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The Art of Trash Talk

Is trash talk the decline of sportsmanship and yet another sign of society's loss of civility?

Trash talk, the practice of boasting and insulting one's foes on court or afield, may be one of our culture's most beloved, and most reviled, phenomena. Commercials from athletic companies such as Nike often glorify trash talking, suggesting that bad manners are essential to good basketball. But critics see in trash talk the decline of sportsmanship and consider it yet another sign of society's general loss of civility.

Professional sports leagues discourage trash talking with no-taunting rules. Far from trashing trash talk, however, Richard Lapchick contends that it actually serves a good purpose.

Founder of the the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University and son of NBA player and coach Joe Lapchick, the sociologist points out that while "the language has changed, and the form is different," trash talk has historically given players a mental edge over their opponents.

"Those who are older know that trash talking has been part of basketball and football for a long time," Lapchick notes.

But does it work? Jonathan Katz, a New York City-based clinical sports psychologist, is doubtful. He believes that thinking up put-downs can actually impair an athlete's performance.

"Some players feel they can intimidate other players by getting into their heads," says Katz, who has worked with the New Jersey Nets and several college basketball teams. "But many athletes are putting time and energy into something that distracts them from playing their best. Playing well is the most intimidating factor."

Still, sports history is filled with famous trash talkers. One well-known athlete, a young man named David, was able to use a verbal attack to his benefit in a battle with a heavily favored foe. "I will strike you down and cut off your head," David proclaims to his much larger enemy, Goliath, in the first chapter of the biblical book of Samuel. And the rest is trash-talking history.