It is what it is, a sports cliché for our times.

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Feb. 15 2008 4:46 PM

It Is What It Is … But What Is It?

A sports cliché for our times.

Brian McNamee. Click image to expand.
Brian McNamee

The latest evidence that Congress doesn't know jack about sports came when Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., interrupted Wednesday's steroids hearing for a "parliamentary inquiry" into the origins of the phrase "it is what it is." Brian McNamee, Roger Clemens' ex-trainer and alleged drug supplier, had told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that his use of "it is what it is" during a tape-recorded conversation was his way of letting Clemens know that he was telling the truth. According to Souder, the members of the committee were not "prototypical New Yorkers" like McNamee, and were thus flummoxed by the "pivotal phrase."But as any sports fan would know—and as Chris Mottram wrote in the Sporting News —"it is what it is" is "about as specific to New York as the words the, of, and to."*

In recent years, it is what it is has supplanted giving 110 percent and taking them one game at a time as the reigning sports cliché. Even as Clemens testified Wednesday about the "palpable mass" on his buttocks, it is what it is took a star turn in the other big sports story of the day, the trade of Jason Kidd to the Dallas Mavericks. When asked about the pending deal, Kidd's teammate Vince Carter shrugged it off: "Right now, it is what it is." As it turned out, the proposed blockbuster trade hit a snag. One of the minor pieces in the transaction, Dallas forward Devean George, exercised a no-trade clause in his contract, to the great aggravation of Mavs fans. "It's all coming down on me, and I am being thrown to the wolves," George griped to reporters, "but it is what it is."

In a 2006 column, Times word maven William Safire could locate no definite origin for the saying, much less an Empire State pedigree. The first use Safire uncovered came in the Nebraska State Journal in 1949 in a piece about pioneer life on the frontier. But he suspected that its origins lie still deeper. Indeed, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, philosopher John Locke wrote that "essence may be taken for the very being of anything, whereby it is what it is." 

The phrase is popular with today's sports figures because, like all clichés, it helps them avoid speaking about the essence of anything. Queried about whether a key fourth-down decision by coach Marvin Lewis had cost his team a game last fall, Bengals tackle Levi Jones sought cover: "It is what it is. We didn't win the football game." Likewise, when Lakers guard Kobe Bryant was disinclined to talk about how he'd eased teammate Shaquille O'Neal out of town, he went for the handiest refuge available. "It is what it is, man," he told reporters. "I've just moved on." Even retired players have a hard time shaking the habit. "It is what it is," Cal Ripken Jr. told the Baltimore Sun last year after being voted into the Hall of Fame.

While players frequently say "it is what it is," coaches really make it sing. Take New England Patriots overlord Bill Belichick. A few days after making an early exit from the field after the Super Bowl, Belichick was ready to put the loss in its proper perspective. "Time to move on," he told the Boston Globe of the Pats' lost perfect season. "It is what it is." Belichick isn't the only autocratic leader who favors that kind of language. George W. Bush has been known to drop it as well, most recently when Democrats threatened to pass legislation setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. "I'm sorry it has come to this," Bush told reporters last April, "But nevertheless, it is what it is, and it will be vetoed." Former press secretary Scott McClellan has also used the phrase to characterize both the administration's domestic spying program and Vice President Dick Cheney's discharge of birdshot into a hunting companion's face.

The Bushies, like star athletes, take great advantage of the rhetorical void created by it is what it is. Rather than coming out with an opinion—namely, identifying what it is—the speaker invites us to come to whatever conclusions we prefer—it is what you think it is. (This is not to be confused, of course, with the Clintonian notion that it "depends on what the meaning of the word is is.") In declaring that it is what it is means "I'm telling the truth," Brian McNamee may be the only person ever to assign the phrase a definitive meaning. But perhaps we should give him a pass, considering that he was talking while under oath during a sharp interrogation.

In some circles, this amazingly flexible phrase has become the equivalent of pleading no-contest. It is used by film stars when their movies bomb ("Listen, it is what it is. I don't think we deserved to be eviscerated the way we were," said Brad Pitt after the release of Meet Joe Black), and by pop stars when caught violating the law ("I made a mistake, and so it is what it is, I guess," said Britney Spears after being photographed driving with her infant son on her lap).

Perhaps Roger Clemens should have taken a lesson from Spears. When his former teammates Andy Pettitte and Chuck Knoblauch were confronted about their use of performance-enhancing drugs, they admitted their guilt and moved on. "It is what it is," Knoblauch said about his inclusion in the Mitchell report. "I mean, it's an important thing that they're doing here in Congress. I want baseball to be fair and healthy, just like everybody else." Sure, it would have been harder for a seven-time Cy Young winner like Clemens to say the same thing, but as movie stars, presidents, and pop stars have all demonstrated, there is great power in those five little syllables. It's not like the Rocket doesn't know the tune. "Don't make more of this than it is," he told reporters before his final appearance in a Red Sox uniform in 1996. "It is what it is."

Correction, Feb. 20, 2008: This article originally misidentified the writer of a blog post for the Sporting News. He is Chris, not Jamie, Mottram. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Douglas McCollam, a freelance writer living in New Orleans, is a contributing writer for American Lawyer and the Columbia Journalism Review.