Fleeting Expletives

By David Owen Illustrations by Joel Holland
May 25, 2009

The Supreme Court recently ruled, by a 5-4 vote, that the Federal Communications Commission acted lawfully when it fined Fox television stations over an awards show during which Bono, Cher and Nicole Richie uttered bad words on the air. Associate Justice John Paul Stevens disagreed, and in his dissenting opinion he drew what he called "a critical distinction" between using foul language to describe actual sex or excrement and using the same language for a different purpose, "such as to express an emotion." The first type of utterance, he said, "rests at the core of indecency," and the second is just blowing off steam. He offered an example from his favorite pastime. "As any golfer who has watched his partner shank a short approach knows," he wrote, "it would be absurd to accept the suggestion that the resultant four-letter word uttered on the golf course describes sex or excrement and is therefore indecent. But that is the absurdity the FCC has embraced in its new approach to indecency."

It should be acknowledged that this magazine embraces the same absurdity. It should also be acknowledged that the actual thoughts of a golfer who has just shanked a short approach are likely to be a lot more indecent than either sex or excrement, no matter which four-letter word he or she happens to utter.

The occasional unscripted F-bomb makes golf on TV easier to endure.'

Nevertheless, Justice Stevens was right to be concerned. The FCC's hard line on what are known as "fleeting expletives" could have a disastrous effect on golf broadcasts. Tiger Woods often uses bad words after hitting shots that don't look bad to anyone but him. If the networks decide that covering him live is now too risky -- because an on-course microphone might pick up his distress at having hit a 180-yard pitching wedge three feet off line, prompting the FCC to impose a fine -- will they keep Tiger off-camera and force us to watch even more of Jim Furyk and Justin Leonard lining up their putts? Televised golf is boring enough as it is. The occasional unscripted F-bomb makes golf on TV easier to endure.

Besides, the real indecency on TV has little to do with language. A few weeks ago, I decided to take my mind off my swing problems by watching other people play golf. I couldn't remember which network was broadcasting the tournament that week, so I flipped through the channels. I came to a commercial for erectile-dysfunction medicine (naked middle-aged couples lounging in bathtubs), and thought, This must be the golf -- and it was. And that commercial was followed, shortly afterward, by one for enlarged-prostate medicine (middle-aged guys running to the bathroom). If those advertisements are to be believed, the television audience for golf is all about sex and excretion. In that case, what rests at the core of indecency is getting old.