Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Michael Wilbon. Dan Shanoff. Billy Packer.

Michael Wilbon. Dan Shanoff. Billy Packer. Let's go.

Start with this: Everyone is entitled to like or dislike a sports-TV analyst. That’s an inalienable right of fandom. We all have the analyst who we don’t mind as much as others. That said, there are some analysts for whom there is a near-universal dislike.

Michael Wilbon likes listening to Billy Packer; the rest of us, not so much.

Caveat: I like Michael Wilbon’s work (although I think even he would admit that his columns have changed since he started doing full-time TV work). In fact, I grew up on his Washington Post columns; I would call Wilbon’s work influential on me as a wee would-be journalist. I even followed Wilbon to Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, from which we are both extremely proud alums. During my erstwhile Around the Horn career a few years ago, I even sat in Wilbon’s chair – the exhilarating symbolism of the moment wasn’t lost on me.

In fact, it was a nice little thrill for me that in his Washington Post column today, Wilbon quoted from my Sporting News column yesterday about Billy Packer. Here is the part he quoted, that Packer:
“[W]asn't just a curmudgeon; he was joyless, which made listening to him excruciating. His ouster is a great day for college hoops fans."
Wilbon disagrees with me, emphatically. Again, on matters of sports-TV taste, we can all disagree.

That said, I believe most fans agree with me. A 70-year-old called me to congratulate me on the mention – and agree with me. It probably won’t surprise you that tons of 20- and 30-something bloggers posted and readers emailed, agreeing with me, too.

In fact, when I wrote it, it hardly seemed like a controversial position. So, faced with Wilbon’s alternative argument, I did want to give him the respect of an acknowledgement and engage in an interactive response to his argument.

Strangely (or perhaps appropriately), Wilbon opens up with the litany of reasons that Packer was entirely “excrutiating” to listen to:

*Packer made implicitly and explicitly racist comments (which Wilbon fairly points out that Packer appeared to have worked on later in his career);

*Packer was an open misogynist (which Packer didn’t appear to feel the need to change and Wilbon side-stepped with all but a superficial mention);

*Packer hated Cinderella (seriously: how can you live college hoops and hate small-conference teams and unlikely winners?);

*Packer hated the NBA (not unconscionable, but rarely backed up by anything but spite).

That’s not my analysis, mind you -- that’s Wilbon’s acknowledgement. And other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

Wilbon then delivered a series of qualitatively derived (and entirely arguable) findings, a few of which I wanted to point out (with an obligatory nod to Fire Joe Morgan, which pioneered and perfected this style of commentary):

“Nobody has been as good at explaining and analyzing a college basketball game.”

On straight analysis, particularly in making it accessible, I would take Jay Bilas over Billy Packer. I would take Bill Raftery over Billy Packer. I would take Doris Burke over Billy Packer. It was often hard to understand his analysis through the loathing.

“His very presence at a game lifted its importance.”

I’m pretty sure that the Final Four or even the weekly NBC or CBS “Game of the Week” would be an “important” game without Packer being there. That’s called correlation without causation.

“You knew he loved college basketball but he didn't come to the microphone with pom-poms.”

Wilbon is obviously talking about Dick Vitale here, which is a totally separate issue. Although it is very possible that Packer came to view himself as a one-man campaign to correct – or over-correct, as it were – to the see-no-evil boosterism of Vitale, who eclipsed Packer as the presumptive authority of the sport.

Because of that, Packer was entirely about seeing evil: Every play was second-guessed, whether a coach or a player. Almost every issue -- happy or not -- earned an Edward G. Robinson/Chief Clancy Wiggum-style: “Nyah!”

But here’s the crux of my problem with Packer: No, in fact you DIDN’T know he loved college basketball. At all.

In fact, if you were new to the game, you might watch him and ask, “Why is that man so angry?” That’s why rather than go with the instantly marginalized descriptor: “Sucks,” I went with “Joyless.”

Because Packer’s joylessness was at the root of why so many fans didn’t like him. You can be imperious in your analysis yet still exude even the slightest sense that you actually love the game. Wilbon and I can disagree, but I just didn’t see that love of the game from Packer, and many more fans likely agree with my perspective.

