Partial Observers: Clouded commentary from the broadcast booth
A graphic flashed in the middle of the Iowa Michigan game on Saturday that highlighted the discrepancy in records between the Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke regimes and Jim Harbaugh’s specific to each of their time in Ann Arbor. Harbaugh’s numbers are a vast improvement over the other two. No surprise, plainly obvious per the graphic, but not good enough for Gus Johnson.
Click on John Kincade’s tweet for a rundown of the play-by-play announcer’s finger-slap at a restless Michigan fan base. After the history lesson, Johnson, secure in his grip on the microphone, said Harbaugh quieted the naysayers with Michigan’s 10-3 win.
Johnson’s comments weren’t the first time he’s used his platform on a television broadcast to stump for a coach or a program. At least this time he only considered wins and losses. Who could forget last year when he, in the position as the only guy with the microphone, pitched an Urban Meyer redemption tale after Meyer’s three-game suspension at the beginning of the season?
Vintage Gus more your thing? Instant classic type stuff? Go back to the 2016 Big Ten Championship game when Penn State beat Wisconsin. Johnson claimed the Nittany Lions’ victory marked the first step of recovery in the horrific Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal. Nothing hurries along the healing process more than a victory by the same university that through its ignorance enabled the abuse to continue for the length of time it did.
Though Johnson’s comments exhibit a tone-deafness that makes him shortsighted, not to mention delusional and oblivious in the two instances prior to Saturday, his platform highlights an absence of judiciousness from national broadcasters that seems more and more jarring each season because of access.
The television crew calling the game gets unprecedented access to both teams and coaching staffs a day or two leading up to kickoff. A few of the key players come in for a sit down, same goes for the head coach. Handshakes and excitement precede tales of minor intrigue.
The players share their hero’s journey and neato nicknames for their teammates. One might even drop an impression of a coordinator or head coach. The players are just the appetizer, though in some cases, like Thom Brennaman’s courtship of Tim Tebow in the 2009 B.C.S. title game, the praise drips of hyperbole by way of canonization. For the most part, the players give the crew filler. The head coach’s arrival is two courses of slow-cooked university propaganda.
The coach goes into the meeting in full recruiting mode. He’s engaging, entertaining, intense, and all those things that somehow make high school students commit to the university where he works. His message reaches the largest audience on the television broadcast, might as well make it a good one.
The schmoozing from the coach’s end is not a fool’s errand, it’s not necessarily disingenuous either. The television crew gets the coach at his truest form in a sale’s pitch for his football program and the university at large. The coach wins over the broadcasters the same way he does with the impressionable students.
The broadcast team is ready to absolve him of all his sins and exclaim to all the world how any sort of success is warranted. The announcers are human and swayed by people who look them in the eye and share keen info on a player’s development or the name for the team’s offensive formation that enlists another offensive tackle. I’ll save you the wait, it’s usually Fleet Beef.
Fresh off the meeting and buzzed from the snake oil, the announcers speak from a position of inside information pumped from all the goodwill and undivided attention given to them. The perks should not give them the right to shape a larger narrative beyond the game they are calling.
Paint the picture, make a halfway engaging off-the-cuff comment about the middle-aged-man with a foam corn cob on his head, or the coed rocked to the lowest depths of mopeydom for their school’s fourth down failures. Use the game as its own living, breathing experience. Enough material comes from Saturday that fans do not want to hear how to act or how to feel since the home team extended the announcers the slightest bit of courtesy and walked them through the bank of sleep pods donated by a local podiatrist.
What begins as a football broadcast, one that especially in the early part of the year excludes casual fans and mainly encircles an audience of devotees to the sport, turns into attempted troll slaying and ghost vanquishing as an extended commercial for both schools.
I’ve come to expect the four-plus hours of commercial air time for the two teams in the game, and through a series of coping mechanisms have adjusted to the effusive praise of schools in light of some seedier circumstances. Just don’t tell me whether Michigan’s win last week is enough to make me content with Jim Harbaugh, or that Urban Meyer’s escape from the mess he created warrants a redemption tale. Those tales craft themselves without a third-party arm of the university swaying me one way or the other.