‘We gonna be championship!’: A new approach to ‘fixing’ quotes
J.A. Adande on the cultural terrain we travel when quoting athletes verbatim
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!”