Last Call

Brent Musburger was an excellent play-by-play announcer. He had a knack for making games seem somehow bigger than they were–even big games–with his familiar opening “You are looking live at [insert stadium or coliseum name here].” He could also joke during a broadcast without making the game lose any dramatic flair. In short, he seemed to know how to imbue broadcasts with his own personality without having that personality overwhelm the game (about which more later). So when Musburger announced his last game in late January, after 50 years of sports broadcasting as a play-by-play announcer and studio host, the retrospectives of his career and his own sign-off (“What a road we’ve travelled together”) emphasized his versatility and longevity.

Yet, back when ESPN used to have “Page 2,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote a takedown of Brent Musburger. The animus was that Musburger referred to three-pointers in basketball as shots from “downtown.” Thompson simply could not forgive a commentator for botching a metaphor so embarrassingly. In the court-as-metro area metaphor, Thompson understood downtown to be (and rather obviously would be) the area closest to the rim where all the congestion and tall people/buildings were; shots from far away would obviously be from the suburbs or the ex-urbs or even from rural areas outside of metropolitan areas. Not rocket science, but Brent couldn’t get it right, much to Thompson’s and the culture’s dismay.

In hindsight, that Musburger might botch such a metaphor seems fitting, given his uniquely distorted way of perceiving the culture around him. Nearly fifty years ago, in a column for the Chicago American during the 1968 Mexico City Games, Musburger railed against gold- and bronze-medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos for raising their black-gloved fists to the sky to rebel against white America’s treatment of African Americans. Wrote Brent, “Smith and Carlos looked like a couple of black-skinned stormtroopers, holding aloft their black-globed hands during the playing of the National Anthem.” He goes on hope that “20-year-old athletes quit passing themselves off as social philosophers.” Better we should get such commentary from (then-)thirtysomething white sportswriters, of course.

So once again, here’s Brent confusing metaphors. Somehow the disempowered and disenfranchised become associated with the Nazis and the sympathetic figure becomes Avery Brundage, the anti-Semitic IOC Chairperson, who, as Carlos notes, gave Hitler the Olympics in 1936. Musburger has yet to apologize for his baffling and offensive mischaracterization of Carlos and Smith.

Fast forward 50 years and you still have the same old Brent, confused about power dynamics and loathe to learn anything new about them. During the 2017 Sugar Bowl, Musburger found air time to praise Joe Mixon and hope that he will be able to get past his ongoing legal drama for punching female fellow-OU student Amelia Molitor in the face, an event caught on security camera. So here’s Brent, again, being reprehensible: “We’ve talked to the coaches. They all swear that the young man is doing fine … Folks, he’s just one of the best, and let’s hope, given a second chance by (coach) Bob Stoops and Oklahoma, let’s hope that this young man makes the most of his chance and goes on to have a career (in the NFL).” Three cheers for Joe Mixon, he survived punching a woman in the face!

The questionable gender politics should come as no surprise for those of us familiar with Musburger, as the aging sportscaster mostly likely to ogle attractive co-eds, whether that’s fawning over the FSU Cowgirls (“1,500 red-blooded Americans just decided to apply to Florida State”) or Katherine Webb, then-girlfriend and now-wife of former Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron (“What a beautiful woman; I mean, Wow!”). But in the second half of the aforementioned Sugar Bowl, Brent got out in front of a brewing social media firestorm and wanted to make sure no one would think he was a domestic violence apologist: “What he [Mixon] did with that young lady was brutal, uncalled for. He’s apologized; he was tearful. He got a second chance from Bob Stoops. I happen to pull for people with second chances.” Nice of Brent to distinguish between the “called-for” and “uncalled-for” varieties of violence against women. Also, Mixon offered his “tearful” apology only after the security camera footage came out, but it’s still comforting to know that Mixon’s crocodile tears were enough to melt the heart of a seventy-year-old white guy. Those tears in Mixon’s eyes let us know, thank god, that he was no black-skinned stormtrooper.  

Musburger’s career then is symmetrically bookended by racism and sexism, and it’s worth wondering, as some have, whether Musburger’s lack of human decency political correctness might have gotten him kindly, gently ushered out of the broadcasting booth.

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That we’re now more than wise to the way in which media distorts our perception of sporting events seems evident; in fact, “media” has become a bit of a misnomer, since it isn’t really in the middle of anything anymore but, in some cases, the thing itself. True impartiality may be impossible, and by now we should be well attuned to the ways the announcer becomes the story or influences how we see events unfold. Even another retiring legend like Vin Scully might seem impartial, but Scully still imposed his ideology of politeness and dignity on the viewer—just in a really kind and respectful way.  

Yet, just because the announcer isn’t an impartial observer, doesn’t mean that he or she is in the tank for one team or the other. Nevertheless, the perception of sports announcers as biased to one side or another has become a common complaint among fans, even if no such bias exists. If you’re not for us, you’re against us. One Green Bay Packers fan took his complaint to the government, disseminating a petition to have Joe Buck and Troy Aikman “banned” from calling Packers games because of their “constant negative input about our team.” Buck and Aikman appear as Beavis and Butthead on the petition’s photo, but the petition seems serious. It fell about 5,000 signatures short of its goal of 50,000.

Somehow listening to the broadcasters has become its own sport, and we object to those announcers who seem out to get us—or that we at least we seem to have the unrealistic expectation that they should be endlessly complimentary of our team and have a perpetually negative view of the opponent at all times. Such hypersensitivity to perceived slights means that we envision ourselves persecuted by impartiality and indifference, victims of another person’s ability to watch a game and not root for the same team that we do.

But no one ever tried to ban Musberger from calling games for his reactionary political positions. For some reason, many seem more amenable to having a sports broadcaster interfere in our politics than in our games. I suppose that depends on your politics, but perhaps it’s also because we know our politics are already soiled and can still believe in the impartiality of our games.

So Brent Musburger may be getting out at the exact wrong time. He was always able to refrain from setting off a fanbase’s sensitivity to perceived bias and remain impartial to the teams playing–it was just the larger culture to which he betrayed his allegiances, and which, for many, seems like the lesser of the two offenses. We say goodbye, then, to a broadcaster who could appear neutral while also feeling threatened by black culture and excusing violence against women: Trump’s America will miss him dearly.

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