It was probably most on display in 2006, when Packer went nutjob irate during the Selection Show over the number of mid-major teams included – including… wait for it... George Mason. He then spent the next two weeks using his platform to continue to rip the selections; even his eventual, forced compliments were back-handed, begrudging.

Cripes: How can you love college basketball but hate Cinderella? (Answer: You can’t.)

“When it came to X's and O's, timeouts, strategies, philosophies, what coaches should do next, Packer was a bit Hubie Brown, an insider who simplified every situation for the viewer with authority.”

If talking down to the viewer and projecting an unceasing “I-know-more-than-the-coaches-or-players” attitude counts as “authority.” (And, by the way, the flip side of Packer’s 33-year broadcasting career is that he was hardly an "insider" in the mold of Hubie. He was a career TV analyst – his college career was eons ago, his coaching career…um, hunh?)

“I'd gladly put up with all of Packer's agendas and his affiliations because when he sat to call a game he threw himself into it and made the experience better for anybody who cared about the game.”

Nice try: The implication here is that if you didn’t like Packer’s style, you didn’t really care about the game. Two can play at that game, Wilbon: I’d argue that if you didn’t recognize how insufferable he was – how little joy he brought to the experience – you didn’t really care about the game.

“That he wasn't a warm and fuzzy creature probably shouldn't count against Packer ultimately.”

Why not? Isn’t part of the role of the analyst to make the game accessible? And doesn’t accessibility, in part, derive from an emotional connection to the viewer?

So, now, let me try to make sense of this, because there does seem to be a schism between the Wilbons (and other industry and media insiders) and everyone else, particularly younger viewers, which turns out to be the key:

The disconnect feels generational.

Wilbon grew up on the legendary college hoops TV team of Billy Packer, Dick Enberg and Al McGuire. I have only seen a handful of clips and clip shows, but it feels like McGuire -- perhaps the greatest college hoops analyst of all time, the perfect combination of insight and pathos – was the perfect counterbalance to Packer’s joylessness.

McGuire masked -- or at least mitigated -- Packer's essential nature. (In fact, Packer was most human and humane when he talked about McGuire.)

I suspect that Wilbon remembers THAT Packer in a different light than the rest of us, who merely knew him as the stand-alone analyst, unchecked in his pronouncements and increasingly curmudgeonly as the landscape beneath him shifted from his supreme rule to a Vitalicized world to the universe of opinions we have now.

(It is worth noting that Packer would have never survived his “tough monkey” moment in the mid-90s if it had happened today. It remains as unforgivable now as it was then, and – whether you choose to remember Packer fondly, as Wilbon does, or not, like me, “tough monkey” will be Packer’s lasting legacy, along with "George Mason?!?!")

Again, Wilbon and I can agree to disagree. I suspect that more people agree with me, by a wide margin, and I am glad Wilbon gave my perspective a mention in his column, because I think more people read it and said, “Yes, he WAS totally joyless!” than they will be won over by Wilbon’s more sympathetic take.

At least Wilbon and I can agree that Northwestern football is due for a fun bowl season this year. I'll meet you at the bowl game, Mike, and the first toast is on me. Just don't expect me to toast Billy Packer's career -- unless we're talking about its conclusion.

-- D.S.


Qwagmire said...

Honestly your are overreacting. Wilbon disagreed with you. Lots of people do. Lots of people agree with you.

Your article seems to take a lot of offense and I read it as "Im right, Wilbons wrong".

That isnt how it works, and you should know better. Toss out your opinion, some will agree, some will disagree, accept those that disagree. Otherwise they sit back and laugh at a column where you try to prove them wrong. Im sure Wilbon is enjoying that thought as he reads your column.

Qwagmire said...

I forgot to add, I agree with you, Packer needed to go a few years ago.

murf said...

i completely agree with that shanoff says. packer has been really bad for a while now.
i would LOVE to have gus johnson and bill raftery do those final four games! they may be over the top at times but they know basketball and they LOVE it and you can tell as a viewer!
i can't tell how many times i watched packer do games and wonder what his problem was. he completely came off as being a know-it-all and he just didn't seem to enjoy the sport. i can't understand why this wasn't done 7 or so years ago.