The curious case of the word “humbling” and its continued misuse in sports culture.
Just over a week ago, Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Derek Fisher was rumored to be a prime candidate for the New York Knicks’ coaching vacancy, assuming he retires at the end of this season. When he addressed the speculation, he emphasized that he would like to focus on the playoffs and then said, “It’s humbling. It’s humbling, it’s flattering.”
On the surface, it’s an admirable quote, if a little cliché. Most athletes tend to maintain a public image of modesty and general gratefulness, at least in regards to compliments directed towards them, which is fine. It makes the general public feel better about how much money professional athletes get paid, even if that money is actually justifiable in purely economic terms. And nobody likes a cocky jerk anyway.
However, there’s a problem when an athlete expresses modest pride. All too often, the word “humbling” gets thrown around inappropriately. It’s inappropriate because athletes don’t seem to know what the word actually means. Even worse, it seems like sports journalists don’t know either, or are unwilling to call athletes out on their vocab mistakes.
You might be asking, “Yeah, but what’s the big deal? It’s not like they’re swearing or saying horribly insensitive things like racial slurs.”
True. That is very true. But this is a problem that is easily fixable. All you have to do is look up the definition of “humbling.”
According to Bing, the definition is “making somebody less proud: making somebody lose confidence, self-importance, or pride.”
So there you go.
If you think this is just some sort of isolated incident, let me assure you that this has been going on for a while.
After finishing third in the MVP race this season, Blake Griffin said, “It’s hard to believe. I’m honored and humbled by that.”
I’ll admit that could be interpreted in two different ways. He either used the word correctly, as in he felt bad because his great season was still considered behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant, or he was trying to say it was flattering. Who knows (I’m pretty sure he was trying to say he was flattered).
One might speculate whether this has to do with education and athletics, but something tells me this is independent of all that, and is simply a misunderstanding of a word’s proper usage. Either that, or athletes and journalists are both in need of more schooling.
Now I’m not here to poke fun at anybody. I mean, you have to admit, it looks right in the various contexts used by athletes, mostly because the word “humble” is in it. But when you make it a verb, it becomes a different story than simply being a modest individual. I’d also like to briefly mention that some athletes and journalists do use the word correctly.
For example, Washington Redskins safety Tanard Jackson was recently reinstated after being banned for two seasons due to repeated violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Jackson said, “That time period I was out from doing something I love to do, and not having that camaraderie with the teammates and not having that for that long, and having to go out and work in the warehouse from 9-5, it’s a humbling experience.”
Now that’s how you use “humbling.” But it’s no fun to point out something that’s correct, right?
Going back to Derek Fisher, he could say it was humbling if he finished the playoffs, retired, and then lost the New York Knicks’ head coaching job to me. I’m just a 22-year-old smarty pants with average basketball skills and Derek Fisher is 39 and has played in the NBA since 1920.
Humbling for him, flattering for me.