Smack talking on the field 

posted by Sandeep

Duke’s men’s basketball team is currently on a tour of China, visiting Duke’s upcoming campus in Kunshan and playing a few matches with the Chinese national basketball team and others. Georgetown’s team is doing the same–on a “goodwill tour” of the country–but on Thursday, the Bayi Rockets and Georgetown got into a violent brawl, cutting the game short and forcing Georgetown to leave the stadium before anyone got seriously hurt. My friend Ben suggested that the language barrier between the Americans and Chinese could have lowered the tolerance for cooperation between the two groups.

According to the Washington Post,

“Immediately before the fighting began, Bayi forward-center Hu Ke was called for a foul against Georgetown’s Jason Clark. The senior guard took exception to the hard foul and said so to Hu, triggering pushing and shoving between them. At that point, players from the Georgetown and Bayi benches ran onto the court, and bedlam ensued.”

Was it really the actual content of what Clark said to Hu that triggered the conflict? While it’s possible that Hu understood Clark–many Chinese people know at least basic English–maybe he was reacting to his tone and body language. And I’m willing to bet that few, if any, of the Georgetown players understand Chinese. Of course, a language barrier doesn’t really matter when someone is screaming and pummeling you in the chest. There’s no reasoned understanding of each other in those situations:

I wonder if there are statistics on violence in international sports, and whether those can be correlated to histories of cultural or linguistic conflict.

The Georgetown-Bayi brawl reminded me of another famous fight: Zinedine Zidane’s infamous headbutting of Marco Materazzi at the soccer World Cup in 2006. There, Zidane was allegedly responding to Materazzi’s taunts about his mother or sister (accounts vary). The BBC hired an Italian lip-reader to decode what Materazzi had said, and they seemed to find that Materazzi had indeed insulted Zidane and his family, in Italian. But Zidane is French, of Algerian origin, and there’s nothing in his biography or background that would indicate that he understands Italian.

So what was he reacting to? The tone of Materazzi’s taunts? His body language? Or maybe he picked out a few words and just inferred the rest?

The idea behind sports teams’ goodwill tours is to beget cross-cultural understanding without language. That’s the whole idea behind international events like the Olympics and the World Cup. We don’t all speak the same language, but we play many of the same games.

So what happens when language does enter the mix? I can imagine a lot of situations in which language learners completely misunderstand the intentions of someone else because they can only pick out a few (unfortunate) words. Materazzi was clearly provoking Zidane, and body language and tone are generally good indicators of meaning. But I wonder if beginner language learners expose themselves to as much conflict as they do friendship, especially in heated, tense situations like sports.

International athletic events ride on national glory as well as personal glory. Our linguistic identities are closely tied to our national loyalties. Hearing an opposing player’s smack talk, in a foreign tongue, in a foreign location, in a situation where we’re already tense and on edge, might just make us angry in unexpected ways.

So does this mean international cooperation is doomed? No–I’m skeptical of the value of international athletic competitions as they relate to “cross-cultural understanding” because of the fundamental problem of trying to foster friendship in an inherently hostile environment. That doesn’t mean they’re not fun to watch. I’m just hesitant to find any broader linguistic or cultural conflict in a mid-game brawl at a basketball match (as some news commentators are doing now). A couple of Chinese athletes can “otherize” their American opponents based on their appearance and language without actually thinking about the broader implications (the budding U.S.-China rivalry?) of their conflict.