has two important announcements:

There probably won't be a lot of trash-talking in the Super Bowl because "the stakes are so high and guys are really, really focused."

America, you're too wired about this whole trash-talking business in the first place.

Sharpe knows athletes from the schoolyard level all the way up to the pros see trash-talking as a psychological weapon, a way to intimidate an opponent, get inside his head and throw him off his game.

But in the NFL, he said the other day, "it's just two guys [playing] at the highest level and saying: `My skill is better than your skill.' And no one should take it out of that context."

A lot of the country, of course, does not agree with Shannon Sharpe.

Parents of young athletes bemoan trash-talking as the erosion of good sportsmanship. Coaches and league officials worry that it can lead to violence both on and off the playing field.

Still, it's become ubiquitous in our society, not just in the world of sports, where jocks jawing at each other is a nightly staple on ESPN's "SportsCenter" highlights.

Movies and rap videos laud trash-talking. So do TV sitcoms - who's a bigger trash-talker than Homer Simpson? Or Roseanne Barr - before they canned her show, that is.

And some of the afternoon talk shows - Jerry Springer's comes immediately to mind - are nothing but 60 minutes of trash-talking with the occasional folding chair thrown across the stage as an artistic flourish.

Now we even have trash-talking commercials.

Maybe the funniest is the spot that stars - oh, the irony! - Shannon Sharpe and Giants defensive back Jason Sehorn for the Charles Schwab & Co. brokerage firm.

Sharpe does all the trash-talking in this one, cleverly ragging Sehorn about his lack of financial acumen.

"You can't even spell Dow Jones!" he taunts Sehorn at one point.(Actually, from the puzzled look on Sehorn's face, you wonder if he can.)

But with the Ravens, trash-talking is serious business.

The Ravens use it to pump themselves up, to work themselves into the controlled rage NFL players feed off like multi-vitamins.

Players like Sharpe, defensive back Chris McCallister and defensive lineman Tony Siragusa are world-class trash-talkers. And now, with the media spotlight on the Ravens all this week, the rest of the country is noticing how much our players like to - oh, isn't there a nicer way to put this? - banter with their opponents.

Safety Corey Harris, for instance, made the cover of Sports Illustrated last week above the headline: "R-Rated - the Ravens' trash-talking, bone-rattling defense."

Jamie Sharper, the Ravens linebacker, offers a theory on why the Ravens have so many trash-talkers.

"We got a lot of guys and they were The Man back in college," he says. "[Before] we were a losing team, a small market team, and guys were looking for a way to express themselves. So why not trash-talk and get yourself noticed?"

Much of the garden-variety trash-talking that goes on during a typical NFL game is X-rated, expressed in the kind of colorful terms normally associated with lifers in a federal penitentiary.

Give me an example of typical NFL trash talk, I asked McCallister the other day.

"Oh, I couldn't," he said. "You couldn't print it."

You can't give me one thing I could print?

"Well, " said McCallister, "guys will say `Good play,' real sarcastically. Or they`ll [hit] a guy and say: `I'll be here all day.' "

Wow, that's boring.

What about stuff about a guy's mother? Back when I played high school ball, the worst thing you could do was say something about a guy's mother.

McCallister just smiled. Apparently, as with everything else in our society, trash-talking has come a long way, baby.

If you think trash-talking in the NFL is bad today, Rod Woodson, the Ravens veteran safety, says it was "much worse" in the old days - meaning when he broke into the league with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1987.

"Back in the old days," says Woodson, "they used to talk crazy, slap each other, hit each other over the head when the ref wasn't looking. Now you can't get away with a lot of that stuff."

Geez. What does a guy have to do to have fun anymore?

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