November 29, 2005

Football's F-word

After the Indianapolis Colts beat the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night, Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy was asked about the Colts being called a "f****** team." Dungy replied:

"We don't think we are. We never thought we were. It's something that, yeah, (the players) don't like to be called that. But you can't change people's perception."

On Sunday, after the Seattle Seahawks beat the New York Giants, Seattle center Robbie Tobeck was quoted as saying:

"People think that because we're from the Northwest that we're a f****** team. We're not a f****** team."

And earlier this month after the Cincinnati Bengals beat the Baltimore Ravens, a Columbus Dispatch article led off with this outraged sentiment from the Bengals' right tackle:

Willie Anderson has heard the Cincinnati Bengals described as a f****** team, and it rankles him.

What is this terrible aspersion against the character of football teams that requires such a spirited defense?

The unspeakable word is finesse.

Charles Robinson of Yahoo! Sports refers to it as "the F-word," while's Len Pasquarelli prefers to call it "the F-bomb." Clearly the word has a tremendous ability to infuriate NFL coaches and players alike.

King Kaufman, sports columnist for Salon, sarcastically explains the subtext: finesse is "a football code word" implying that a team is "a bunch of sissies who listen to show tunes in the locker room if you know what I mean." Kaufman first picked up on football's anti-finesse posturing in a 2002 column discussing a game between the St. Louis Rams and the New York Giants:

Leading up to the game, the Giants had used the F word, which in St. Louis is "finesse." See, teams use that word to describe the Rams because the Rams are built for speed, not power. Which is to say that the Rams are a bunch of flaming homosexuals. Well, not really. But, you know, sort of. And the Rams say, We are not a finesse team. We are in fact a rough, gritty, hard-hitting group of butch boys, and even though our receivers run very fast, they are all real men in every way if you know what I mean.

The dictionaries may define finesse as "elegant ability and dexterity," but NFLers hear something quite specific in the word: an unmanly suggestion of softness or delicacy, inappropriate to football's pervasive atmosphere of machismo. No doubt the French pedigree of the word, with its dainty -esse ending, contributes to this perception.

Finesse isn't such a dirty word in baseball, where its attributive usage is limited mostly to pitchers and pitching. The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary defines a finesse pitcher as "a pitcher who relies on placement, deception, change of speed, and guile rather than velocity and power." The Proquest database has examples going back to 1967 at least, as in this quote from Dodgers pitcher Don Sutton after completing a two-hitter:

Los Angeles Times, June 28, 1967, p. III2, col. 4
"I had decided to stop trying to be a finesse pitcher. Most of the times I've been hit hard, I've been trying to finesse the hitters. Throwing them changeups on 3-and-2 counts and things like that. I decided I should just go out there and throw the ball and try to get ahead of the hitters. I'm just not a cutie-pie pitcher. I don't know how to pitch like a 35-year-old man."

Sutton, then only 22 years old, disparages the "cutie-pie" tactics relied upon by older pitchers no longer able to overpower opposing batters with an intimidating fastball. (One is reminded of Nuke Laloosh in Bull Durham wanting to "bring heat" against every batter he faces.) But by the time Sutton finished his Hall of Fame career more than two decades later, I think he would have had fewer concerns about being categorized as a finesse pitcher.

The earliest attributive usage I've found in football is from 1969, in a quote from Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Merlin Olsen:

Washington Post, Nov. 23, 1969, p. C4, col. 2
"Before then we were a clawing, biting, scratching team. Now we have developed finesse," Olsen said. "Now we can win in three or four different ways. You can't win consistently on just power or just finesse. Eventually, a finesse team is going to out-finesse itself. And a power team will eventually run into a team it can't overpower."

Olsen takes a balanced view on football's power vs. finesse dichotomy: over the long run, a team can succeed neither as a finesse team nor as a power team, but must ideally have elements of both. Nowadays, however, it seems that even the suggestion of finesse is enough to make a player or coach sue for defamation of character.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 29, 2005 03:46 PM