The hard part about hiring a sports icon to market various products or services is one doesn’t even know when the sports icon is going to freak out and swear like a Hell’s Angel or some other miscreant a corporation that’s trying to appeal to the mass market certainly does not want to associate itself with.
For example, tennis star Jimmy Connors – that homespun, almost generic-seeming Captain America of professional tennis from roughly 1972-1996 – had some uniquely disparaging comments for former cyborg Ivan Lendl after losing a game to him at the 1992 U.S. Open; comments that we can’t repeat here but many of which involved words that begin with “F,” followed by the oddly phrased, “…playing pusher,” which most certainly made luxury-ish clothing brand Sergio Tacchini, one of Connors’ biggest sponsors, somewhat nervous, although back then maybe not who knows? It was a long time ago.
We expected nothing less from former tennis great and now-prolific major tournament announcer John McEnroe, given his penchant for throwing explosive tantrums on the court every five minutes, combined with the fact that he looks pissed off all the time, including while delivering commentary at Wimbledon. Although you may be surprised to discover in 1983, McEnroe called his opponent Tomas Smid a “communist bastard” at a Forest Hills event. Smid, a Czechoslovakian, and his fans were furious at the remark despite the fact the “communist” part was technically accurate, given Czechoslovakia was a satellite state of the Soviet Union back then. Although the Cold War was no excuse for causing innocents, like ourselves, to blush.
In the early 2000s, a great seat at a (relatively) small tournament revealed to our sources that Andre Agassi’s favorite self-flagellation technique for poor performance was a litany of vile, profane, and psychologically unhelpful comments while slapping his left thigh. And obviously, this shocking behavior is not confined to tennis – anyone who’s seen Michael Jordan in The Last Dance on ESPN knows that the world’s former foremost product endorser cussed like a sailor on the court/in the locker room/driving his Ferrari/buying yogurt/during a Hanes underwear ad shoot. In fact, airing The Last Dance was the first and only time The Walt Disney Company (part-owner of ESPN) even vaguely associated itself with such vile language outside of the Disney employee breakroom behind Space Mountain, likely because Jordan actually bought the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1999 and ESPN in 2002 thanks to his various Wheaties/Hanes/McDonald’s/Coca Cola promotional contracts, so they had to do it his way.
Indeed, these same traits exist in all present-day, highly marketable sports icons*, from (sigh) Tom Brady to Kyle Busch (the NASCAR guy, come on, watch some other sports once in a while sheesh) to Katie Ledecky to Cristiano Ronaldo and don’t forget Nelly Korda (come on, a six-time champion on the LPGA Tour) – those traits being broad appeal with consumers, mouths like a drunk, NoDoz-addled truckers.
*The one exception is Russell Wilson – we’d all love to hear him drop some horrific language occasionally so that we know his apparent niceness is balanced out with a realistic amount of normalness or at least not-boringness. He’s obviously not boring on the field; it’s just that Seahawks fans are all secretly nervous that he’s a dud off the field, like not fun to hang out with because it seems like this might be the case.
It turns out swearing and sports and/or swearing as a part of the competition is a natural phenomenon wired into the human brain for several purely biological/instinctual reasons. The first reason is to try to look cool in front of babes. From an early age (like about the sixth grade), anyone into babes realizes that using profanity makes one appear more mature and cooler overall, which is generally something babes like. This is also why there are so many after school specials with a babe who’s into the “bad” person – those attractive folks whose swearing and smoking and preference for leather jackets make them even more attractive in the eyes of babes – and these “bad” people are of course in the “Greasers” or some other gang that doesn’t actually do criminally bad things, just bad things as defined by the mores of the ’50s; specifically swearing, smoking, and leather jackets. Oh, maybe some drinking too.
But eventually, the babe realizes the error of her ways since it turns out “bad” behavior is a one-way ticket to Loserville, and the after-school special concludes with the babe going out with the milk toast, quiet, do-gooding nerd, which is frustrating as this never happens in real life. But the point is that after-school specials exist to try and get junior high kids off profanity, which they use to impress people they like. Also, all after-school specials are produced by Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), so that might be part of it too.
The second reason is that swearing increases pain tolerance, so many married couples have potty mouths. Researchers from the U.K.’s Keele University – an actual place rather than a set design from Harry Potter – had “participants” stick their hands in ice-cold water and cuss, then do it again using non-offensive words. The research team found “…swearing increased pain tolerance, increased heart rate and decreased perceived pain compared with not swearing…” and that “…sticking someone’s hand in ice-cold water makes them want to punch you in the mouth, which they do if you’re not paying attention…”
Also, it turns out these “researchers” were actually rogue employees from the University’s maintenance department. Still, the study proved so exciting and valid in the sports psychology world that Keele U covered it up by granting the janitors full tenure (with some help from Prince Harry and Meghan Markle).
These researchers did not get into how, exactly, swearing increases pain tolerance since they suddenly had to start publishing research papers. But they chalked a theory suggesting the use of bad words is linked to humans’ fight-or-flight response. In this sexy mode, hormones release to help the body react to possible danger. This state can help people perform in tough situations, including those with physical pain or discomfort. Furthermore, the accelerated heart rates of the “volunteers” who swore indicate increased aggression, which is something all animals do to “downplay feebleness” or, in more scientific terms, “not look like lunch,” i.e., to appear stronger and more pain-tolerant to deter threats, which could be from a larger rhinoceros if you’re a rhinoceros but more likely, in our cases, from a buffer dude talking to our woman, or whomever we orient to or whatnot.
The third reason is swear words land directly in our brains as a distraction method to take our minds off how awful something is (cue married couple setting household budgets or any audience member witnessing the Broadway production of Beetlejuice). Some guy employed by Long Island University – we’re not sure in what capacity – co-authored a swearing and exercise study and found, “…there’s a disinhibition in play that causes individuals to perform better while swearing.” Which no one understood, so he translated it to, “Put simply, when swearing, we are no longer focused on the discomfort caused by the activity or exercise we are engaged in.”
Aha! That’s it! Profanity is the equivalent of taking a Jäger shot after your partner dumps you because you still drink Jäger shots and don’t have a job. This may have happened to us, but that was a long time ago, like the Cold War.
So if you’re seeking higher performance, maybe you’re negotiating your bonus, playing a pickup half-court game at the park, at a parent/teacher conference, or negotiating a lease on one of those Mercedes Sprinters, its likely time to start dropping as much truly offensive, profanity-laden language as possible to crush your opponents and get what you want. If anyone complains, refer them to this article; the science is there, swearing is just a part of who you are—a winner.