Memo to you Cameron Crazies, you Dog Pounders, you Bleacher Bums: They don't hear you. Players are unaffected by your booing, jeering and stomping. Loud noise is nothing more than a backdrop for them. A player who stands on the foul line shooting a key free throw into a sea of shimmering, skinny balloons and waving arms? He sees only the front of the rim. A quarterback who walks to the line of scrimmage with the stadium rocking around him? He changes plays with a series of laughably simple hand signals. Every other year, before Tennessee goes to Gainesville to play Florida in the Swamp, the Volunteers pipe piercing noise through practice-field speakers. Players converse as if they're in the library. Remember, most people under 30 (and many over 30, too) drive around playing music loud enough to shatter windows. The noise that's supposed to unhinge athletes? It's like Muzak in your dentist's chair. They don't hear it.
Silence, on the other hand, cuts straight to an athlete's soul. Or lower. On slow news days callers will ask sports talk radio hosts, "Dude, why can't we yell at golfers and tennis players while they're hitting?" The simple answer is tradition. The underlying truth: It's harder that way. A golfer stands over a short putt as a hush falls over the gallery. He can hear birds and crickets and his own shortened breath, expelled from a narrowed airway. That free throw shooter stands at the foul line, only now he's at home, so there's not a sound in the arena, save for the rhythmic bounce-bounce of his preparatory, steadying dribbles and the faint hiss of the crowd's collective inhale as he prepares to flick his shot skyward. Silence is anticipation, the instant between act and resolution. It is fearsome clarity, without some noisy stimulus for distraction. On the night that Maurice Greene won the gold medal in the 100 meters at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, he folded himself into a set of metal starting blocks as a stadium packed with more than 110,000 spectators fell eerily still. A starter calmly intoned the word, "Set," and Greene rose up with seven other sprinters. Please shoot the gun, he thought to himself at that moment, or my heart is going to explode from my chest. That is the power of quiet.