Arts & Entertainment

Picking Splinters: Packer Polarization




In the wake of college basketball analyst Billy Packer’s departure from CBS, sports pundits of all sizes have clamored to comment on his virtues and vices. While some of his peers spared no time lamenting his future absence and applauding his career, others, mainly the youngbloods of the blogosphere wasted no time kicking up their heels and carrying on like the Munchkins of Oz when Dorothy housed the Wicked Witch of the East.

The reason for the disparate opinions likely stems from two obvious truths. First, Billy Packer was very good at what he did. Second, Billy Packer was very bad at what he did.

How can those two takes both be valid? Packer did have a gift for observation and description. He could spot trends during game play and often noted crucial developments before they had come to pass. That’s talent that transcended the Captain Obvious analysis offered by many color commentators, who do little more than describe what they’ve just seen.

However, there’s more to commentary than insight and observations. There’s an element of entertainment as well, and that’s why Packer was a poor TV analyst. His analysis, however cogent, was often delivered as criticism, seldom as praise, and in a know-it-all tone that discounted any possibility he could be wrong. He treated mid-major programs, the sweethearts of spring basketball, as irrelevant nuisances and appeared to relish the moment when Cinderella teams were sent back to sweep the ashes following a March loss at the hands of the traditional powers.

Simply put, he often came across as the Grinch of March Madness. When he was on the air I would get the same feeling as when I would visit my grandmother at her retirement home, knowing that within the first five minutes we would be asked/told, “Do you know who died?”

Packer’s polarized, love ’em/hate ’em status is not unique. Dick Vitale, Joe Morgan, John Madden and Tim McCarver, among many others, are alternatively assailed and adored for their on-air performances. It seems that tastes for sports analysts are highly subjective, but given this divergence in opinions maybe Packer’s departure offers an opportunity for critics of color commentators to be more constructive with their feedback and find a middle ground to which analysts can aspire. So, what do we want?

Foremost, I want an analyst knowledgeable about the sport and the teams involved. Most national broadcast tandems will only see squads a handful of times a year, so they will never be as knowledgeable about team minutiae as the die-hard fans. I can forgive them for that. What’s unforgivable is ill-fitting criticism born out of a lack of understanding or research pertaining to the teams they are covering. Last year, Packer constantly laid into Georgetown’s John Thompson III for letting center Roy Hibbert handle the ball at the top of the three-point arc. Rather than reporting on why the Hoyas employ that offense – at any point during the last two seasons – Packer picked the low-hanging fruit. His analysis was simply that it is not wise to have your tallest player that far from the hoop – never mind that this offense has led to back-to-back Big East titles. Some pre-broadcast research would be nice.

I think announcers should be self-deprecating and unafraid to admit when they’re wrong. The vast majority of the viewership knows the shoe sizes, cereal preferences and birth stones of their team’s starting lineup. They know when an announcer screws up. Just cop to it and don’t pretend you are infallible.

And finally, have fun with it. I’ll level with you. I like Dick Vitale. Yes, he goes overboard. Yes, he probably sleeps in Duke University footie pajamas with a Coach K night light. Yes, he rambles on about Jim Valvano, cancer fundraisers, the ACC and Tyler Hansbrough’s mutant chest cavity that contains the hearts of the nine bravest men to ever walk the Earth. Occasionally, he even discusses the basketball game that’s being played in front of him. However, he brings a passion that I find contagious and that, in many ways, makes him the antithesis of Billy Packer. Is that an entirely good thing? I don’t know how I feel about it, but Dick Vitale is in the basketball hall of fame, while Packer is on the outside looking in. Considering the chief complaint against Packer was his curmudgeon-y on-air demeanor, there may be a lesson here.

When it comes down to it, sports are about passion. There’s a place for dissecting plays and critiquing performances, but there is a balance – one that analyst Jay Bilas seems to strike perfectly – that stops short of sapping all enjoyment from the game.

When you’re dealing with Xs and Os all the time, every once in a while it’s simply nice to hear about something that’s just “Awesome, baby,” with a capital “A.”

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