Photo: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images
Last week, Billy Packer is dead. Packer was CBS’s iconic men’s college basketball analyst for more than 30 years, a period during which the NCAA Tournament has gone from a local curiosity to one of the most massive (and profitable) behemoths in American sports. Except for a casual interview in which he complained about “political correctness”, Packer all but disappeared from public life after his retirement, and I hadn’t thought much of him since his last show in 2008. But I must admit: hearing his name again a few days ago, I had an immediate Pavlovian response. I could feel the bile rising in my throat, the vein in the middle of my forehead starting to throb, my teeth starting to grind. Billy Packer…i hate it this guy.
I’m pretty sure my reaction would have made Packer proud because the man was fueled by the enmity of his audience. In the New York Times obituary, Packer’s longtime partner, Jim Nantz, said Packer “wore the black hat better than anyone I had ever seen”. Packer’s broadcast persona carried the inherent sarcasticness of an obsessive as well as a dismissive view of anyone who dared to disagree with him. Unlike cheerleaders like Dick Vitale, Packer was relentlessly negative during a game, always pointing out what players — teenagers, really — were doing wrong. Two of his favorite phrases about himself were “often wrong but never in doubt” and “I only operate on logic”. Does he seem like a warm and friendly guy to you? He looked like a tech brother, actually; perhaps culture has finally come to him.
In his later years on the air, Packer was known to have all sorts of problems off the field, such as the time he accosted two female students who demanded to see his press pass. saying, “Since when are women allowed to control who participates in a men’s basketball game? Packer has children who are still working in the media industry, and clearly he was a good father who is mourned by his loved ones. But he was much more hated than loved. This is exactly what he was looking for.
And yet, the announcement of his death made me a little nostalgic. Packer was an openly hostile presence on the mic for decades, but he was never dull. He was a rusty nail driven into the world of sports broadcasting, an industry that has now almost entirely done away with rusty nails. Like so many others, I hated Packer. But when he left, I realized how much I lack hate him. Because they don’t make them like Billy Packer anymore. Or, at the very least, they don’t put them on TV.
Being the punching bag for frustrated fans is an important part of every broadcaster’s job description. You really can’t do anything to avoid it. Joe Buck is one of TV’s most innocuous personalities – take it from someone with the same affliction: the man is the very definition of a people-pleasing Midwest – but he could also be the one of the most reviled simply because he called so lots of big games. He was the main broadcaster of the World Series and the Super Bowl for three decades; sure fans are going to hate this guy. The broadcasters you probably hate the most right now have the same problem: ubiquity. I’m sick of Tony Romo too, but it’s because I’ve listened to him so many times that I know all his quirks and quirks. There’s a difference between banal boredom, which is how we see Buck and Romo, and advertisers who were truly hated by audiences like Packer. We’re not complaining about Romo (or Cris Collinsworth, or John Smoltz) because he’s offensive; we complain about him because he is so silly. He’s milquetoast and familiar in a way you can’t help but laugh at (and because he just can’t stop talking). But angry? Are you really angry in Rome?
Packer – now Packer has made you angry. We were mad at him, and at other shitty agitators like the late Joe Morgan or even Howard Cosell, because they were actively antagonizing us. (Packer once referred, on airto George Mason’s graduates, who were furious with him for claiming their team shouldn’t have entered the tournament the year they improbably reached the Final Four, as “those with a 400 SAT.” It’s amazing!) “He had the ability to make every fanbase feel like he was against them, and he relished that role,” Nantz said. And it was genuine. The key to Packer’s success, like that of Morgan and Cosell, was that he didn’t even really try to piss you off: he was just adamantly and stubbornly “I’m absolutely right about everything.” That’s why someone like Skip Bayless is more boring than interesting: he’s too thirsty. He needs our hate too much. He plays a role rather than being some sort of authentic self; we feel his despair. There was nothing desperate about Packer: he didn’t want to please you or anyone. It made him angry. It also made it unmissable.
When Packer left in 2008, CBS replaced him with Clark Kellogg, a perfectly competent and respectable announcer who dutifully described the action of a basketball game with a clever but unbiased takedown. In other words, he was boring. None of the CBS announcers since Packer have been so interesting. The closest are the great Bill Raftery, who currently broadcasts with Nantz (who is retiring after this year) and the lackluster Grant Hill. Raftery is entertaining but more in Vitale’s clown-prince vein than Packer’s ruthless mode of truth. The post-Packer world of CBS parallels ESPN’s baseball coverage. After the release of Morgan – a broadcaster so actively hostile to his audience that there was a website dedicated to making fun of him (which was composed almost entirely of future Emmy winners) – we were stuck with happy talkers and A-Rod. Packer and Morgan were obnoxious, self-righteous, and firm believers in their accuracy about everything, which was all the more infuriating because they were obviously wrong. But they were also forever themselves in a way that television, an industry under massive pressure to spread positivity about the leagues it has billion-dollar partnerships with, now discourages: you can’t sell that many Chevys, or seamlessly throw it in a promo. for the new Minions movie, when you’re as grumpy as those guys. But I kind of find myself absent when our broadcasters were smug and snarky and prickly, when they didn’t just smirk and gibberish in a friendly soft-medium tone.
Packer would surely have had a scathing return to all my criticisms. It would have driven me so crazy, and he would have loved it. Deep down, I suspect I would have, too. The only thing I hate more than Packer is that there’s no one left to hate.