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In Defense of Dick Vitale

When I was 18, I met ESPN announcer Dick Vitale on a flight to Charlottesville, Virginia. The photo I had taken with him that day is still, years later, proudly displayed in my apartment. The reason is simple: I absolutely, unapologetically love Dick Vitale. 

It’s safe to say that many, maybe even most, sports fans would deem this opinion crazy. Fans and pundits alike often grumble about his over-the-top announcing style, which features regular shrieks of his signature line, “Awesome, baby!” “When he’s working a game, I mute the volume,” wrote one sports columnist a few years back, in a piece subtly titled, “Vitale in hoops Hall of Fame? Over my dead body.” Facebook has both a “Dick Vitale Is An Obnoxious Idiot” page and an “I Hate Dick Vitale” page. The substance of the criticism generally revolves around a particular theme: Vitale delivers too much emotion and too little analysis, especially when compared to more cerebral announcers like CBS’s Billy Packer (a frequent Vitale critic), Jay Bilas, and coach-turned-announcer Bobby Knight. Years ago, The New York Times wrote that Vitale lives in “a hyperbolic parallel universe that amuses his legions, but too often overwhelms his analytical faculties.” Back in 2005, Jason Zengerle wrote in a TNR piece that Packer offers “the sort of critical scrutiny” as an announcer that Vitale lacks.

The fact that “analytical” is such a foundational compliment—and lacking “critical scrutiny” such a devastating insult—is a sign of just how much sports journalism has changed since Vitale called his first game on ESPN on December 5, 1979. Calm, rational analysis is increasingly the currency of the realm—in print, but even on television. Thanks to blogs and talk radio, there certainly has been a rise in the amount of crude, unsophisticated commentary on sports, but the highest end of highbrow sports commentary has expanded as well.

The success of Moneyball is just a part of this story. The New Yorker has a blog dedicated just to sports, with posts in the past month by A-list reporters like Steve Coll and Nick Paumgarten. Television features analysts like Bilas and Knight for college basketball, and Jeff Van Gundy (a former Yale undergraduate) for professional basketball. In this landscape, Bob Costas and Frank Deford, the high-minded television and print sports journalists of the past, now sound like your local AM sports radio host by comparison.

There is nothing wrong with all this, of course. Analytical sports commentary is a perfectly worthwhile thing. But is that really all there is to sports? During the last World Cup, Franklin Foer wrote in TNR about how wonderful it was that soccer, unlike other sports, had managed to defy statistical analysis, leaving the door open for other modes of argument and interpretation. But I would take the point further. It’s not just that we need different kinds of analysis in sports. We also need sports to go beyond the realm of analysis altogether. Sports, in particular college basketball, are about emotion as well as analysis—something that intellectual sports fans are too quick to forget.

Sometimes it is good to feel and not just to think, and if there is any part of our life where we can get away with this behavior, it should be sports. We might not want our president to emote about economics or war; but why shouldn’t a fan, or for that matter a sports announcer, emote about athletics, which is not after all a matter of world historical importance? The truth is, it’s tiring and not always enjoyable to be analytical about everything. And part of the reason why sports exist is to serve as a break from thinking, not an extension of it.

No sport has an emotional component quite as intense as college basketball. A decent percentage of the best teams in the country represent schools that don’t have big-time college football programs, meaning they can count on the passion of the singularly focused fan (consider the atmosphere at a Duke game, for instance). College basketball fans are feet away from the players, and they play in indoor arenas that are acoustically destined to be louder than the outdoor venues of other college sports. Senior nights usually feature tears and hugs, and that is just the players, not to mention their parents or coaches. Without helmets and without too much space between fan and player, at most arenas you can see and hear all of this. The emotions are real and raw (arguably with less of the “beer and circus” atmosphere—which college sports critics like Murray Sperber denounce—than one finds in college football).

Emotion also pervades the sport because of its unpredictability. The structure of the NCAA Tournament (where big schools play small schools) produces uncertainty, as does the style of the game—the combination of the three-point shot and the capacity of one great player on a not-great team to alter the outcome. The result is that we regularly get underdog teams like Butler or VCU that do not just win, but capture us emotionally as well. 

This is where Dick Vitale comes in. If we have a sport full of emotion, we need an announcer who employs the communicative art of emotion. And no one does this better than Vitale. He brings to the public life of sports a genuine, unadulterated enthusiasm—from his famous bellow about the double-overtime Duke-North Carolina game of 1995 that he “could stay there all night” to the moment earlier this year when the camera caught him dancing with cheerleaders during a Murray State game. As Vitale himself has said, “I let my emotions and feelings go.” 

But not all public displays of emotion are created equal. Indeed, our public culture is saturated in emotions of questionable value: We have reality television shows that hinge entirely on the display of raw emotions, but where the emotion of the participants seems completely inauthentic. Meanwhile, other sports announcers, like Gus Johnson, also display emotion—but only on single plays, not in the all-encompassing way Vitale emotes. Compared to Vitale’s style, these emotional displays often seem forced.

Moreover, especially in sports culture, much of the public emotion we see takes on a brutal quality. For many announcers, calling games has become a sort of masculine performance. Such announcers are emotional, but emotional about perceived masculine virtues like courage or strength. You can tell that someone like Jon Gruden feels deeply about the Monday Night Football games he announces. Before he retired, you could tell John Madden really jumped out of his chair with excitement at an aggressive hit in an NFL game. But these were feelings of the “man up” sort—chest bumping and standing over the victim rather than celebrating the skill of the victor.

This points to another way that Vitale is special. His emotion is relentlessly kind and gentle—a rare thing among male sports announcers in particular. He uses great plays—a great dunk, a great pass—to praise rather than to taunt. He brings a humanity to the games he calls, referencing his daughters during his broadcasts, and how proud he is of their educational successes. He often talks about how he cries at key moments—for instance, when vocal lesions kept him from broadcasting part of a recent college basketball season, or when he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Of course, like all love affairs, my appreciation of Vitale is not absolute. He is an active fundraiser for Republican congressional candidates, which means he supports a political agenda I do not. And I wish—particularly given that he brings a gentler voice to the public sports dialogue, especially for a male announcer—that he did not do commercials for Hooters, with its demeaning treatment of women.

But no love is perfect, and neither is any announcer. To me, Dick Vitale is about as close to capturing what matters about college basketball as we can come. And so while I am excited for the NCAA Tournament to start, I am sad that—because the games move mostly to CBS, and Vitale works mostly for ESPN—this week marks the end of the 2011-12 season for the best sports announcer in America. As he might say: It’s been awesome, baby.

David Fontana is associate professor of law at George Washington University.