Stuart Scott was a master codeswitcher and we're all better for it
[caption id="attachment_310237" align="alignleft" width="200"] ESPN commentator Stuart Scott, 2013 (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
[/caption]Stuart Scott, the ESPN anchor, is gone, dead of cancer at the age of 49. He leaves behind a splendid legacy in sports journalism, one that has shaped me as a fan, a writer, and an American. Scott was a master of what is called “code switching,” that quality of language that that enables us to change the way we talk and write to satisfy the needs of multiple audiences.
Scott could be as rigorous as a scholar on commencement day, talking about life, sports, race, or his battle with cancer. That power of Standard English was gained through his upbringing, his education at the University of North Carolina, and his professional aspirations to become a journalist and an anchor. His predecessors at the networks, including ESPN, were primarily white and male and spoke in the Generalized American dialect we associate with Cronkite and Brokaw.
Often, African Americans are accused by their peers of “talking White” and by racists as being “uppity.” Adherence to formal modes of speech can be interpreted as a betrayal or denial of race. Even a president of the United States is not immune from such criticism.
Stuart Scott, more than any other journalist I can think of, changed the rules of the game. In tune with youth culture, the language of black athletes, the rhythms of hip hop music and speech, Scott revolutionized how sports anchors could talk on the air.
His catch phrases came from a different place than the traditional “that ball is going, going, gone.” Among his most well known are:
- “As cool as the other side of the pillow”
- “He must be the bus driver cuz he was takin’ him to school”
- “Just call him buttah cause he’s on a roll.”
- “You ain’t gotta go home, but you gotta get the heck outta here”
- “He treats him like a dog. Sit. Stay.”
- In the voice of a Southern preacher: “And the Lord said you got to rise Up!”
The speaker of those phrases could also stand before a large live and television audience and say: “When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.”
I’ve learned since his passing that Scott was the target of strong criticism, by both whites and blacks because of his use of Black Vernacular and his allusions to hip-hop culture. To his credit, he never abandoned his authentic voice, a quality to which all writers strive.
Stuart Scott should be considered a hero of American speech, in all its colorful variety, and a role model for young people of all backgrounds, but especially for young African American men. His life story suggests these lessons: Learn the power of your own experience and language – your own true self. Learn that because you live in a society of many voices, that the more of them you can master, the more listeners you can reach, the more influential and relevant you will become.
I remember coming to work one day and saying something I had heard from Scott the night before. It may have been a version of “Don’t hate the playa, hate the game,” mind you this was a while ago. When I used it, at a faculty meeting as I recall, it elicited both laughs and raised eyebrows, and, I think, that brief moment of street credibility I was hoping for. Old white people can look foolish appropriating the language and behaviors of the young and the hip, but there is much to be gained by showing that you’re paying attention.
It would be a worthy research project for a professor to study the language of ESPN before and after the arrival of Stuart Scott. That language is now quicker, more colorful, more inclusive, roomier, more willing to riff. A rich and soulful diversity of language is the order of the day. As someone who wants to live inside the English language, in all its splendor and mystery, I take Stuart Scott at his word.